The number of caribou in a shrinking herd has dwindled even more over the past three years, but a wildlife manager in the N.W.T. who helped study them says the difference is "slight" and the herd is showing signs of stabilizing.
There are an estimated 6,240 caribou in the Bathurst herd, according to data the territory collected this year from surveys of five barren-land herds in the N.W.T. That's down nearly 2,000 animals in the Bathurst herd since the last survey in 2018.
"That herd has been declining at a very serious rate for quite a long time," said Karin Clark, manager of wildlife research and management at the N.W.T.'s environment department. "The fact that [they] might be stabilizing and levelling off is quite a positive."
In a media release, the territory noted the herd's decline is slowing down. In the mid-1980s, the N.W.T. said the Bathurst herd consisted of roughly 470,000 animals. Population surveys after 2003 show a rapid decline: there were 186,000 animals in 2003, 35,000 in 2012, and 20,000 in 2015 — when the population was dubbed "critically low" — and 8,200 by 2018.
Relationship must be mended
The territory announced a new Bathurst Caribou Management Plan on Tuesday to guide the "short-term recovery and long-term resilience" of the herd in the N.W.T., Nunavut and Saskatchewan.
It says that barren-ground caribou populations fluctuate naturally, but "increasing natural and human pressures" have led to historically-low numbers in the Bathurst herd and "widespread declines" in many of the nine barren-land herds found in the N.W.T.
It says the relationship between the Bathurst herd and people in the North "must be mended."
"This plan is not about managing caribou, it's about understanding and regulating human actions such that the Bathurst herd may return to self-sufficient population levels."
The plan was developed by the Bathurst Caribou Advisory Committee, which is made up of representatives from 17 public and Indigenous governments and organizations, including the governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
It identifies six herd population levels to determine the type and the intensity of various management actions. For example, when the herd is critically low like it is now, the plan says to consider no hunting zones and incentives for predator harvesting — both of which are currently in place.
When the herd's population is high, with more than an estimated 350,000 animals, the plan says to consider opening harvesting up to Indigenous people, residents of both the N.W.T. and Nunavut, and commercial operations.
The territory's environment minister, Shane Thompson, and the North Slave Métis Alliance issued statements together on Wednesday, following the first in a series of meetings about caribou herd recovery.
Thompson said the government and the alliance agreed to work together to implement the new management plan, and to send a "strong message" that "illegal and disrespectful harvesting is not acceptable" during the winter road season.
Marc Whitford, vice president of the alliance, said "there is no place left on our shared traditional lands for wasteful, unlawful and unjustifiable hunting practices that diminish the caribou populations that are so critical to our Métis Peoples and our First Nations neighbours."
Emigration to Beverly herd
Clark helped to survey the Bathurst caribou's calving grounds, and said part of the herd moved to follow the neighbouring Beverly herd this year.
"The Beverly is highly overlapped with the Bathurst on the winter range and as they start to move in the springtime, they're heading northeastwards to their calving grounds. They are heading generally in the same direction."
Clark said some of the Bathurst herd continued past its usual calving grounds on the west side of Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut, this year, to calve on the east side of the inlet — closer to Beverly Lake — with the Beverly herd.
"We do see a little bit of emigration typically among these barren-ground caribou herds, so we're not alarmed. But if this does consistently happen over time, it could impact the size of that herd."
Clark said barren-ground caribou migrate to calving grounds with more caribou as a strategy to protect themselves from predators called "predator swamping." Though it's a good move for the survival of the caribou, it's not necessarily a good move for the N.W.T., she said.
"We want to see caribou sustained in that part of the range over time," she said, referring to land the Bathurst herd lives on. "We want them in places where people can continue to interact with them.… We get a little worried because we know that those relationships between people and caribou need to be maintained."
Rest of the data
The Bluenose-East herd, which has also been declining, saw an increase between 2018 and 2021 of nearly 4,000 animals — from 19,300 to 23,200.
"We're seeing high numbers of calves. We've seeing higher cow survival rates," said Clark. "That's a real positive, and that's indicative of good weather conditions and good conditions on the range, in terms of vegetation."
The Bluenose-West herd declined from 21,000 to 18,440, while the Cape Bathurst herd rose from 4,500 to 4,913 and the Tuktoyaktuk herd doubled from 1,500 to 3,073. But only the data for the Cape Bathurst herd, said Clark, is precise.
The rest is considered "statistically insignificant."
That's not because the population differences are insignificant, but because the data is "highly variable" said Clark. She said temperatures, weather conditions and insects can have a big impact on how reliably the herds are counted.
For example, Clark said poor weather conditions kept planes on the ground when they were supposed to be taking photographs of the Bathurst herd during part of its calving season.
It wasn't hot and dry enough for bugs to bother the Bluenose West herd when they were being surveyed. Caribou bunch up or "aggregate" in response to "insect harassment," said Clark — and since that didn't happen, the team wasn't able to find and count the entire herd.