It sounds like snoring: air sucking in and out of a ragged slash in the caribou’s throat. The animal struggles to stand, then falls back onto the snow, legs still running, like a dreaming dog.
There’s a pop. Another caribou leaps, twirls, and then stumbles, a bullet wedged somewhere in its back end. It gets up, wobbles, drops. Pulls itself up. Another pop. Another silent dance. Pop. Another.
In less than an hour, James Firth has dropped six Porcupine caribou. It’s a small take. There were years when the Tetlit Gwich’in hunter, from Fort McPherson, NWT, saw hundreds of the animals, stacked like cordwood on the side of the highway.
“We just take what we need,” says Firth, placing his rubber boot on the antler of a thrashing caribou, running his buck knife through its throat. The animal struggles to stand as Firth moves to the next. “Bullets are expensive,” he says, plunging the knife.
Firth’s ancestors have been harvesting caribou in this vast landscape for centuries, long before bullets, buck knives, snowmobiles and freezers. New technology means more meat, faster. But better science has also made Firth realize his free meat supply is no longer a given.
In spring, Firth’s hometown smells like death. Frozen caribou heads—tossed on roofs to foil dogs—begin to rot. Piles of legs, with fur still attached, thaw, while hides turn soft and stinky. “We used to use all parts of the caribou,” says Gwich’in community elder Mary Snowshoe. “We never wasted meat, not even the guts—those fed our dogs.” Snowshoe, her grey hair swept back under a colourful flowered kerchief, points to beaded mukluks on her feet. “The caribou legs, we used the skin to make mukluks,” she says. “Even the caribou hair, we used to burn it to make fire.”
Snowshoe didn’t go to school. She learned from days spent hiking in the mountains, hunting caribou with her parents, cold winter nights running a dog team on the trapline, and from sitting with village elders as a girl, learning to scrape fat from caribou hide.
There are still caribou fences up here, scattered like bleached bones across high alpine plateaus, marking long-ago hunts when hundreds of caribou were funnelled by Snowshoe’s ancestors into makeshift corrals and killed with arrows and spears. Hides became clothes and sleds, bones turned into tools, and meat dried for winter. “In the past, the elders made us use everything,” she says. “We never took more than we needed. Now you see meat misused.”
“My parents shared this knowledge. But nowadays nobody is teaching the young people, and they just shoot whatever they see.”
Snowshoe has witnessed freezers full of caribou meat left to rot, piles of viscera attracting flies and grizzlies by the highway, heads and legs tossed in the local dump. “We used to make a delicious soup from the brains,” she says.
Snowshoe still gets plenty of caribou. The young guys always shoot extra, for elders, single mothers, community members stuck working desk jobs. Too much, according to Snowshoe. Especially when trucks haul into town loaded full of females. “We never killed the cows,” she says. The more females in a herd, the more calves, ensuring an endless supply of meat. “My parents shared this knowledge,” she says. “But nowadays nobody is teaching the young people, and they just shoot whatever they see.”
Everyone’s heard gory stories of the slaughter, relayed by hunters, highway crew, conservation officers, even long-haul truckers passing through when the caribou crossed the highway. For the unaware driver, coming across the Dempster Highway caribou harvest can be a blood-soaked, disturbing experience.
Mike Suitor doesn’t want to talk about this. Instead, the regional Yukon government biologist stresses the importance of a well-sighted gun, of taking animals from the herd only when there’s a clear shot, not harvesting bulls in rut, and not wasting meat. “Harvest is not just shooting: it’s the whole process, ensuring meat is put away and used properly,” he says.
Suitor, who works in jeans and button-downs more often than suits, spends a lot of time watching caribou. Like any good scientist, he’s immersed in population models, calving studies, body conditioning research. But he’s also a bit of a caribou cowboy. He knows what it looks like when you crest a hill in a helicopter and see 60,000 caribou running across the tundra like waves in an ocean. He knows how to tell a fat female from a pregnant cow, what it means when the peach fuzz starts dripping off antlers in the fall.
The Porcupine herd is, arguably, the most studied herd in North America, and Suitor spends a lot of time running the data through computer models, but he also spends days on the land with hunters, checking fat ratios, stomach contents, even radiation levels in the meat. In the evening, he sits around campfires talking with First Nations families who have been living on caribou for generations.
People aren’t necessarily killing more caribou now, he says. A couple centuries ago they also killed hundreds of caribou at a time, in caribou fences, or while the herd swam rivers. “They’re still doing it,” he says. “Not much has changed.” Except technology.
