First Nations Lead Successful Caribou Resuscitation Project

Despite federal and provincial recovery efforts, reindeer herds are rapidly declining across Canada. The country has lost dozens of herds over the past two decades, and many more are on the brink of extinction. But the mountain caribou Klinse-Za in British Columbia has broken off from that trend.

A recent study published in the journal environmental applications It found that the herd population has nearly tripled in less than a decade, thanks to collaborative recovery efforts led by two First Nations communities.

Members of the West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations, in partnership with non-indigenous scholars and provincial and federal governments, have succeeded in bringing the population of Klinse-Za from 38 individuals in 2013 to more than 110 today. This number continues to rise. The collaborative effort has tested several restoration strategies, combining short-term conservation actions with ongoing work on habitat restoration.

“They really threw everything they had to solve the problem,” says Melanie Dickey, a caribou biologist at the University of Alberta, who was not part of the project. “They knew what could help in the short term, but they didn’t forget what was needed in the long term to prepare the caribou for success. This is where this project differs from the others.”

[Related: Many Indigenous languages lack a word for ‘conservation.’ Here’s why.]

Located in central British Columbia, the Klinse-Za herd region once supported an abundance of southern mountain caribou, an ecotype that ranges from central British Columbia to northern Idaho and Washington states in the United States.

The Western Moberly and Saulteau First Nations used to depend on these mammals for sustenance. But since the 1970s, caribou numbers have been too low for indigenous people to harvest them, says Carmen Richer, a study co-author and member of the Saulteau First Nations who helped lead recovery efforts. In 1995, the number of the Klinse-Za herd was hovering near 200. By 2013, it was down to just 38.

Richer says it was the elderly in her community who made the initial push to work on caribou conservation. They reminded her of the critical role the species played in helping her community survive through the winters.

“It’s time to step it up and do something for them, because they were there for us,” Richer says. “Those are our caribou protection values.”

Drastic declines in caribou numbers are common across southern Canada, an area that has lost dozens of its 40 or so herds over the past two decades, says Clayton Lamb, co-author of the study and a wildlife scientist at the University of British Columbia. Most of the remaining population is also in decline, some declining at rates of up to 20 percent annually. In the neighboring United States, the caribou is close to extinction.

The root cause of the downturns was habitat loss due to human activity. Richer says 65 percent of the land in Clíci za Caribou’s original home is fragmented due to industrial development, including oil and gas extraction, hydroelectric dams, and urbanization. The combined effects of industrial development and climate change have altered the local reindeer habitat in ways that attract primary prey species such as moose and deer, which in turn bring more wolves to the area. This has resulted in unsustainable predation rates for the Caribbean, causing their numbers to decline further.

“That’s the biggest challenge right now,” Richer says. “Landscapes must heal so the ibex is to be self-sufficient.”

Biologists tag and collect data on an adult male southern mountain caribou before returning it to the British Columbia prairie. Giguere, Wildlife Information Scale

Dickey, who studies how human land use and climate change affect caribou populations, says habitat restoration efforts cost about C$12,000 per kilometer (about $15,400 per mile) of road or seismic line. These narrow passages used by the oil and gas industry cross natural environments and make it easier for wolves to hunt and reach prey. Only in the Alberta Caribou Range, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of seismic lines must be restored.

“We’re talking about billions of dollars of effort and decades of work to get it done,” Dickey says. “We need it to conserve the caribou while this habitat recovers.”

The collaborative effort harnessed short-term conservation strategies, such as maternity pens and predator reduction, as a way to buy time as different teams worked with governments to address the habitat component. The Mothers Penning Initiative, led by First Nations and biologists from the wildlife research group Wildlife Infometrics, has set up enclosures in the Caribou habitat to protect mothers and their calves from predators until the calves are two months old. In terms of reducing predators, indigenous hunters worked with the British Columbia government to reduce wolf populations to more sustainable levels for caribou.

These short-term recovery measures have allowed the residents of Klinse-Za caribou to not only stay afloat, but triple in less than a decade. Meanwhile, conservationists have also been negotiating long-term solutions for habitat. In February 2020, they reached an agreement with British Columbia and Canada to protect about 3,000 contiguous square miles of caribou habitat, roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park.

[Related: Indigenous farmers are ‘rematriating’ centuries-old seeds to plant a movement]

Lamb asserts that the collaborative component of recovery efforts was a big reason for their success. Support and funding from the government was critical, and the knowledge of First Nations members, university scholars, and independent researchers helped shape a successful mix of solutions.

“When people with diverse viewpoints come together, we can benefit from this diversity of experiences and expertise,” he says. “That shines in this unprecedented increase in caribou.”

But above all, the first two nations provided the passion and drive to complete this effort. For the Ritcher, the Elders, and the rest of the indigenous community, the Klinse-Za caribou is not just an endangered population – it’s part of their tribal identities and their relationship to the land on which they live.

“You need to nurture people’s passion that this problem affects appropriate outcomes,” Dickey says. “A lot of times, species recovery isn’t about science anymore — it’s about business. You need people who care.”

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