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In a changing climate, Indigenous communities turn to new country foods

Caribou aren’t as abundant or reliably available as they once were. Can other species serve as substitutes?

Duane Bohlken and Jaryd McDonald break down a muskox in a video filmed in Norman Wells. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Duane Bohlken and Jaryd McDonald break down a muskox in a video filmed in Norman Wells. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media


As climate change transforms access to country foods in the North, some communities are taking steps to harvest unfamiliar species. But swapping one food source for another is complicated.

In a video, two apron-clad men overlook a hunk of carcass roughly the size of a mini-fridge. They stand behind a butcher’s block in what appears to be a well-equipped kitchen. Behind them, a spice rack and knives are displayed against white walls, several plants hang over a wire rack and a red stand mixer sits on top of the fridge.  

“What we’ve got here is the front shoulder, the front quarter of a muskox that we got,” one of the men, Duane Bohlken, says to the camera, resting a glove-covered hand on the carcass.

As the video continues, Bohlken and his colleague, Jaryd McDonald, cut the muskox into sections, breaking it down into pieces suitable for roasting, stewing, grinding or grilling. At each step, they explain what they are doing, sometimes providing additional insight – how you might perform a particular step in the bush, for example. By the end of the process, they lay roughly a dozen different cuts of meat across the table.



“There you have it,” Bohlken says.

A video published by the GNWT and Sahtú Renewable Resources Board sets out how to butcher a muskox.

The video, recently released on YouTube, is the result of a joint effort between the Northwest Territories government and the Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę Gots’ę́ Nákedı, or Sahtú Renewable Resources Board.

The idea for the project came from community members’ requests to learn how to butcher muskox, said Kevin Chan, Sahtu regional biologist for the Government of the Northwest Territories.

Currently, few Sahtu residents eat the animal, according to Chan.



“It’s not because it tastes bad, necessarily,” he said. “It’s just that they’re not used to it.”

Once nearly eradicated from northern Canada, muskox now thrive in many parts of the territory. In the Sahtu region, populations have grown from as low as 200 animals in the early 1900s to about 6,000 as of the latest surveys in 2020 and 2021. Muskox are so common in Fort Good Hope that they have been known to cause congestion on the airport runway.

Meanwhile, populations of barren-ground caribou, a staple food in the region, have fallen to a fraction of their former number.

Given those circumstances, Chan said, the video is intended to promote muskox as an alternative to caribou.

The idea of harvesting abundant species to replace declining ones – often referred to as alternative harvest – is increasingly prevalent across the North as climate change shakes up wildlife populations and their ranges.

In the Sahtu, communities such as Délı̨nę and Colville Lake have highlighted the need to harvest a variety of foods, including muskox, to give caribou a chance to recover.

Farther north, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s country food processing plant in Inuvik has been experimenting with making food products out of beavers, which have exploded in number in the region. And in northern Labrador, residents have increasingly relied on moose following a caribou hunting ban.

More: Experts sound alarm as thousands of beavers migrate north



Substituting one country food with another is not straightforward.

Communities navigating this transition have encountered a variety of hurdles, from learning to harvest and prepare an entirely different animal to confronting the possible loss of culture and traditions built around a certain species. 

“You can’t see 400 pounds of meat as 400 pounds of meat,” said Andrew Spring, assistant professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, who studies northern food systems.

While some communities are taking steps to learn how to work with an unfamiliar animal, certain aspects of traditionally harvested species just can’t be replaced.

Return of the muskox

Alternative harvest has been gaining attention among academics for the past few decades. In 2004, for example, researchers from the University of Guelph identified species substitution as a means of dealing with climate-induced fluctuations in wildlife.

The concept of harvesting what’s available is not new, however.

People in Délı̨nę and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region have long harvested a diversity of species and adapted their hunt to changes in the environment.

In the past, community members “harvested what Mother Earth provides,” Walter Bheza – chair of the Délı̨nę Ɂǫhda K’áowǝ Kǝ, or Elders’ Council – was quoted as saying in a 2020 report.



In the Sahtu, muskox used to be available. Prior to the 1900s, the animals were found throughout the Arctic archipelago and across much of the NWT, ranging as far south as Churchill, Manitoba.

