The Gwich’in and the Porcupine Caribou Herd

The Gwich'in have been living in close relationship with the Porcupine Caribou Herd for thousands of years. Gwich'in communities are named for the rivers, lakes, and other aspects of the land with which they are associated. The Vuntut (lake) Gwich'in of Old Crow (population 300) in Canada's Yukon, are located in the center of the Porcupine Caribou Herd's range, providing opportunities to intercept caribou during both their autumn and spring migrations. Average harvest of caribou is as high as five animals per person per year. Sharing among households in the community and with neighboring communities is an important cultural tradition and is also believed to help ensure future hunting success.

Climate-related factors influence the health of the animals and the herd's seasonal and annual distribution and movement. Climate-related factors also affect hunters’ access to hunting grounds, for example, through changes in the timing of freeze-up and break-up of river ice and the depth of snow cover

Every spring for many generations, the Porcupine Caribou Herd has crossed the frozen Porcupine River to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In recent years, the herd has been delayed on its northern migration as deeper snows and increasing freeze-thaw cycles make their food less accessible, increase feeding and travel time, and generally reduce the health of the herd. At the same time, river ice is thawing earlier in the spring. Now when the herd reaches the river, the river is no longer frozen. Some cows have already calved on the south side and have to cross the rushing water with their newborn calves. Thousands of calves have been washed down the river and died, leaving their mothers to proceed without them to the calving grounds.

Source & © ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #4, p.72

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