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Iconic Arctic caribou herd is booming

Iconic Arctic caribou herd is boomingWild caribou roam the tundra in Nunavut on March 25, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

WHITEHORSE - The caribou herd known for its epic annual migrations between the Northwest Territories and Alaska is thriving after a decade of decline.

In sharp contrast to many of its southern and eastern cousins, the latest population count of the Porcupine caribou found the herd has hit record numbers for recent times.

The herd has grown to an estimated 197,000 animals — the highest since biologists in Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories began counting in 1972.

"It's fantastic," said Joe Tetlichi, chairman of Canada's Porcupine Caribou Management Board. "I think it's something that we should be very proud of and I think the harvesters should be proud that they are part of the success."

Decades ago, board members, First Nations and hunters noticed the decline in neighbouring herds. Pressure from hunters on the Porcupine herd increased dramatically when the Cape Bathurst and Bluenose herds dwindled so low that hunting was banned.

"We looked and watched the other herds decline and we didn't want to get into the same scenario," Tetlichi said.

There are an estimated two million caribou in Canada but many of them are considered threatened or endangered as climate change and human development encroach on their vast migration routes.

But the Porcupine herd count last summer was almost double the 102,000 caribou found in the first year of the count in 1972.

During the last caribou census in 2010, there were an estimated 169,000 animals but there was some alarm after the count previous to that, in 2001, found just 123,000 animals.

"We still don't know exactly why the herd declined from 1989 to 2001," the board said on its website. "That means we don't know why the declining trend appears to have reversed either."

The herd migrates every year over about 250,000 square kilometres from birthing grounds in northern Alaska and Yukon to wintering grounds in the Northwest Territories.

Canada and the United States jointly manage the herd under a 1987 agreement and in November 2006, the joint board decided the herd was in immediate need of conservation.

The joint management boards came up with a plan, but that wasn't enough, Tetlichi said. They went to the local communities — mostly First Nations — gathered their input and got them on board.

"They bought into it right away because they wanted to see in 10 years that the caribou were still at a point that we could harvest comfortably," he said.

"Twenty years ago our people were saying 'no, this is my aboriginal right to hunt and I can go out there and hunt whenever I want.' Now, people are saying 'no, I have a responsibility to make sure that caribou is there for future generations.'"

The plan relied largely on conservation measures such as a hunt that focuses on bulls — not cows — and leaving the animals alone during calving. One cow can produce 23 offspring over a 10-year period.

"We have no control over weather, we have no control over climate change, we have no control over global warming. What we do have control over is how we harvest," Tetlichi said.

A decade later, board members and biologists are pleased with the numbers but not ready to declare victory. The population can peak and then come crashing down, said Jason Caikoski, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Caribou herds typically grow really fast and at some point, they decline," said Caikoski, adding that Alaskan caribou herds have not seen the decline that Canadian herds have suffered.

"We really don't know why but we're fairly confident that that herd is in a growing phase."

- By Dene Moore in Vancouver

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