A muskox on Nonacho Lake. Photo supplied by Myles Carter

Leon Andrew, a Shúhtaot’ı̨nę or Mountain Dene Elder with the Tulı́t’a Dene Band and research director of the SRRB, said Elders in Tulita spoke about how muskox used to live in the area in the old days.

The animals were found mainly beyond the treeline, north of Great Bear Lake.

“I’m sure they harvested them at the time,” he said in an interview for the muskox video.

Although Andrew said his father and grandfather didn’t hunt muskox, people in the region used muskox for food, clothing, sled covers and snowshoes, according to a traditional and community knowledge report.

Overhunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, driven by fur traders, explorers and whalers, led to the animals’ disappearance throughout much of the North. Soon only a few straggling populations remained in mainland Canada and on the Arctic islands, leading the federal government to ban muskox hunting in 1917.

The ban, along with the decimated populations, severed Dene ties to muskox in the Sahtu.

“Young people today think it’s a foreign animal,” Andrew told Cabin Radio.



Leon Andrew is interviewed for a muskox video outside his home in Norman Wells. Chloe Williams/Cabin Radio

As muskox populations have rebounded, expanding toward the west and south, their reappearance has prompted discussions about re-learning to use the animals to ensure food security.

“Our Elders ate it, so it’s in our DNA,” Andrew said. “I think we can learn to live with it again and use it for food.”  

That’s where the video comes in. The idea for the project came to Chan last year when he was helping a friend butcher a pig. To figure out how to make proper cuts, they consulted a YouTube video. Chan wanted to make a similar resource for muskox.

In the fall of 2022, Chan put together a film crew to record the muskox butchering process. A local hunter supplied the muskox and the team built a film set in Norman Wells’ community centre.

They drew on videos from popular food website Bon Appétit for inspiration but, given the location, aimed for more of a shed aesthetic, said Josh Ferguson, who runs Norteno Media, the company producing the video.

Bohlken, a local butcher who has worked with muskox, and McDonald, a community member with harvesting experience, were brought in to do the butchering. Andrew was interviewed to provide an introduction and share knowledge about the animal.

Meat from the project was later distributed to the community.

Jaryd McDonald uses a saw to cut through a piece of muskox, while Duane Bohlken holds it still. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Jaryd McDonald uses a saw to cut through a piece of muskox, while Duane Bohlken helps hold it. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Duane Bohlken, a butcher in Norman Wells, speaks to the camera. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Bohlken, a butcher in Norman Wells, speaks to the camera. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Josh Ferguson films the muskox butchering process. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Josh Ferguson films the muskox butchering process. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Duane Bohlken and Jaryd McDonald cut up a muskox. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media
Bohlken and McDonald cut up a muskox. Josh Ferguson/Norteno Media

Chan hopes the video will be an easily accessible resource for people looking to learn more about muskox.



He also described it as a “valuable addition” to meat processing workshops that have been run in the past in communities such as Fort Good Hope, Délı̨nę, Inuvik, and recently, Aklavik.

Overcoming discomfort

On a Saturday in November, about 40 people gathered in Aklavik’s curling rink to prepare an assortment of muskox-based recipes, from dry meat and ribs to jalapeño poppers and poutine.

It was the first day of a weekend workshop on how to butcher and cook muskox, led by Rich Francis, a Top Chef Canada finalist and an expert on Indigenous cuisine.

Several of the people in the room sported aprons made for the event, decorated with a cartoon muskox and the tagline “Horny for the North Slope” – a reference to the region in which the community lies.

Community members in Aklavik help cut muskox meat. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria
Community members in Aklavik help cut muskox meat. Photo: Aklavik muskox workshop team
Tumma Elanik works with muskox. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria
Tumma Elanik works with muskox. Photo: Aklavik muskox workshop team
Jessica Norris and Mike Suitor prepare muskox jalapeño poppers. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria
Jessica Norris and Mike Suitor prepare muskox jalapeño poppers. Photo: Aklavik muskox workshop team

The workshop was run by the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, the Wildlife Management Advisory Council for the Yukon North Slope, and the Yukon Government. It followed an earlier event, in the spring of 2022, on muskox harvesting. Together, the workshops were intended to teach people how to work with muskox and clear up misconceptions about the animals.

