Fort McPherson Caribou Summit unites around the importance of responsible hunting
Robert Alexie is now retired, but once upon a time he was a full-time poacher and tour guide.
He believes in doing things the traditional way: Without an ATV or Ski-Doo, and without leaving any lasting marks on the land.
“Untouched,” he says. “This is the most important word for me.”
But times, practices and technology change.
Navigating these changes was one of the goals at the first-ever Teetł’it Zheh (Fort McPherson) Caribou Summit last week. The forum united poachers from across the NWT, Yukon and Alaska to discuss the long-term health of the Porcupine vadzaih (caribou) herd.
The three-day summit featured a herd health briefing; A “fireside party” with Gwich’in leadership; A range of cultural events including traditional dance and dress showcases; and a host of other events and activities.
Porcupine herd healthy, for now
The Porcupine herd, one of the largest in North America, is in good health: According to a 2017 estimate, the herd had about 218,000 members.
By comparison, other herds in the area, such as the Bathurst and Bluenose West herds, have fewer than 20,000 members, according to recent estimates.
“The porcupine herd is probably the one other herd that we have almost globally at this point for the large migratory caribou herds,” said Mike Suitor, a wildlife biologist, who presented on the health of the herd at the summit.
But the herd is sensitive to even seemingly small changes in its environment: As Suitor explained, the growth of willows in the area attracts elk, which also attracts wolves.
Similarly, the collapsing salmon population in the Yukon River has major implications for the health of the stock.
Youth, elders weigh in
The summit allowed poachers and other community members to share their wisdom and come up with new solutions.
By the end of the forum, there was broad agreement among leaders and participants that it is the responsibility of every hunter to keep the herd healthy.
The use of four-wheeled vehicles during harvest was particularly controversial.
Alana Francis is a young poacher who spoke at the summit. “Our land is overgrown with moss, and moss takes a long time to grow back,” she said. “And so those four-wheel tracks stay on the road for a long time. And who wants to see four wheel tracks all over the beautiful country we have?”
Alexie agrees. “No more Ski-Doos, no more four-wheelers. This is what we really need to stop.”
Leadership is considering new measures
Policy solutions were also on the table.
On the final day of the summit, Gwich’in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik suggested lobbying for several rules, including a 7- to 14-day hunting ban at the start of the season when the vadzaih arrive at the Dempster Highway .
But he said leadership will need the support of the community to make these measures work.
“If we go after it, and people complain that it went too far, then we haven’t done our job,” he said.
Speaking after the summit, Kyikavichik said the response from the community to the proposed seven to 14 day hunting ban has been positive so far.
He also agreed about the use of four-wheelers. “We will have to start working with the government to see what we can do to limit it,” he said.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has also presented a new dilemma for poachers and their communities: Commercial harvesting.
“Once we start getting into that area, where we make money with the Porcupine caribou herd, the vadzaih, we’re in a very dangerous area,” Kyikavichik said.
Traditionally, the spoils of a harvest are meant to first go back to the community, especially elders and those in need.
“Some of the poachers kept the best parts for themselves and left some of the other parts for the Elders, and that’s not right,” Kyikavichik said. “If you’re a community harvester, the best pieces have to go to the needy, and that was a concern.”
Despite these challenges, the herd remains healthy. With any luck, community members like Alexie will be able to enjoy vadzaih for years to come. Alexie says his favorite part of the animal is “the belly.”
“You take it out and you rub it all over the meat, especially the breast, ribs, butt, neck. You cook it. It smells, it tastes good.”
Kyikavichik said he hopes there will be other summits in the future, perhaps biennially, with more participants from across the North.