Suitor appreciates traditional knowledge shared around campfires, but for him, real science means hanging out of helicopters with high-tech net guns, tangling up unsuspecting ungulates in order to collar them for future studies. “Sometimes they die of heart attacks,” he says. “Or sometimes they break a leg or a neck when they go down. But that is the exception.” It’s easier to tranquilize caribou than net them, but then the drugs would contaminate the meat.
Firth is on his hands and knees sniffing yellow snow. A big bull just urinated here. If he’s in rut, his pee will stink. The meat’s contaminated during rut, he says. No one eats it.
Firth is in jeans, rubbers, a hoodie and a ball cap. It’s not what he normally wears hunting, but then this wasn’t supposed to be a hunting trip. Firth, his son and a buddy were making a quick run to Whitehorse, Yukon and back—14 hours each way—to get a new snow machine. They were about six hours from home, the new sled loaded in the back of one of the trucks, when Firth spotted the caribou.
There were just a couple beside the highway. Firth glanced up into the trees. At first all he saw was sparse black spruce and snow. Then, suddenly, the hillside was moving—a steady stream of caribou several thousand strong sweeping through the trees.
The snow didn’t stink. Firth pulled out his gun and fired a single shot from the highway. The bull danced, stumbled, twirled and fell. He saw another bull, a little smaller. Firth took aim. Pop. The little bull stumbled.
He was planning to stop at two. He gutted them, sawed off the heads. Then his son cut them in half, just below gaping ruby ribs, and muscled them into the truck. At this rate, they might still make it home in time for dinner.
A few kilometres up the road, they spotted hundreds more caribou trickling through the trees. Firth slowed. Sped up, then slowed again. It was impossible to keep driving with all that meat in his sights.
There wasn’t always a highway here. Until the late 1950s, there was only a dogsled trail cutting across the tundra and brush between Dawson City, Yukon, and Fort McPherson. The RCMP travelled this route, alongside trappers, First Nations hunters and the odd prospector. A bunch of oil and gas exploration crews made their way up the trail too, and struck black gold in 1959. Highway construction crews were not far behind.
Today, oil tankers make the run south, while gas and grocery trucks lumber North to fuel tiny towns like Fort McPherson and Inuvik, NWT. Tourists sometimes drive into the Tombstone Mountains to camp or hike, and outfitters ferry clients to outlying camps and airstrips, but the Dempster Highway still only sees an average of 50 vehicles a day—until the caribou cross.
It used to be predictable. The caribou came every fall, like clockwork. Then, about 20 years ago, something changed. “It’s a mystery why the caribou are not going to their traditional winter range anymore,” says Joe Tetlichi. “It’s a mystery for the elders.”
Tetlichi is James Firth’s uncle, and like him, grew up on the land. “In 1970, 47 dog teams went out to hunt from Fort McPherson,” he says. “It took one week. Now, you jump in a truck and it takes 1.5 hours.”
Tetlichi has been chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board for close to 20 years, a position he’s learned requires an appreciation for both scientific data and traditional First Nations teachings.
When he started, back when caribou science was still finding its feet, Porcupine numbers were shaky. Elders assured Tetlichi the herd was strong. “But we looked at other herds across Canada and they were all in dramatic decline,” he says.
Travelling much the same tundra as the Porcupine, the 40-Mile caribou herd once numbered more than 240,000. In the 1930s, its numbers began to drop. But people kept hunting. Back then, caribou biologists thought a little differently than guys like Suitor do today. They figured if the herd was already in decline, hunting restrictions wouldn’t make much difference. By the 1970s, the herd was down to 6,500 animals. Conservation efforts finally kicked in, though there were concerns it was too late.
The NWT’s Bluenose herd is a more recent casualty. After its numbers dropped drastically from more than 110,000 animals in the early ’90s to less than 18,000 in 2009, hunters turned their attention toward the Porcupine.
“We thought, what happens if the Porkies start declining dramatically?” says Tetlichi.
The herd was estimated to be at around 123,000 animals in 2001, but nothing was certain. Between 2001 and 2010, bad weather, paired with unusual migration patterns, foiled aerial counts of the herd, raising fears it could have dropped as low as 30,000 animals.
Elders argued that the herd was healthy, but biologists weren’t so sure. Just in case, Tetlichi’s management board created a Harvest Management Plan—the first of its kind in North America—and some First Nations started taking precautions, urging members not to overhunt the herd. In an attempt to make it harder to hunt from the road, the Yukon government created a no-hunting corridor, extending 500 metres on either side of the Dempster. But it was short-lived. Land-claim rights trump territorial hunting regulations. So First Nations kept shooting from the highway, their bullets whizzing over the heads of the non-native hunters, perilously hunkered down 500 metres in. The regs were quickly scrapped.
