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Fire-ravaged habitats put pressure on vulnerable wildlife populations

BY Joshua Janke Jan 10, 2024

The Cree and Innu nations came together in December to underline the fragile state of the caribou population and the impact that last summer’s wildfires will have on hunting in the region this year. As discussions continue to establish a Traditional Harvest Understanding, a joint statement underscored the need to curtail unauthorized hunting and guiding practices to allow animal habitats to recover in the coming months.

In a press release issued December 20, the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee and the Innu Nation united to denounce all unauthorized caribou hunting and guiding activities within Eeyou Istchee. The statement noted that a Traditional Understanding has yet to be reached – making it clear that hunters who are not beneficiaries of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement are not authorized to harvest caribou and must adhere to Quebec laws and regulations intended to protect the region’s fragile animal ecosystems. 

This collaboration reflects the commitment to address practices that threaten the caribou population. It also underlines the need for a united front in reaching a Traditional Harvest Understanding, so that responsible hunting and trapping traditions can continue. 

Quebec’s vulnerable caribou population is declining, a situation exacerbated by the extensive forest fires of 2023. The decline is particularly stark for the George River herd. Once thriving with over 800,000 animals in 1990, it is now reduced to just over 8,000 – a staggering 1% of its former population. This plight prompted a complete ban on hunting the George River herd in both Quebec and Labrador.

Similarly, the Leaf River herd, which exists predominantly in the Chisasibi region, has seen a significant drop in numbers since 2000. Despite stability in recent years at around 190,000, Quebec imposed a sport hunt ban on the Leaf River herd in 2018. This situation led to ongoing discussions among Cree Nations on how best to safeguard the caribou population while promoting sustainable management practices.

Additional concerns have surfaced over the ecological impacts of the wildfires that ravaged Eeyou Istchee. 

Allan Saganash, a forestry consultant for Waswanipi, expressed his worry about the impact of the fires on the forest and wildlife. “I am a Cree hunter and trapper who is connected to the forest and wildlife,” said Saganash. “I am concerned with what we have lost to these massive forest fires.”

Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh echoed this sentiment. She emphasized the uncertainty surrounding the animals’ movements and the potential impact on the Cree way of life. “We have no clue what we’re going to be left with, how long this cycle will be in terms of where the animals will flee to and when they are coming back,” said Neeposh.

Eliane Grant is a Cree biologist who worked almost five years for the community of Waswanipi. Grant highlights the ecological challenges arising from the extensive forest burn. 

“The big game are able to travel far distances, so they could move away from the fire, or come back later, or find new habitats,” she noted. “But there isn’t a lot left, so they all have to go to the same space, to smaller habitats. They’ll congregate in small areas, [which] will be more dangerous for predation and hunters.”

Grant, who is finishing her master’s degree at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, pointed to the potential pressure on caribou as wildlife shifts northward due to the burned southern part of Eeyou Istchee. She noted that this “could put more pressure on the caribou we are trying to protect.”

In the face of these challenges, the Cree of Eeyou Istchee continue their dedication to environmental stewardship and cultural preservation. The ongoing discussions, damage evaluation processes, and collaborative denouncements will help navigate the complexities of ecological restoration and sustainable resource management.

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.