The developers of a last-ditch plan to save the NWT’s disappearing barren-ground caribou say they have no idea if anything they try will make a difference.
A plan to save the caribou – officially termed a recovery strategy – must, by law, be in place by July 2020 after the animals were deemed “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act last year.
The overall number of NWT barren-ground caribou, in various herds, is said to have dropped by 85 percent in the past two to three decades. The Bathurst herd, once numbering around half a million caribou, is now down to 10,000 at best.
Various attempts have been made to stem the decline, ranging from bans on harvesting to the encouragement of wolf-hunting in the hope of removing predators.
Nothing appears to have worked for 30 years.
Now, the woman leading efforts to create a recovery strategy says: “Sometimes, it’s cross your fingers and hope this one will work.”
Jody Pellissey chairs the Conference of Management Authorities – the grand name for representatives of the territorial government, federal government, and various regulatory boards. The conference is often known as the CMA.
In brief: Recovery strategy fact sheet
In theory, with the species threatened, this should be the plan to end all plans. However, the 60-page document does not contain many surprises, not least because so many different measures to help the caribou have been tried in the past.
The recovery strategy is also, in large part, a commitment to maintain a series of other plans for each of the nine barren-ground caribou herds, and to continue monitoring and education efforts.
“This is a guiding document. It gives [the NWT] the opportunity to have those herd-specific management plans, look at predator management, and perhaps have some ‘influence’ on fire management and how that’s conducted,” said Pellissey, referring to increasing concern that wildfire burn areas are disrupting caribou habitat.
“[But] I don’t have the answer to say if this one’s going to work, this time.
“I’ve been up here for 20 years now and watched the decline, and it’s a little disheartening to watch it. We have some herds that are at a zero-harvest and they, still, are continuing to decline.”
‘We just do our best’
The ebb and flow of caribou population is believed to be cyclical over periods of several decades – a theory backed up by the traditional knowledge of people who experienced past cycles.
The mining industry and over-hunting have, at various times, been cited as additional burdens for caribou herds to overcome.
However, Pellissey now believes accelerated change of the northern climate is the number-one problem.
“Our biggest concern is climate change,” she told Cabin Radio. “It’s difficult to have any impact on what’s going to happen with the climate, so the caribou are having to deal with things they didn’t have to deal with 100 years ago.
“So we just do our best and, hopefully, those who look back 100 years from now say, ‘Oh, yeah, they did a pretty good job.’
“I’m trying not to be pessimistic but the concerns of climate change are certainly very dramatic. And I’m not certain whether we can come back from them or not.”
Bison and bats
Meanwhile, the same organization – the CMA – is also working on a recovery strategy for wood bison and a management plan (not quite as serious) for two species of bat.
In the bats’ case, some of the measures are to prepare for a disease known as white-nose syndrome, which is forecast to arrive in the NWT in the next decade. That plan is also open for public feedback until November 1.
The wood bison recovery strategy was finalized earlier this year and the CMA is now figuring out how to implement the steps it contains.
“Wood bison is a little better. There are three herds here and one herd is actually increasing, so that’s a good-news story,” said Pellissey.
The strategy ultimately aims “to recover free-ranging, genetically diverse, and healthy wood bison populations … to levels which can sustain ongoing harvest for the benefit of all people in the NWT.”