A few years later, in 2009, the government tried again, placing hunting restrictions on the herd—bulls only, with some regions off limits completely. Non-native hunters, allowed one or two caribou a year, were forced to abide by the ban. But First Nations, facing no limits on the number of caribou they can kill, continued hunting—a right enshrined in those land claim agreements.
Firth is nursing a rum and Coke in the Eagle Plains lounge, the only hotel on this 590-kilometre stretch of highway. Butchering took longer than expected. The aging grandpa had to slice through thick fur, dropping steaming stomachs onto the snow. Despite a recent kidney operation he downplays, Firth worked fast. But took time to gently coax lacy webs of fat from the squiggly slime of guts. “The elders love this part,” he says. “We bring it back for them.”
In his 60s, Firth is an elder himself, and well aware of his responsibilities. “One of my little grandsons really wants to come caribou hunting,” he says, tipping back in his chair and looking around a lounge full of dusty taxidermy: a fox, a lynx, a sheep.
His grandson is nine and shot his first caribou this year. Firth wants to teach him how to sight a gun, how to choose the best animals; the stink of pee when a bull is in rut. “Six caribou is more than enough,” he says. “We’ll give some to the elders.”
But he’s still thinking of going out again. Taking the little boy.
Firth’s son Brad didn’t spend much time in the bush. “One generation was missed,” Brad says. He’s not going to make the same mistake with his son: “He’s six and I’m bringing him in the bush with me this winter,” he says.
Brad is uploading a picture of the day’s take on Facebook from the lounge. “It’ll be all over town by tonight,” he says, grinning. That means more trucks pouring down the highway in the morning. “There will be lots of guys coming out,” he says. When it was only dog teams, things were different. “There used to be caribou everywhere when I was a kid,” he says. “They were just behind town. Every week we had fresh meat.” Now, he says, with better guns, ATVs, snow machines, GPS, two-way radios, the highway, and ever-expanding oil and gas development, the caribou don’t stand much of a chance. “They’re all disappearing.”
These days, the Porcupine herd has a hard time disappearing. Little red dots on the map mark the collared caribou. Location, direction, a rough estimate of the number of animals on the move—no need to hike into the mountains looking for the herd; just wait for those little red dots on the computer screen to move close to the highway. But a few years back, the live satellite feed on the Porcupine Caribou Management Board website went dark. Now, the board delays migration movements by weeks, sometimes months, to keep hunters guessing. “It quickly became apparent a live feed of the Porcupine’s migration wasn’t the best idea,” says Suitor, with a chuckle.
“The Yukon government is so pro-development, how do we know they’re not going to say the herd is doing well, so they can start drilling for more oil and gas in caribou habitat?”
It’s the management board’s annual harvest meeting in Dawson City, and Suitor is giving a brief rundown of the last caribou count. It’s good news. The Porcupine are in the green zone, he says. That means no restrictions on killing cows, no hunting bans, no nothing.
“The Yukon government is so pro-development, how do we know they’re not going to say the herd is doing well, so they can start drilling for more oil and gas in caribou habitat?” interrupts Gwich’in hunter Norman Snowshoe, one of the more than 20 management board members represented at the meeting.
There are four First Nations, two territorial governments and the feds, all sitting around a big U-shaped formation of collapsible tables at the local community hall, talking caribou. There’s a screen at the front for PowerPoints, coffee and homemade muffins in the corner, and a bunch of chairs at the back filled with elders and community members.
Suitor is talking numbers. The government finally managed to tally the herd in 2010. It wasn’t in decline. The Porcupine numbered close to 170,000. For the next three years, the herd steered clear of the highway. Now, their numbers have jumped to 197,000.
“But we’re not going to go out and kill 40 caribou at a time just because we can,” says Tetlichi. “We have a responsibility to make sure there are caribou for future generations.”
Tetlichi’s heard stories of the slaughter. “There are always a few bad apples in the basket,” he says. He thinks it’s overblown, sensationalized by tourists who stumble upon a highway hunt, and by photos in the local papers—trucks full of carcasses, piles of animals beside the highway.
“We shouldn’t be hunting in July and August when the caribou are eating. We have to give the caribou a chance to cross the highway.”
When the Porcupine herd crosses the Dempster, 5,000 to 6,000 animals are usually harvested. That’s roughly three percent of the herd, within the parameters of what biologists, including Suitor, consider a sustainable harvest. It may seem like a slaughter, says Tetlichi. “But we have a tradition of sharing. Those hunters who take 10 or so animals will be distributing them to more people in the community, single parents, kids, elders.”
Tetlichi is leaning back in his seat, relaxed, more like he’s at a dinner party with friends than chairing a harvest meeting. But then, the whole meeting feels like one big family reunion. There’s laughter, soup, cake, cold hard scientific data, and elders sharing stories.
