Colville Lake is challenging the Northwest Territories government's right to issue hunting tags and set limits on how many caribou hunters can take each year on its traditional territory.
The Colville Lake Renewable Resources Council, Behdzi Ahda First Nation and Ayoni Keh Land Corporation are asking the N.W.T. Supreme Court to overturn a decision made last month by the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources.
In his decision, Minister Shane Thompson rejected the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board's decision to allow a conservation plan developed by the Colville Lake Renewable Resources Board to replace the government's tag and quota system, known as total allowable harvest, for the Bluenose West caribou herd.
In a letter to the board, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the status of the herd has not improved since a total allowable harvest was imposed in 2008.
The department said the limit should remain until the population increases.
The chief of the Behdzi Ahda First Nation said a system of tags and hunting limits is an inferior approach to conservation.
"You can see what happened in a lot of other regions, caribou wasted," said Chief Wilbert Kochon, referring to examples of meat wastage by hunters using the ice road to the diamond mine this past winter. "We don't want to see that."
The Bluenose East herd's range includes the area between Great Bear Lake and the Arctic coast around Paulatuk. According to government survey numbers, in 1992 there were 110,000 Bluenose East caribou. That's now down to about 21,000.
Since 2008, the government has limited the annual harvest to four per cent of the herd. For the Sahtu, that amounts to 350 animals per year.
At caribou management hearings, hosted by the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board last year, local leaders have expressed some skepticism about the government's numbers and also the government's approach to conservation.
At a hearing in Colville Lake last year, band manager Joseph Kochon described tag and quota systems as "legacies of colonial conservation." The First Nation wants to take a more nuanced approach to conservation based on its hunting traditions, an approach where it has control over who hunts in its territory, how they hunt and how many animals they take.
Chief Wilbert Kochon said it's an approach that's been proven by time.
"We have been doing it for hundreds of years. We've never written it down but maybe we will have to write some things down for them to really understand it."
In it's May 28 request for a judicial review, Colville Lake argues that the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement gives local communities the right to regulate hunting. It argues that the minister's decision to continue with a tag and quota system is based on "an unduly restrictive" interpretation of that agreement "that is inconsistent with modern treaty interpretation principles and the honour of the crown."
Colville Lake is asking the court to quash the minister's decision and declare that the Colville Lake Renewable Resources Council has the authority under the land claim to manage harvesting on its lands.
The government has not responded to the court filing.