The World Wildlife Fund is urging the federal government to step in after new figures suggested some caribou herds are on the brink of disappearing.

WWF-Canada said the herds were “in freefall” as it appealed for Ottawa to take “immediate action,” including restrictions on mineral exploration.

Earlier this week, the NWT government said the Bathurst caribou herd is down to 8,200 animals. It had numbered 20,000 three years ago, and was as strong as 470,000 animals back in 1986.

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The Bluenose-East herd of barren-ground caribou is experiencing a similar decline.

Joe Dragon, deputy minister of the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told reporters the severe dip in numbers is part of a “natural cycle” but expressed concern at the speed of the recent decline.

Mining disruption

Robert C McLeod, the environment minister, said he believed a “made-in-the-NWT” solution between the territorial government and Indigenous partners could still make a difference.

But Paul Crowley, WWF-Canada’s vice-president of Arctic conservation, made a direct appeal to Ottawa for help – placing some blame on mineral exploration in the North.

“The federal government must protect the struggling Bathurst and Bluenose-East herds in 2019 by putting a moratorium on granting new mining exploration permits in caribou calving grounds,” said Crowley in a news release on Wednesday.

“One of the greatest threats to the recovery of barren-ground caribou is disturbance during the calving period, and eliminating disruptions such as mining activities and exploration will help these herds recover.”

While Crowley focused on the Nunavut Land Use Plan in his comments, his appeal illustrates a balancing act all territorial governments are attempting to execute between environmental conservation and economic development.

In the Northwest Territories, new all-season roads – vital for mining operations and a significant boon to local communities – are, at the same time, opening up caribou habitats to more human activity.

The permitting process for the Whatì all-season road, for example, saw significant disagreement between the territory, regulatory authorities, and Indigenous groups over the level of protection caribou would require from the road.

The Bathurst and Bluenose-East herds each occupy grounds spanning the eastern NWT and Kitikmeot region of Nunavut.

Even the word ‘moratorium’ – used by Crowley above to describe one action Ottawa could take – has become a loaded phrase in the North, following a federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas development which proved deeply unpopular with NWT Premier Bob McLeod and his government.

‘Much-needed resources’

Brandon Laforest, WWF-Canada’s senior specialist in Arctic species and ecosystems, joined Dragon in expressing concern about the rapidity of herd decline.

“While we know herd numbers naturally ebb and flow, we are extremely concerned about the rate in which these two herds continue to decline, with no signs of recovery,” said Laforest.

“The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada classified the barren-ground caribou as Threatened in 2016, but the government of Canada has yet to make a decision on their designation under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

“The government must invest heavily and quickly in the listing process for barren-ground caribou under SARA – protecting critical habitat and allowing much-needed resources to flow toward the development of management plans that will aid in their recovery.”

Meanwhile, the Sahtu Secretariat has taken issue with the territorial government figures produced earlier this week.

Secretariat chair Charles McNeely told the CBC hunters in the region believe caribou numbers to be significantly larger than the government estimates. The territory stands by its figures and methodology.