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Are government controls on indigenous caribou hunting warranted?

February 28, 2018

Although governance has restricted indigenous hunting of caribou in northern Canada and Alaska, a new study finds that there is no evidence that indigenous harvesting practices have had a negative impact on caribou populations. Rather, their subsistence harvesting has had a positive association with caribou populations, and the greater problem contributing to caribou's critically low numbers appears to be the growing disturbance of their habitat by resource development. The results of this analysis suggest that the controls on indigenous caribou hunting may not be necessary and the authors highlight a "science-policy gap" currently at play in U.S. and Canadian governments. Barren-ground caribou are an important species to indigenous people in arctic/subarctic ecosystems, yet why their populations are at critically low levels has yet to be conclusively determined. Previous studies have provided evidence that fluctuating populations of this species are actually a natural occurrence. However, due to caribou populations' reduction over the last two decades as well as an increase in human disturbances, such as mining, since the 1990s, an ongoing debate ensues about human influence on the scarcity of this species. Governments have responded to declining caribou populations by curbing indigenous subsistence harvesting. Here, Brenda L. Parlee and colleagues study 13 years' worth of harvesting data in Canada's Northwest Territories and review previous literature regarding caribou abundance and human disturbances in these northern ecosystems. Their analysis found that subsistence harvesting has a positive association with caribou numbers; that is when caribou populations fell, so did subsistence harvesting, and vice versa (with increasing populations of caribou, hunting by indigenous people went up, too). The results, which suggest indigenous harvesting practices have not impacted caribou as scientists have speculated, emphasize the need to address a related "science-policy gap" in order to better sustain both caribou and indigenous people in these regions.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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