Michelle Gruben, resource person for the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, described the event as a hit.

Muskox dishes prepared over the weekend were shared at a community feast, which fed at least 100 people, and extra meat was given out to community members. By the end of the weekend, Gruben said, all that was left in the rink were a few bones.

JD Storr makes muskox soup. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria
JD Storr makes muskox soup. Photo: Aklavik muskox workshop team
Muskox ribs with aqpik bbq sauce. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria
Muskox ribs with aqpik BBQ sauce. Photo: Aklavik muskox workshop team

Aklavik residents haven’t always been keen on muskox, however.



After the harvesting workshop in the spring, Gruben said she contacted people to see if they wanted muskox meat, but many said they neither ate it nor knew how to work with it.  

As in the Sahtu, the region around Aklavik has had a dearth of muskox for a long time. After the animals disappeared from the Yukon North Slope in the mid-1800s, the United States government developed a program to bring them back.

“It’s kind-of a crazy story,” said Mike Suitor, North Slope and migratory caribou biologist with the Yukon Government, who has been involved in the Aklavik muskox workshops.

A small group of muskox were brought from eastern Greenland to the Bronx Zoo, Suitor said. Later, they were put on a train to Seattle and shipped to Nunavik Island in Alaska. From there, they were used to seed populations and farms in Alaska, including one around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the past few decades, those animals have made their way to the outskirts of Aklavik.

Efforts to teach people about muskox in Aklavik are more about providing residents with another protein option than about addressing dwindling caribou populations, however. The caribou herd from which Aklavik residents harvest is doing well, Suitor said, though the animals’ movements have become less predictable of late.

Residents also worry that muskox may have a negative impact on caribou, Gruben said.

“If caribou aren’t available,” Suitor said, muskox “is another potential food source that’s in people’s backyards, that is fairly predictable and not that hard to find.”

A lack of familiarity with muskox can present a barrier to harvesting them. Suitor said most harvesters in Aklavik are used to working with caribou, so they “know where to place their shots, they know how to cut it up.”



Muskox, in contrast, are bigger than caribou, their physiology is slightly different, and their hair – sometimes as long as a person’s arm – can be unwieldy.

“It’s not dramatically different, but it’s different enough that if you’re used to always placing your knife here to start your cut, you can’t do that,” Suitor said, adding that the taste of the meat and fat differ from caribou, too.

Misconceptions about muskox add to people’s hesitancy.

For example, some say that the animal’s hair shouldn’t touch the meat or that the meat tastes musky, according to Gruben, both of which she said aren’t true. (Others Cabin Radio spoke to said that muskox hair can contaminate the meat.)

Similarly, Chan said that, in the Sahtu, muskox are thought of as smelly animals, but that’s only the case during the rut in June. At that time, he said, the males smell like rotting meat.

During the Aklavik workshops, attendees gained tips on which animals to harvest and when, as well as how to butcher and cook them.

Mike Suitor, a Yukon Government biologist, scans the horizon during a muskox workshop in Aklavik in April 2022. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria
A muskox harvested near Aklavik during a workshop in the spring of 2022. Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis/McGill University and University of Victoria

Many attendees realized that, despite being huge animals, muskox are not so hard to deal with, said Jessica Norris, a graduate student at McGill who helped run the workshops along with Kate Curtis, a graduate student from the University of Victoria. Norris is studying muskox in the region and Curtis is researching people’s perspectives on the animals.

At the feast, community members had the opportunity to taste muskox, Norris said, many for the first time. Although some people said that muskox didn’t sit well in their stomachs, she said, a common reaction was along the lines of “not too bad.”



Gruben doesn’t expect widespread uptake of muskox harvesting just yet, though.

“It’s not like everybody is going to go out and get one,” she said. “I can count on my one hand how many people hunt muskox.”

Still, she thinks the workshops were worthwhile. Now, Gruben said, if someone harvests a muskox, people might have more confidence in preparing it for their families.

Intangible elements of harvest

The North is already undergoing a different type of food transition.

The impacts of colonization – through residential schools, forced settlement and the introduction of a wage-based economy – have degraded traditional harvesting practices and increased reliance on store-bought foods.

