© Photo: Aurora College

The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds of Canada: On the road to serious decline

23 September 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Arctic Under Pressure. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq barren-ground caribou herds migrate seasonally in search of food, using habitat in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, northern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba. Unfortunately, these herds are in slow decline.

The neighbouring Bathurst herd has been declining precipitously and is now under a harvest moratorium—and there are concerns that the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds are heading in the same direction. This winter, in an effort to prevent this, the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board (BQCMB) sounded the alarm about irresponsible hunting practices (including by non-Indigenous hunters) along the winter road to the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories. EARL EVANS is chair of the BQCMB and has lived and worked in the Fort Smith area of the territories his entire life. The Circle spoke to him about the role that roads and other factors are playing in the decline of the caribou and what actions the BQCMB is taking to safeguard the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds.

What is the current state of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds?
Both have been in a slow decline since 1994. This winter, some of the Beverly caribou were mixed in with the Bathurst herd in a protection area, so they were inadvertently protected. But the ones that came out of that zone were heavily hunted. The Beverly herd is more accessible to hunters than the Qamanirjuaq herd because of the ice road that supplies the diamond mines. Once you drive about five hours out of Yellowknife, you get out of the trees. It’s all barren land up there, and the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road—a 400-kilometre ice road, also known as the TCWR—goes across these barren lands. It’s rebuilt every year.

When people see caribou tracks, they follow the animals. They camp along the road in their trucks—some put up tents—and they just wait for the herd to come out of the no-hunting zones. Sometimes a group of 200 caribou will come out, and they’ll kill every last animal. The ice road is a large factor in the number of caribou that are harvested because of the access it creates. If that road wasn’t there, I’d say probably 80 per cent of the hunting of these herds would not occur.

When did roads first appear in the area, and how much have they contributed to the decline of caribou?
The first roads were built in the early eighties—the TCWR was constructed to supply the Lupin Gold Mine in Nunavut. The diamond mines took off in the nineties. Today we have the all-weather Ingraham Trail from Yellowknife, and then the ice road, which runs northeast, with spur roads to the mines.

In the mid-eighties, there were 400,000 to 450,000 animals in the Bathurst herd, and now 98 per cent of them are gone. The TCWR was a major contributing factor to their decline. At the time, there were so many caribou around, and the hunting regulations were pretty lax. There were no limits on caribou harvest by Indigenous People in the Northwest Territories. A non-Indigenous person who had lived there for more than two years was allowed up to five caribou tags. There was so much waste at the time, things just got out of hand. And now there’s like 2 per cent of that herd left. We don’t want the same thing to happen to the Beverly or Qamanirjuaq herds.

What other threats are these herds facing, besides over-harvesting?
Mining exploration within the Bathurst, Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou ranges increased rapidly from the early nineties to the mid-2000s. There was a lot of disturbance from helicopters doing survey work in some areas, especially on the Bathurst summer range. I was speaking to some Inuit who live up there and are really knowledgeable about these caribou, and they say these choppers really disturb the animals’ feeding. They’ll see a herd feeding and then all of a sudden, a chopper comes and they will stop eating. And 10 or 15 minutes later, another chopper comes, and the caribou are still watching. When that happens, it takes them longer to gain weight at crucial times. In late August, early September, they really feed voraciously to try to put on a lot of fat for the fall. If the females aren’t fat enough going into fall, they won’t get pregnant and won’t have calves the next year, so they miss that cycle, and the herd starts declining.

And then you have predators. We’ve discovered that a lot of bears and wolves are living right in the calving grounds— and the new roads are helping them. For example, Nunavut just started putting in its fair share of roads. We have the Meadowbank Road—that’s 150 kilometres from the community of Baker Lake North to the Agnico Eagle Meadowbank Gold Mine. During migration, the caribou bunch up along the road, not crossing, and the wolves kill them because they have nowhere to go. Bears will kill a lot of caribou, too, when they’re really vulnerable like that.

What steps are being taken to manage and protect the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds?
We’re doing anything and everything we can to mitigate the loss of animals. Education is a huge, huge part of what we do, because the more people know what’s happening, the more they can contribute. It is really important to create awareness of what’s happening to cut down on waste and get everyone to take only what they need. Some of the local people are trying to limit the amount of animals that are taken on the road—it’s a matter of controlling your people.

We’re also trying to protect the calving grounds, a huge issue. We have supported stronger protection for the Beverly calving grounds, and caribou protection measures where exploration work is done on calving and post-calving areas. We support the federal listing of barren-ground caribou as an at-risk species to give us more ammunition to combat the loss of the herds.