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Protecting a 'vital' link in the Arctic food chain
Toronto Globe and Mail


January 17, 2007

The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq barren-ground caribou herds have roamed Canada's Arctic and northern prairies for thousands of years, but little is still known about these large antlered mammals.

And it is this lack of hard information, especially about how many still exist, that troubles some when it comes to the topic of allowing proposed uranium testing in the Northwest Territories' Screech Lake area - approximately 60 miles southwest of the world-famous Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary.




"We aren't against mining, by any means," said Ross Thompson of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, an aboriginal-led advisory group. "But more data has to be gathered. This shouldn't be passed off lightly."

The last time both herds were surveyed was in 1994. At the time, the Beverly herd was estimated at 276,000 and the Qamanirjuaq at 496,000.

New surveys of both herds are currently being conducted, with the first one about the Beverly herd expected to be released later this year by the Northwest Territories government.

Members of the Beverly herd, which can travel up to 1,200 miles annually across a massive range that includes northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, as well as portions of Nunavut, Manitoba and Alberta, are expected to be affected most if exploration is eventually allowed in the Screech Lake area.

Thompson would like more consideration to be given to issues such as how the herds' calving grounds and migration routes could be affected before exploration is allowed in this environmentally sensitive area.

He said it could be disastrous for the region if the proposed drilling eventually negatively affected the two caribou herds. Thompson said there could be numerous social, environmental and economic impacts. For example, the caribou harvest is worth at least $14 million a year to area hunters.

Tom Faess, an ecotourism operator who has been working in the NWT for the past 37 years, said the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds should be protected at all costs.

"The entire North, both in aboriginal tradition and wildlife tradition, depends so completely on the caribou," he said.

He added that the caribou are "vital" links in the entire food chain in the Arctic. "Without caribou, the entire North is basically void of life."

Faess, whose business, Great Canadian Wilderness, is based in the Dene First Nation community of Lutsel K'e, said that exploration should not be allowed even if research eventually finds that the two herds are thriving.

"If it's the last healthy caribou herd in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, then why fool with that?" he said.

Research recently discovered that the Bathurst caribou herd, one of the Northwest Territories' largest, was sharply declining. Biologists released figures last September that found the herd had lost about 60,000 animals in three years.

Wildlife experts don't know what to blame for the decline, but some have suggested that climate change might be partly responsible.

The Northwest Territories government has recently proposed new hunting restrictions aimed at protecting the Bathurst caribou herd, which surveys estimate has fallen to 128,000 animals from close to 475,000 in 1986.


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