Environment

Strategy to help NWT’s beleaguered caribou is released


A new plan to help barren-ground caribou numbers in the Northwest Territories recover has been finalized.

A group of governments and regulatory boards, collectively known as the Conference of Management Authorities or CMA, made the announcement on Thursday.

The territory was legally obliged to have a strategy in place by this month after the animals were deemed “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act in 2018.

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The CMA said the new recovery strategy will guide how all NWT herds of barren-ground caribou are managed, with the exception of the Porcupine herd.

The Porcupine herd, which moves between the NWT, Yukon, and Alaska, is geographically distinct and not at risk. It’s the only herd in North America currently sitting at its maximum recorded number, some 218,000 animals.

Other herds in the NWT are faring far worse. According to the territorial government, herd numbers peaked in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and have dramatically declined since. 

In November 2018 there were around 8,200 caribou left in the Bathurst herd. At its peak in 1986, the herd had around 470,000 members. In 2015, the herd had 20,000 animals.

In 2018, the Bluenose-East herd had 19,300 caribou, down from 39,000 in 2015.

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The strategy to help those herds runs to 70 pages. “While caribou can look after themselves, it is peoples’ activities that need to be managed,” the document states in a preface.

Some actions in the strategy include:

  • implementing individual plans for each herd;
  • supporting community-based monitoring and guardianship programs;
  • collecting more data on herds and predators;
  • improving reporting of the caribou harvest;
  • protecting calving grounds and migratory routes; and
  • supporting hunter education programs or caribou programming that brings together youth and Elders.

The strategy doesn’t commit any group involved to any action or expenditure.

More: Read the strategy in full

“Implementation of this strategy is subject to the appropriations, priorities, and budgetary constraints” of participating governments, the document’s preface states.

However, the CMA said in a news release that “the social, cultural, and economic value of barren-ground caribou to the people of the NWT is immense.”

While government scientists believe caribou populations undergo natural cycles of growth and decline – likely due to changes in food availability, predators, and parasites – they face a number of other threats.

Those include climate change, habitat loss and degradation from resource exploration and development, roads that increase hunting access, and the increased frequency and intensity of forest fires. 

A number of efforts to maintain and restore caribou numbers have been taken over the years – including a plan to reduce the number of wolves that prey on the animals by shooting them from helicopters.

Few of those have worked.

Jody Pellissey, who chairs the CMA, told Cabin Radio last year: “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.

“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.”

Bats facing threat from fungal disease

Separately, the CMA released a conservation and management plan for bats in the Northwest Territories.

Two bat species at risk in the NWT, the little brown myotis and northern myotis, are included, as are the long-eared myotis, long-legged myotis, big brown bat, silver-haired bat, hoary bat, and eastern red bat. 

“Bats are a unique and important group of species in our ecosystem,” Thursday’s news release stated, noting some can consume their own body weight in insects every night. 

“Bats are long-living and reproduce relatively slowly, which makes them sensitive to population decline.” 

A photo of a Northern Myotis bat from the territorial government.

The little brown myotis and northern myotis bats were listed as a “special concern” on the NWT list of species at risk in 2018. According to that list, these bats have been dying in significant numbers in the US and Canada from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome. 

That disease has not yet been detected in the NWT, but the CMA said white-nose syndrome is expected to reach the territory within the next decade.

Other threats to bats in the territory include human impacts on places where bats hibernate and the removal of maternity roosts where female bats gather in the spring and summer to give birth and raise their young. The CMA said the loss of roosting and foraging habitats, wind turbines, environmental contaminants, and pet cats are also concerns. 

Legislation governing species at risk states the CMA now has until April 9, 2021 to develop consensus agreements on how the caribou recovery strategy and bat management plan will be implemented.

There are no new prohibitions or protections as a result of adopting the recovery strategy and management plan.

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

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