The shift toward market foods, which are often less nutritious than country foods, has been linked to increased prevalence of conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The high cost of food also makes it inaccessible to a large part of the population – one of the reasons food insecurity rates in some northern jurisdictions are upward of four times the national average.

Adding to this already complex and precarious situation are the impacts of climate change. 

Species substitution is one of many ways communities are trying to adapt, according to Tiff-Annie Kenny, assistant professor in Laval University’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, who has studied food security in the North.



Nutritionally, harvesting an alternate species can be healthier and cheaper than trying to compensate with market foods, Kenny said. But it depends on how the process plays out.

For instance, a 2010 paper found that muskox, moose and beaver all offer similar levels of protein to caribou, but Kenny said people may not want to replace caribou with muskox, moose or beaver. If people were to instead substitute caribou with fish or geese, for example, they may end up with more of some nutrients and less of others, as these foods have distinct nutritional profiles, she added.

Gauging substitutions based on nutrient levels doesn’t paint a complete picture of the situation communities are facing, according to Kenny. Neither do discussions that approach alternative harvest from a material or environmental perspective.

“It’s definitely not just an environmental issue, it’s not just a matter of adapting,” she said, stressing that the intangible, cultural elements of harvest might also be lost in the transition.  

The experiences of Inuit in the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador provide a stark reminder of the heavy toll that comes with confronting life without a fundamentally important species.

Labrador used to be home to one of the world’s largest caribou herds, the George River herd. It totalled roughly 800,000 animals in the 1990s but has plummeted more than 99 percent for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. In 2013, the provincial government enacted a hunting ban on the herd, adding to bans on other herds.

It’s now been a decade since Inuit communities in the region have been “completely detached and separated from this animal that means so much to them,” said David Borish, a filmmaker and researcher who directed a documentary about the impact of the change as part of his PhD at the University of Guelph.

The documentary, titled HERD: Inuit Voices on Caribou, was led by the Nunatsiavut Government, the NunatuKavut Community Council and the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board.



Caribou in northern Labrador. Photo: David Borish
Caribou in northern Labrador. Photo: David Borish

The most obvious repercussion of the hunting ban was the elimination of a massive food source, according to Borish. While some people have begun to rely more on moose, which are moving north as the climate warms, it’s clear that the animals are not a true replacement.

“Pretty-much everyone we talked to said that moose meat does not meet the standards that caribou filled in any way,” Borish said, not only for reasons of taste or unfamiliarity, but because the substitution completely ignores the cultural component of caribou harvest.

In HERD, interviewees describe the deep-seated, wide-ranging and often hard-to-explain effects of the loss of caribou.

Some spoke about missing opportunities to pass on knowledge and connect with friends or family living in other communities, which would typically occur during caribou hunts. Others talked about impacts on identity and self-esteem.

“I feel less of an Inuit hunter than I ever did, because of all of these restrictions that’s been placed onto me,” Derrick Pottle, a hunter from Rigolet, said in the documentary.

Judy Voisey, from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, compared the loss of a cultural food to the loss of language or art.

“The more that we long for it, the more it impacts our well-being,” she said in the film.

These soundbites only begin to describe the experiences of Inuit in Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut.



In some ways, people have to adapt to changes on the land, according to Borish. But animals mean a lot more than food in the North – they are inextricably linked to culture, public health, sovereignty and more, he said.

Borish thinks responses to changes in wildlife need to take that complexity into account. He added that linking responses to age-old practices and knowledge systems may better protect cultural continuity.

These kinds of adaptations, he added, don’t happen overnight.

In the Sahtu, where there are still caribou to harvest, communities are preparing for what the future might bring.

Although Andrew doesn’t think muskox will fully replace caribou, people still have to talk about the challenges ahead.

“Things are escalating toward a not-so-good time for wildlife,” he said.

Birds and insects aren’t abundant as they once were, according to Andrew. The forests, too, have changed. When Cabin Radio spoke to Andrew in May, the trees outside his home in Norman Wells had just greened up, which he said is much earlier than they used to.

“The changes really bother me. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. But we’re here now,” Andrew said.

“Things are going to be different.”