Government-supported harvesting limits in the Sahtu for Bluenose West and East barren-ground caribou are to be replaced by community-led and “culturally appropriate” conservation plans.
The Sahtú Renewable Resources Board announced the change last week – one of eight decisions in a nearly 200-page report following a January session in Colville Lake.
For three days, representatives from the board, the GNWT, and Sahtu communities gathered to discuss conservation of the Bluenose West herd.
Deborah Simmons, the board’s executive director, said that gathering was prompted by “unresolved issues around harvesting regulations in the Sahtu.”
Many communities have long opposed the concept of the “total allowable harvest,” a mechanism in the Sahtu Dene and Métis Land Claim Agreement allowing the board to limit the number of caribou harvested “if necessary to achieve conservation.”
Total allowable harvest limits have been in effect for Bluenose West caribou since 2007.
Dene and Métis communities maintain the limits are an overexertion of power that disregards traditional knowledge and Indigenous hunting laws.
Meanwhile, no action taken by any party seems to be solving the problem of protecting the herd. A 2018 GNWT survey showed Bluenose East herd numbers had dropped nearly 50 percent since 2015.
George Barnaby, once the MLA for the former Mackenzie Great Bear district, chaired the January session in Colville Lake.
He told Cabin Radio Sahtu Dene communities have dealt with natural dips in caribou populations before and are best-placed to address the issue now.
“They’ve lived on that land for thousands of years,” he said. “They have a lot of knowledge, and they have traditions and rules and laws about caribou.”
The Colville Lake gathering – dubbed a “public listening session” rather than a public hearing – was the second in four years.
In 2016, a similar session led to Délı̨nę receiving approval for a community conservation plan that bases harvest management on Délįnę Got’įnę hunting law.
“They are using the people’s system of managing and living with the caribou – that’s a better system,” Barnaby said. “What they’re doing is putting that on paper to follow that law and rule for caribou.”
At the board, Simmons agrees with Barnaby.
“It’s kind-of a reversal of the norm for the community to be marshalling their own knowledge to come up with their own decisions about how things need to be regulated,” she said.
Colville Lake’s plan being finalized
Colville Lake is looking to follow Délı̨nę’s lead.
In 2019, Colville Lake released its own community conservation plan. The plan is not yet finalized but, if approved by the board, harvest limits will be lifted in favour of the plan’s provisions.
January’s session was one step in gaining that approval.
In last week’s announcement, the board signalled it now believes community conservation plans like those in Délı̨nę and Colville Lake are the best way forward.
To Simmons, the plans are an important step away from the colonial history of NWT land management.
“We have heard a lot of evidence about people’s experiences of that history. Just the mention of a tag system triggers memories about how harvest regulation was imposed on people,” she said.
“That, perhaps, was one of the least discussed and yet most powerful forces of colonization in the North.”
In a joint statement last week, Colville Lake’s Behdzi Ahda First Nation, Ayoni Keh Land Corporation, and Colville Renewable Resources Council each thanked the board for recognizing the inherent Dene right to traditional harvesting laws.
“Now that the board’s decision is released, we still have a lot of hard work to do,” stated Joseph Kochon, executive director of the Colville Renewable Resources Council.
Kochon said funding from the board, GNWT, and federal government would be needed to carry out the community’s responsibilities under its plan.
The board’s report acknowledges communities will need “capacity support” to ensure their plans are followed, and commits the board to assisting with coordination of funding.
The board also reserves the right to reinstate the old total-allowable-harvest limits “if required for effective conservation.”
According to Simmons, more conservation plans are on the way. Norman Wells and Tulita are working on plans for mountain caribou.
Meanwhile, the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation in the North Slave released its own caribou conservation plan earlier this year, inspired by work both in Délı̨nę and Kugluktuk, Nunavut.
“We’re really hopeful that the terrain for conservation is shifting toward Indigenous-led planning and action,” Simmons said.
Correction: November 17, 2020 – 11:35 MT. This article initially stated the January session lasted for four days. It in fact lasted for three. November 18, 2020 – 11:54 MT. This article initially stated the current “total allowable harvest” mechanism was government-devised. One of the governments involved, the Government of the Northwest Territories, subsequently argued the mechanism was supported by the GNWT but was a recommendation from the board. The wording of this article has been amended accordingly.