The Yukon Fish and Game Association was hoping for answers in the legislature
Thursday afternoon but they didn’t come, says association president Charles Schewen.
Schewen, association vice-president Bryce Bekar and executive director Gord Zealand were in the house during question period when Environment Minister Pauline Frost was challenged on her handling of the hunting issue in the Ross River area.
This past summer, the Ross River Dena Council issued a statement insisting licensed Yukon hunters needed a permit from the First Nation to hunt in its traditional territory.
Frost was clear Thursday when she said the only authority governing licensed hunters in the Ross River area lies with the Yukon government.
How she arrived at the last-minute decision to cancel caribou permits to hunt the Finlayson caribou herd was, on the other hand, not so clear.
But the minister insisted she used her authority under the Wildlife Act to step in and protect a herd that has declined substantially in numbers since it peaked following the aerial wolf-kill in the 1980s.
It was a concern brought to her attention by the Dena Council and it was a matter she acted on, she told reporters in a scrum following question period.
Frost explained one of the key pieces of information missing from the process of making management decisions is the size of the harvest by the Kaska hunters of Ross River Dena Council.
They know how many of the Finlayson caribou are taken by licensed hunters, and they know many are taken by the big game outfitters in the area, she said.
The minister said the population estimate of 2,700 – down from 5,600 over the years – is based on sound science such as are aerial surveys.
What they need now, what she’s in discussions with the First Nation about, is getting an accurate estimate of how many Finlayson caribou Kaska hunters are harvesting, she explained.
Frost said she is hoping to have the necessary information in the next six months that will help form a “collective management plan.”
But the members of the fish and game association are questioning the path the minister took to close the caribou hunt at the last minute – with no public discussion about the closure nor the need for the closure.
The association president said the harvest by licensed hunters is under one per cent of the herd’s size.
“So we know we are in a sustainable place,” Schewen said outside the legislature.
He said he didn’t hear any good answers from the minister when she was being questioned about the matter by Yukon Party MLAs.
Zealand said the closure at the 11th hour has the appearance of a negotiated arrangement between Frost and the Ross River Dena Council.
That’s not how wildlife management is supposed to work in the Yukon, he said.
Zealand said management decisions are supposed to be brought forward to the central Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board.
It’s the board that provides the mechanism to consider management decisions with input from everybody, including the general public.
He said it’s the board that facilitates that discussion, with all the relevant information on the table for everybody to see and weigh.
That didn’t happen, Zealand emphasized.
As far as he knows, he said, any concern over the Finlayson caribou herd has not been brought forward to the board.
It raises the question of whether the Yukon government is stepping outside the normal practice of reaching wildlife management decisions, he suggested.
While the Ross River Dena Council does not have a land claim settlement, he said, the wildlife management board is still the central body to facilitate management decisions.
Zealand said he recognizes the Environment minister has the legal authority to invoke emergency hunting closures if she feels it’s necessary.
But in the case of the Finlayson herd, there was no discussion, not even a hint a closure was being contemplated by Frost and the Ross River Dena Council, he said.
Zealand said it came out of the blue.
The herd peaked in size after the wolf-kill, and one would expect to see a natural decline in the numbers in the years afterwards due to increasing predation, he suggested.
As for the harvest pressure, Zealand said, he doesn’t know who the largest harvester is.
“I don’t know if anybody else does either,” he said.
Zealand said the Ross River situation – the insistence by the Dena Council that hunters need the First Nation’s permission and the sudden caribou closure – has snared the attention of Yukoners like he’s not seen before.
In summary, according to information provided by the Department of Environment:
• Permit draws for hunters were held in June as normal. There are 30 Finlayson caribou permits for resident hunters and nine for the two big game outfitters in the area.
• On July 3, the 30 successful resident hunters were notified with the caveat that the permits were on hold, and the permits were never issued.
• Outfitters were notified they may not receive permits next year, as per the requirement to give outfitters a year’s notice before changing their permit allocation.
• On July 31, the day before hunting season opened, resident hunters were notified that the permits for the Finlayson caribou would not be issued.
• An aerial survey in 1999 estimated the Finlayson herd at 4,130, at 3,677 in 2007 and 2,712 last year.
• The combined annual harvest by resident hunters and outfitters ranged from five to 16 caribou from 1999 to 2017.