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What will the caribou eat?
Gameti hunter fears last year's fires destroyed caribou food supply

Evan Kiyoshi French
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 9, 2015

If caribou can't find food, they'll stop producing calves, according to one hunter.

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John Bekale says fires last summer have burned up so much lichen hes worried caribou will begin to starve. - Evan Kiyoshi French/NNSL photo

John Bekale, a Gameti hunter, and former president of the Denendeh Development Corporation, said that's the traditional knowledge concerning him since wildfires burned around 3.5 million hectares across the territory last summer. He said he visits hunting grounds where his grandparents are buried near Hottah Lake-just south of Great Bear Lake -every year. Last fall, he said he was shocked to see vast swaths of territory once covered with lichen, the caribou's food source, had burned.

"(The caribou) eat lichen and it takes about 60 to 100 years for regrowth," he said.

Bekale was born in Deline but moved to Gameti in 1972. Two years later the territory suffered a bad fire season, and he remembers hearing elders talk about the threat to caribou diet. Elders would cry out, he said, worried the caribou would have nothing to eat.

"Even after 40 years it hasn't come back north of Gameti," he said.

"Caribou have just crossed right through. Now, where are they going to go? If the food source ... gets depleted, the health gets affected and then the females won't produce anymore."

At a public meeting reviewing last year's forest fires held in Yellowknife two weeks ago, Janice Zieman, a forest officer for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), told a crowd of 30 people that forest fires are natural. They remove old or dead trees, promote regrowth and "belong on the landscape."

Ten years after a fire land mice return, marten trapping improves and the land becomes good moose territory, she continued.

Bekale said people hoping to fill their freezers with caribou don't feel the same way.

"It's normally people from the South who talk about 'fire is good,'" he said. "But for the people of the Bathurst, fire's not good because the caribou are not going to come back. All their food is burned."

The approach to fire fighting has changed since the territory took over responsibility for the forests, according to Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus.

"When I was a young fellow I fought fires," he said. "In those days it was mandatory to fight fires ... it was federal law. In the mid-1970s they brought in smoke jumpers and a different approach to fighting fires."

He said the new approach didn't account for fires as widespread as they were last summer, and he feels the GNWT needs to rethink its strategy.

"The whole country up here basically went up in smoke," he said. "So we heard (the GNWT) complaining over the summer that they didn't have enough money to fight the fires, but now we're hearing they have a surplus. So I'm somewhat confused. It's almost like they let the country burn."

Erasmus said he thinks last summer's fire season was not natural and has Dene people concerned about food.

"So now the question is, how are the caribou and other animals going to survive," he said.

Erasmus said the territory took responsibility for managing the caribou herds, but he challenges that jurisdiction.

"The Dene have never been given jurisdiction to care for caribou," he said. "As far as we understand (the GNWT) never acquired that right from the federal government and the federal government never acquired that either."

Zieman said the ENR uses their resources to protect lives and property. She said a total of 385 fires burned in the NWT last summer. While 126 were attended by ground responders, 259 were monitored she said. Erasmus said efforts need to be made to protect more of the forest.

"There needs to be a priority fire-zone, and that needs to be agreed to by indigenous people," he said. "There's never been a full discussion."

Bekale said he was able to take five caribou last year, but he worries how he'll fill the freezer in future years.

"Five is enough for me, for a while, even though I gave it to other people, and to elders," he said. "But I've got enough left for about a month."

Erasmus said he's heard concerns about scarce meat.

"Everyone is worried about running out of food, it's a huge, huge issue," he said. "The hunters provide food for other people. It's the greatest honour among our people. That's our way. If those people are prevented from it then you're breaking down our society."

ENR communications officer Judy McLinton did not respond by press time to questions about how the department anticipates last summer's fires will affect the Bluenose and Bathurst caribou herds in the future, or what the department is doing to protect their winter food source.

She also did not respond by press time to requests for interviews with biologists studying the affect of the fire on caribou, and said those wondering about the department's plan should consult a 10-year-old caribou study.

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