As numbers of Bathurst caribou decline, a handful of wildlife officers are working to educate hunters and monitor harvesting practices along the winter road to the NWT’s diamond mines.
Just five officers are responsible for surveilling vast swaths of land and water. The officers rotate weekly between three stationary camps and a mobile camp where they patrol by snowmobile, truck and helicopter.
This week, Lee Mandeville – who has been a wildlife officer since 2013 – is stationed at the MacKay Lake camp. It’s one of the biggest lakes in an area he says is abundant with muskox and snowshoe hares the size of foxes.
Mandeville remembers when caribou were also plentiful and covered the landscape. That’s something he hopes his children will be able to see some day.
“I used to be a pretty active caribou hunter but our family has chosen not to harvest caribou for the time being, until we find out what’s really going on, and hopefully we could see a rise in the population,” he says.
At its peak in 1986, there were around 470,000 caribou in the Bathurst herd. By November 2018, that number had dropped to just 8,200. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of breeding cows alone decreased by 3,000 animals, or almost 40 percent.
Patrols can mean wildlife officers working for 16 hours one day, Mandeville says, then being stuck in camp for a week during a blizzard.
Patrols often include talking with hunters about respectful harvesting practices and making sure they’re aware of the mobile zone where hunting caribou is strictly prohibited. Mandeville says the boundaries of that zone change every Tuesday based on caribou collar tracking data.
“Just working with the harvesters is the most fun part for me,” he says.
Today, March 27, is a busy Saturday with nice weather. Mandeville plans to patrol by helicopter.
Lifting off from the camp, the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road snakes across the landscape toward the horizon. Mandeville watches caribou and snowmobile tracks cut through the snow like veins.
He spots a large group of hunters parked on the winter road. Circling overhead, he says just seeing a helicopter makes hunters think twice about breaking the rules.
Farther north, a small group is gathered on the side of the road outside the mobile zone. Mandeville recognizes two of the women, who stopped at his station to make coffee yesterday. He lands to warn them that the winter road could be closed tomorrow if anticipated stormy weather rolls in.
As caribou ribs and a pot of tea cook on the stove, Irene Lafferty explains that her family usually goes out hunting two to three times a year.
A vital food source
“We grew up with traditional food,” she says. “My family did this with us so now we’re doing it.”
For many communities in the North, caribou is a vital source of food. For the northern harvesting community, the value of caribou is equal to around $20 million every year.
“A lot of them don’t have the means to go to the grocery store, they have high grocery prices,” Mandeville says. “It’s just our main source of food since forever and now it’s looking pretty sad.”
Lafferty says it’s important for hunters to be respectful and follow the rules. That includes cleaning up after yourself and not leaving anything behind on the land.
“There’s a lot of times I’ve seen a lot of big mess after people leave. I don’t agree with that,” she says.
Continuing on, the helicopter flies above herds of caribou and various sites where hunters have harvested animals. Far from the road, Mandeville decides to touch down to speak with some Yellowknives Dene hunters travelling on snowmobiles.
Phillip Goulet is passing on the tradition of hunting to his 13 year-old son, Fred. While they have been on the land for hours and covered a great distance, he says they haven’t seen any caribou today.
“Hopefully local governments can come together and see some kind of value – and tell these people to limit their numbers, how much they’re shooting – because I’ve heard stories that they’re shooting lots,” he says. “That’s not right. That’s not fair to us.”
Earlier this month, the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board raised concern about irresponsible caribou hunting practices along the winter road. Board chair Earl Evans told reporters this is the worst he’s seen in 50 years, noting that at one camp he witnessed “every regulation in the book being violated.”
‘This is the problem that we’re facing’
Moments after taking off again, Mandeville spies a caribou carcass left for waste.
The caribou is still fresh so the nearby hunters are able to harvest the animal. But neither they nor Mandeville are happy that another hunter has shot the caribou then left it, nor that it’s a cow who Mandeville believes could have been pregnant.
“This is the problem that we’re facing,” he says. “We have a young Dene hunter here … and this is his territory, this is what he’s got to witness.”
Mandeville says while he’s seen wasted meat on almost every patrol, he never gets used to the feeling. It reminds him of the first time he went caribou hunting with his father around the age of nine, where he came across 10 animals in a pile left to waste.
“That affected me quite a bit and it still does. I won’t forget it,” he says. “Now I’m out here and I’m able to hopefully make a change.”
Mandeville says if wasted meat is still safe to eat, wildlife officers will salvage it and deliver it to organizations serving people in need like the Yellowknife Women’s Society, schools, community governments, or Elders.
Running out of animals, running out of time
While there are many good hunters, Mandeville says there are also many reasons why some end up breaking the rules.
That includes not taking the time to learn about the mobile zone, or shooting into the herd and not realizing animals may be wounded. Mandeville says some people don’t believe the decline in caribou numbers is as dire as territorial officials are reporting.
“All kinds of scenarios,” he says. “Sometimes I just don’t get it.”
Mandeville adds that hunting is expensive. One trip can cost a small hunting party at least $1,000. If hunters aren’t able to find any caribou, he says, that cost might make them risk travelling into the mobile zone.
“As we were flying over, we could see people parked by the caribou that are just a few 100 yards or metres away from the road. That could be pretty tempting,” he says.
Anyone caught wasting meat, hunting inside the mobile zone, or abandoning wounded animals can be charged and face hefty fines under the territory’s Wildlife Act. Mandeville says officers may also seize an offending hunter’s meat, firearms, knives and – in some cases – snowmobiles.
“We’re running out of animals, we’re running out of time,” he says.
“We’re doing all that we can to try to conserve what we have left.”
Correction: April 1, 2021 – 16:59 MT. This article initially stated the value of caribou to individual NWT communities can be as high as $20 million. In fact, $20 million is the estimated value of caribou to the entire northern harvesting community.