In Tsiigehtchic, a village in Canada’s Northwest Territories where two rivers meet, a group of hunters returns to their community with pieces of caribou on toboggans dragged by their snowmobiles.
Hunters travel for up to two days to intersect with the caribou’s path in the Arctic. When they come home, they prepare the meat by drying it and share it with some of the people who didn’t participate in the hunt, often the elderly, single mothers, or widows.
James Andre, a member of the Indigenous Gwich’in community, said the sharing of caribou meat is one tradition that his people have observed for generations.
The Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus), a herd that migrates through the Canadian Arctic and into Alaska annually, has served as the food source for the Gwich’in people for thousands of years. That dependance has led to a deep respect for the caribou.
When joining community hunts, where multiple Indigenous groups travel together in the fall, Andre has shown respect after killing caribou by using as many parts of the animal as he can.
That includes using the animal’s four-chambered stomach to make sacks and the hooves to make glue. He only shoots full-size males and doesn’t kill more than he can take back.
“That’s the way we were taught and we continue to teach our young people the same way,” Andre said.
Andre is one of 11 authors of a recent study published in Nature Sustainability that suggests climate change could impact caribou hunting in the Arctic. Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers teamed up to determine that snowfall deficits often force caribou closer to villages but also make travel conditions difficult for hunters.
A rare log of Indigenous knowledge
For non-Indigenous authors including Catherine Gagnon, Ph.D., collaborating on the study was an opportunity to learn about Indigenous approaches to environmental monitoring and protection. Before the study was published, Gagnon went to gatherings of Indigenous communities in the Arctic, including in Tsiigehtchic, where she spent time fishing and speaking with people about the role caribou play in their culture.
“It was enriching for me to talk to elders, just hearing from them about their profound connection to the environment,” she said. “We need to hear from Indigenous people, at this very crucial moment, to reconnect that ecological divide that we live in.”
While most caribou herds across the Arctic have declined this century, the Porcupine caribou population has grown, reaching about 218,000 in 2017. However, as the study points out, population size is far from the only factor that determines if hunters can meet their caribou needs.
Gagnon, the president of the Quebec-based environmental consulting firm Erebia, helped to create the study’s statistical model. It looked at how weather patterns, such as snowfall amounts, impact hunters’ perceptions on how available caribou appear to be and impact how close caribou were to villages.
One input for the model were interviews from hunters, collected by the Arctic Borderlands Ecological Knowledge Society, founded by government scientists and Indigenous communities to monitor the health of the Porcupine caribou.
Since 1998, experienced hunters and fishers from Indigenous communities in the Arctic have completed surveys recording their observations on the availability of caribou and other food sources. Andre, the board president of Arctic Borderlands, said the survey results have helped to guide harvests and highlight challenges.
Indigenous people survey their own community, then present their findings at annual gatherings. Gagnon has attended several of these gatherings, in Whitehorse, Inuvik, and Aklavik, where she remembers presentations on long term trends.
She said the surveys offer a rare log of Indigenous knowledge, meaning the information Indigenous people have gained from interacting with their environment for millennia.
“That was really the only time I saw Indigenous knowledge being collected every year so you can combine it with climate data and see the trend,” she said.
Using data from satellite collars on female caribou, the researchers also analyzed how close the Porcupine caribou herd was to eight indigenous villages in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, including Tsiigehtchic. They determined that, during autumns with more snow, caribou tended to be farther from the villages – 88 kilometers (about 55 miles) farther on average for every one meter of snow to be exact.
While a less snowy autumn may bring caribou closer to villages, it’s not all good news for hunters. The interviews revealed that hunters perceived caribou as “less available” when there was less snow because it was more difficult to travel on snowmobiles and spot caribou tracks.
Threat to food security and culture
Climate change is causing the Arctic to warm faster than the rest of the planet, leading to less snowfall by 2070, the central Arctic could be dominated by rain instead of snow in the autumn. That could pose a challenge to food security for Gwich’in communities like Tsiigehtchic.
Because producers have a greater difficulty delivering meat to the Arctic, prices in Tsiigehtchic are much higher than more southern Canadian provinces. The roughly 180 residents of Tsiigehtchic often must offset their food expenses through fishing and hunting. Andre said the village was built strategically on a prime fishing spot, where the Mackenzie and Red Arctic rivers converge, and near the migratory route for caribou.
“The caribou is always there for us. So that really offsets our costs of living,” he said.
With less snow, more equipment could break while traveling to hunt caribou and moose. Andre said he’s also concerned about climate change exacerbating erosion, which harms fish by sending mercury into the rivers that run through Tsiigehtchic. More intense rainfall can cause parts of mountains to wear down into sediments that enter riverways.
Gagnon said that, without listening to Indigenous voices, the study would have failed to uncover the impacts of climate change. She said collaborations like Arctic Borderlands are critical for empowering Indigenous communities to combine their traditional knowledge with scientific data.
“I think there’s going to be more people from Indigenous communities who are going to lead their own research,” she said.
Andre said he’s confident that the Gwich’in people will overcome the challenges of climate change and continue practicing their culture for thousands of years to come. Although he is retired from caribou hunting, Andre works to preserve his culture by teaching the Gwich’in language to children through books.
Andre said that the tools for hunting caribou have changed over time, now relying on snowmobiles instead of sled dogs. However, the Gwich’in people’s respect for the caribou has remained constant.
“We try to continue that because we hope that caribou will always be here for us,” he said.
This article by Evan Bourtis was first published by Mongabay.com on 31 March 2023. Lead Image: A Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus). Image by Danielle Brigida via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
What you can do
Support ‘Fighting for Wildlife’ by donating as little as $1 – It only takes a minute. Thank you.
Fighting for Wildlife supports approved wildlife conservation organizations, which spend at least 80 percent of the money they raise on actual fieldwork, rather than administration and fundraising. When making a donation you can designate for which type of initiative it should be used – wildlife, oceans, forests or climate.