Fort McPherson Caribou Summit unites around the importance of responsible hunting
Robert Alexie is now retired but was once a full-time harvester and tour guide.
He believes in the traditional way of doing things: without an ATV or Ski-Doo and without leaving a lasting mark on the land.
“Untouched,” he says. “That’s the most important word for me.”
But times, practices and technologies change.
Managing these changes was one of the goals of last week’s first-ever Teetł’it Zheh (Fort McPherson) Caribou Summit. The forum brought together harvesters from across the NWT, the Yukon and Alaska to discuss the long-term health of the Porcupine Vadzaih (caribou) herd.
The three-day summit included a herd health briefing; A “fireside chat” with the Gwich’in leadership; A range of cultural events including traditional dance and dress performances; and many other events and activities.
Porcupine herd healthy for now
The porcupine herd, one of the largest in North America, is in good health: according to a 2017 estimate, the herd had about 218,000 members.
By comparison, other herds in the area, such as the Bathurst and Bluenose West herds, have fewer than 20,000 members according to recent estimates.
“The porcupine herd is probably the only other herd we have in most of the world right now for the large migratory caribou groups,” said Mike Suitor, a wildlife biologist who spoke on the health of the herd at the summit.
But the herd is sensitive to even seemingly small changes in their environment: As Suitor explained, pasture growth in the area attracts moose, which also attracts wolves.
Similarly, the collapse of the Yukon River salmon population is having a significant impact on the health of the herd.
Youth, elders weigh in
The summit allowed harvesters and other community members to share knowledge and find new solutions.
At the end of the forum, there was broad agreement among leaders and participants that herd health is every hunter’s responsibility.
The use of four-wheel drive vehicles during the harvest was particularly controversial.
Alana Francis is a young harvester who spoke at the summit. “Our land is mossy and it takes a long time for moss to grow back,” she said. “And so these four-wheel tracks stay on the road for a long time. And who wants to see four-wheel racetracks all over the beautiful country we have?”
Alexie agrees. “No more Ski-Doos, no more four-wheelers. We really need to stop that.”
Management considers new measures
Political solutions were also on the table.
On the final day of the summit, Gwich’in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik proposed lobbying for several rules, including a 7- to 14-day hunting ban early in the season when the Vadzaih arrive on the Dempster Highway.
But he said leadership needs community support for these measures to work.
“If we’re investigating and people complain that it’s gone too far, then we haven’t done our job,” he said.
After the summit, Kyikavichik said the community response to the proposed seven to 14-day hunting ban had been positive so far.
He also agreed to the use of four-wheelers. “We need to start working with the government to see what we can do to limit that,” he said.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic also presented harvesters and their communities with a new dilemma: commercial harvesting.
“Once we start moving into this area where we monetize the porcupine caribou herd, the Vadzaih, we’re entering very dangerous territory,” Kyikavichik said.
Traditionally, the spoils of a harvest are said to return to the community first, especially the elders and the needy.
“Some of the harvesters kept the best parts for themselves and left some of the other parts for the elders, and that’s not right,” Kyikavichik said. “If you’re a harvester in the community, the best pieces should go to those in need, and that was a concern.”
Despite these challenges, the herd remains healthy. With any luck, community members like Alexie will be able to enjoy Vadzaih for years to come. Alexie says his favorite part of the animal is “the stomach.”
“You take it out and rub it all over the meat, especially the breast, ribs, rump and neck. you cook it It smells, it tastes good.”
Kyikavichik said he hopes there will be more summits in the future, perhaps every two years, with more participants from across the north.