Mary Snowshoe is sitting at the back of the room in a lacy, flowered parka, her face framed by wolverine fur, listening. “We shouldn’t be hunting in July and August when the caribou are eating,” she tells Tetlichi during a break. “We have to give the caribou a chance to cross the highway.”
If bullets start flying before the leaders cross, they might turn the whole herd around, making it harder to get meat. “That’s what happened last year,” she says. “They turned around. Then everybody had no meat.”
Whether to ban hunting until after the leaders cross the highway, whether to nix restrictions on snowmobiles and ATVs, how to police the waste and gut piles left behind— it’s all on the table, along with a bunch of technical scientific stuff. There are PowerPoint slides of mathematical models used to analyze herd size, harvest data, calf survival graphs, body conditions charts. There’s talk of “input data” and “outputs,” and the need for “specific values for variables.”
The elders exchange sidelong glances and grin. The smell of caribou urine in snow, the number of bot flies buried in the hide, the feel of the fur, these are the “specific variables” that they understand.
“It’s important to use traditional knowledge alongside scientific knowledge,” says Tetlichi. “You can have a meeting in a Whitehorse board room about how to manage the caribou, but it’s the locals and elders who have their eyes and ears on the land.”
“The Fort McPherson guys do more of a community hunt, sending one or two hunters to harvest 150 caribou. That can be shocking for people who come along and see 80 animals being butchered in the ditch.”
There’s a shiny new pickup idling on the side of the highway, just down from where Firth dropped six caribou the day before. A guy in hunting fatigues and a ball cap is sitting watching the caribou, which are still streaming through the trees. Beside him are two little boys, also in ball caps. The man is a member of Dawson City’s Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, but doesn’t want to give his name. There’s too much controversy surrounding the caribou, he says, mentioning the slaughter, people shooting into the herd, truckloads of wasted meat.
“We need to educate the youth,” he says, nodding toward the boys. “Never shoot the leaders,” he tells them, as they watch the caribou. “A big part of it is patience. Don’t just shoot the first thing you see.”
A white pickup pulls up, green and brown stripes down the side, a Yukon Environment logo on the door. Kirby Meister greets the trio in the truck. They’re all from Dawson City and know each other. The Yukon conservation officer is expecting it to get busy in the next couple days, as word gets out the caribou are crossing the highway. He’s expecting more hunters from Dawson and a handful from Fort McPherson. “The two communities have really different ways of hunting,” he says.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in hunt individually, and bring their children out in the fall for a First Hunt program, passing on elders’ teachings—everything from fire making and survival skills to learning how to spot the leaders and let them pass.
“The Fort McPherson guys do more of a community hunt, sending one or two hunters to harvest 150 caribou,” says Meister. “That can be shocking for people who come along and see 80 animals being butchered in the ditch.”
Kirby can charge guys for wasting meat, monitor non-native hunters to ensure they don’t exceed quotas, and crack down on common offences like loaded firearms in vehicles. But he has no jurisdiction over the number of animals harvested by First Nations. They can hunt anywhere on their traditional territory, he says. “So if the 40-Mile herd starts mixing with the Porcupine, we might have problems.”
After being harvested close to extinction, the 40-Mile caribou steered clear of the Dempster. But this year, for the first time in 50 years, they’re back. “It’s something, as a biologist, you might only dream of,” says Suitor. Thanks to a joint conservation initiative with First Nations, which saw virtually no hunting of the herd, the 40-Mile is up to 55,000 animals. Suitor was up in a chopper this fall and saw tens of thousands of them pouring through a nearby valley. “It was very dramatic,” he says. “Now we have to make sure they’re not harvested like the Porcupine, especially with them so close together.”
Suitor and Meister both say it’s Porcupine caribou spilling through the spruce beside the highway. That’s what Firth and his son think too. But the guy in the truck with the boys isn’t so sure. He just passed a big group of 40-mile caribou on the other side of the river, less than 50 kilometres away.
“We’re not hunting them,” he says. But if the herd crosses the river, and starts mingling with the Porcupine, no one will be able to tell them apart.
“The 40-Mile herd’s getting bigger,” says the Tr’ondëk hunter, dropping his truck into drive. “And if they end up on this side, across the river, there will likely be another slaughter.”
His taillights disappear up the highway, heading north toward Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson. He’s not planning on shooting any caribou today. But he’s heading further up the highway anyway, to give the boys some perspective. They see more caribou on the drive. They watch a couple of big bulls. Stop to sniff some yellow snow. They spot pregnant cows. They see young caribou growing into their horns. And they notice six faded patches of tomato-soup red in the snow.