The Nunavut government has imposed a total allowable harvest on the Dolphin and Union caribou herd after a survey showed the population had plummeted from 18,000 to 4,000.
It's the first time any hunting restrictions have been imposed on the herd, which migrates between Victoria Island and the Nunavut mainland.
In a news release Sept. 4, the Nunavut government announced that just 42 animals could be taken from the herd. The restrictions will primarily affect people in Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk and Bathurst Inlet. The Kitikmeot Regional Wildlife Board will decide who gets to take the animals.
Last year, Cambridge Bay hunters took 150 to 200 animls from the herd, Bobby Greenley, head of the hunters and trappers organization in Cambridge Bay, told Nunavut News.
Drikus Gissing, director of Nunavut's wildlife research division, says there are many reasons for the herd's decline.
"We know that these cycles have happened historically, but there are other pressures on these caribou herds at the moment," Gissing said. "There's development, there's larger human populations that harvest from these populations."
A major factor is climate change. The herd is named for the Dolphin and Union Strait, which makes up part of the stretch of sea ice over which the animals migrate twice a year.
"Dolphin and Union caribou may be especially vulnerable to the effects of a warmer climate if the current trend toward later formation of sea-ice continues and leads to increased risk of drowning deaths as the caribou attempt to cross on the thinner ice," reads a 2013 assessment from the NWT Species At Risk Committee. "Additionally, in the spring, caribou may swim through channels of water in the ice and not be able to get out, leading to drowning."
Jerry Puglik, 61, has seen that happen first hand. He lives in Cambridge Bay and describes himself as an avid hunter.
He remembers about five years ago seeing caribou carcasses frozen into the ice of Dease Strait, just two miles from the southern shore.
Puglik said Dease Strait, which is the part of the Northwest Passage the caribou migrate across, used to be frozen around Thanksgiving. Now, it doesn't freeze until late November or December.
"Right now it's almost the third week of September and our bay here isn't frozen," he said. "Ten years ago, you'd be able to Ski-doo on the ocean here."
The hunting restrictions didn't come as a shock to Puglik, who has also seen the number of caribou dwindle, with hunters travelling further and further to find them.
"I'm glad they made a wise decision," he said. "Now maybe it'll give the herd time to replenish itself."
Under the Nunavut Agreement, the minister of Environment can impose an interim total allowable harvest when there is a conservation concern, but further restrictions must be imposed with community consultation.
Nunavut wildlife officials are planning to hold an in-person meeting in Cambridge Bay on Oct. 7 to discuss the decision.
They'll also be working on plans for another survey of the herd to take place next month in collaboration with the community.
"Obviously the communities would have liked to see more consultations, but due to unusual circumstances, we couldn't do it earlier," said Gissing.
The survey that found the population drop was conducted in 2018. However, the resulting report was lost in a government malware attack, Gissing said. Once it was found, the department decided to get a second opinion before releasing the numbers. Then the pandemic hit, curbing face-to-face meetings.
While it's the first time hunting restrictions have been placed on this herd, it's not the first time hunters in western Nunavut have faced caribou quotas.
In 2015, a near total hunting ban was placed on the Bathurst caribou herd, which migrates annually from the N.W.T. to near Kugluktuk.
In 2017, limits were placed on the Bluenose East caribou herd, which also migrates between Nunavut and the N.W.T.
And in the eastern Arctic, a similar emergency hunting order to the latest one was issued in 2014 after a survey found the Baffin island caribou population had decreased by about 95 per cent.