Every winter season, renewable resource officers in the Northwest Territories cover thousands of miles patrolling winter roads in many regions of the Territory. Due to the lack of infrastructure in the north, winter roads become a lifeline for resupplying remote communities and mining ventures alike. As with any road, increased access typically leads to an increase in hunting pressure. The winter road which services all three diamond mines in the North Slave Region (north of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories - typically referred to as the Tibitt to Contwoyto winter road), cuts through the heart of caribou management zone R/BC/03. The road is approximately 600 km long, 87 percent of which is over frozen lakes and passes through an important portion of the Bathurst caribou range. The road was first established in 1982 and is open an average of 67 days per year. Over the last decade, the number of truck loads hauled north on the winter road have ranged from a low of 4,847 in 2009 to a high of 10,922 in 2007. The road is built privately through a joint venture between the mines and public access is not restricted.

  Prior to January 1, 2010, hunting by aboriginal harvesters, residents, and nonresidents was permitted in the area now described as R/BC/03. During a calving ground photographic survey in June 2009, biologists noted a dramatic decrease in the population, from over 100,000 animals in 2006 to 31,900 plus or minus 5,300 in 2009. In response to these startling results, Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) instituted interim emergency measures, effective January 1, 2010, to protect the Bathurst herd until a co-management solution was developed.

    In the end, a management regime was agreed upon which saw the elimination of all resident and commercial harvest as well as outfitted hunting throughout the Bathurst range. A limited aboriginal harvest of 300 Bathurst caribou was permitted in R/BC/02 and R/BC/03 combined (150 per zone). This was a dramatic decrease from the estimated harvest during the 2008 - 2009 hunting season where between 4,000 and 7,000 caribou were taken. In co-ordination with the affected aboriginal governments, ENR established check stations and hired monitors to keep track of harvesting activity. Authorization cards, similar to tags, were developed and given to the
aboriginal governments for distribution among their membership. Renewable resource officers patrol the winter roads very frequently and work with the monitors to ensure harvesting is occurring in a matter consistent with agreements and regulations.

    As with any road, if you build it, they will come. This increased access entices those who would not normally make the trek via snowmobile. The winter road allows hunters to travel into the wilderness in the comfort of their heated trucks. It is quite feasible to leave Yellowknife in the morning and drive for about three hours until you reach segments of the herd, harvest your caribou, and be back at your table the same evening. If the road was not developed, a trip like this via snowmobile would surely turn into an overnight expedition. Hunters also tend to minimize the consideration of ambient temperatures when driving a truck versus being exposed to the
elements on a snow machine. Officers patrol the winter road several times throughout the work week and often work weekends. Typical accommodations for officers on patrol consist of modified enclosed cargo trailers, cabins, and at times, tents. Officers work in extreme temperatures and often find themselves working outside in the -35 to -40 C range.

    As the road cuts through a large portion of the Bathurst caribou's wintering range, it is not uncommon to see caribou in close proximity to the road. The majority of the harvest occurs within a few kilometres of the road and the remnants at kill sites often attract foxes, wolves, and wolverine.

    For the most part, people are respecting the intent of the closure and following the regulations. Like anywhere, there are people who circumvent the rules and attempt to harvest without authorization cards or fail to submit the bottom portion of used cards. An authorization card is basically a piece of paper with a perforated strip on the bottom that is to be filled in and given to an officer or monitor when a caribou is harvested. By keeping the card intact, the door is left open for additional harvest on the same card, just like failing to clip or cancel a tag. Others will report harvest and submit cards but the actual take is greater than the number reported.

    Based on these issues, officer presence throughout the winter road season is very intensive. Monitors and check station staff are typically put in place before the winter road officially opens to commercial traffic and remain until the road closes. Officers patrol regularly, especially during peak times. The winter road season is one of the busiest times for officers in the North Slave Region. In
addition to enforcement, officers are the supply line for the monitors, keeping them stocked with food and fuel and switching
them out after their rotations are complete.

    Monitoring of caribou hunting in the Northwest Territories ranks very high on the priority list of ENR, as caribou are a species of great value and significance to the people of the territory. The department has expended considerable resources to ensure that caribou are
preserved for the generations to come.

    Co-operative management with stakeholders has led to a significant reduction in hunting pressure on the herd and is enabling the Bathurst caribou the time it needs to rebound to a healthy, viable herd.

Author: Ian Ellsworth.
Ian is a member of the
Northwest Territories
Renewable Resource
Officers Association

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