Caribou as Forest Protectors

Indigenous conservation values are bringing hope (and results) for the survival of this severely threatened species

Odette Auger

small group of caribou in the snow

Photo by Peuple Loup

Caribou — whether that brings to mind fairy tales, legends, or a freezer of winter food, the majestic family Rangifer tarandus are also forest protectors. Conservation scientists refer to them as an “umbrella species,” meaning protecting the large intact forests they depend on simultaneously protects other species.

Their habitat overlays some of the most significant carbon stores of the boreal forest. Conservation of these ecosystems helps to mitigate climate change by protecting large carbon stores. “The boreal biome is the world’s largest and most important forest carbon storehouse,” reads a report by the Canadian Boreal Initiative – holding almost twice as much carbon per unit area as tropical forests (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, 2000). Only 15 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds are self-sustaining, as ongoing industrial activities are putting them on track to extinction. Canada listed the boreal caribou as threatened in 2003 – and since then has continued to greenlight the destruction of their habitat for profit.

Different pressures on distinct caribou ecotypes have led scientists to warn that caribou in Canada are at risk of disappearing forever. The good news is that Indigenizing conservation approaches is unifying, powerful – and it’s working.

Woodland Caribou

Logging of older boreal trees reduces lichens, a major food source for boreal caribou. Yet, Canada has been clearcutting more than 1.3 million acres of the boreal forest each year. Industrial logging is one of our biggest climate liabilities, replacing areas of high-carbon primary forest with stumps, saplings, and logging roads. The boreal forest is essential in the fight against climate change, holding more than 300 billion tons of carbon – twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves – in its soils, plants, and wetlands, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). A new NRDC report shows logging emissions are equivalent to those from oil sands operations. Data shows net logging emissions were higher than oil sands emissions during 2005–18, and according to research by Matthew Bramley and Graham Saul that’s an underestimate.

Nîkanêse Wah tzee Stewardship Society (NWSS) and partners have successfully tripled the abundance of an endangered subspecies, the Klinse-Za subpopulation. Nîkanêse is “future” in Cree and Wah tzee is “caribou” in Dunne-Za, centring the cultural significance and necessity of caribou. West Moberly and Salteau First Nations Elders remember that these caribou were once so plentiful, they were “like bugs on the landscape.” The decline began with the W.A.C. Bennett Dam severing migration paths in the 1960s, and industrial activities continued the devastation – reducing the remaining caribou from around 250 in the 1990s to only 38 in 2013.

In 2014, West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations came together to create a bright hope for recovering the caribou they have long stewarded. This Indigenous-led conservation initiative combines their successful maternal penning project with long-term habitat protection. A promising update in 2020 showed rapid population growth – the herd has tripled in the project’s nine years, to 101 by 2021.

“With climate change, we realize that the migration routes are changing every year. However, the instinct to migrate will always be. Now because of the weather patterns changing, it’s really confused the caribou.”

—Joseph Tetlichi, chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board

Maternal penning involves the capture and transportation of pregnant caribou cows every March to a 15-hectare pen on a mountaintop in the Misinchinka Ranges. The mothers-to-be are tagged, protected, and fed hand-picked lichen until the calves are old enough to survive in the wild.

To create a self-sustaining caribou population, the Nations secured an agreement in 2020 that protects caribou habitat over a 7986 km2 area. Now, over 85% of the Klinse-Za caribou habitat is protected, up from only 1.8% protected pre-conservation agreement. This area also offers some protection for neighbouring caribou subpopulations.

The significance of this project is in “highlighting how Indigenous governance and leadership can be the catalyst needed to establish meaningful conservation actions, enhance endangered species recovery, and honor cultural connections to now imperilled wildlife,” according to a report for Ecological Applications.

Barren Ground Caribou

While boreal caribou face the loss of their forest habitat, migratory caribou also face human-driven pressures including logging, mining, and oil and gas development.

Barren-ground caribou are a migratory caribou, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd is the healthiest remaining herd. Their range covers over 250,000 square kilometres of northern tundra between Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. In Canada, two major national parks (Ivvavik and Vuntut) and other conservation areas have been established to protect key habitats. In Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been an important conservation area to protect the calving grounds of the herd.

The Gwich’in people have depended on the caribou since the beginning of time, a relationship rooted in respect. The last Porcupine Caribou herd population estimate was 218,000 in 2017. Monitoring work since that time indicates the size is likely stable or has even increased further.

Joseph Tetlichi (Gwich’in) is the chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board. His lifelong work is rooted in an early experience he shared with his family. He was 14 years old, and in residential school, and had a two-week break from school. The family went with a dog sled to go out on the land for two weeks – which turned into two years of moving with the caribou. “That’s where I really developed that passion, for making sure that the caribou are always there.”

As an adult, he lived out on the land for 20 years. When he made the decision to live in community, he found his passion in caribou conservation. He’s been renominated to serve as chair, now in this role for 27 years.

Climate change has made a profound mark already in these lands. A cotton grass colony, with its tufts of pristine white blowing in the wind, is an icon of the North – but in Old Crow flats, it’s a sign of catastrophic climate change. A vast patch of cotton grass stretches out where there was once a large lake, now drained completely dry.

Caribou mother and calf

Photo by Peuple Loup

“With climate change, we realize that the migration routes are changing every year. However, the instinct to migrate will always be. Now because of the weather patterns changing, it’s really confused the caribou.” Tetlichi gives a strong example from this December. “The warmest weather on record one day, single digit temperatures here in Whitehorse, [changed] to the coldest weather, –37 degrees, within 24 hours.”

While the Porcupine Caribou Management Board can’t control climate change, Tetlichi says, “What we do have control over is harvesting. So we started working with the communities, getting a harvest management plan in place. And I think that’s the first ever plan in regards to harvest, across Canada.”

Tetlichi explains the importance of traditional knowledge as something matter of fact, and points to the Traditional Knowledge Mobilization project as a hope. Gathering knowledge keepers together with next generations is key, he says. This project umbrellas a range of skill-sharing activities, such as traditional hunting protocols and harvesting skills.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. However, a critical decision was deferred in Section 1002 of the Act. It was a decision on whether to allow oil and gas exploration and development on 1.5 million acres in the coastal plain. Now called the “1002 lands,” it remains a contested area between those who would destroy it through development, and those who would protect it. In August 2020, Donald Trump signed off on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – including the 1002 lands – to oil and gas drilling.

More than a century of industrial logging, dams, mining, and related road building have meant habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation.

The 1002 lands are of utmost significance to the caribou as their calving grounds for millennia. While other caribou herds can vary their calving grounds, the Porcupine caribou cannot. Their calving grounds are fixed, and it’s a vast, predator-free range for this critical time for mothers and calves. “It’s so important,” says Tetlichi, “when spring comes, that there’s good vegetation for the cows to nurse their young, to give them that rich forage, so they can develop and produce good milk for their calves.”

Every year the herd migrates to and from these calving grounds across a vast area that includes lands within both the United States and Canada. The caribou don’t recognize colonial borders, and so the 1002 lands will always be critical calving habitat.

“There’s certain areas in Canada that need to be protected,” emphasizes Tetlichi, “All Canadians own a small piece of these wonderful protected areas, and we have a choice to either protect it or to give it away to the oil and gas people, or mining companies.”

“We have a choice to protect, and we would be protecting it for our next generations.”

Mountain-Ranging Caribou

All caribou in BC belong to the woodland caribou, but there are three distinct ecotypes. Mountain-ranging are also lichen-eating woodland caribou, but they are a distinct subtype that has developed specifically for their territory’s deep snow packs.

The biggest threat to the mountain-ranging caribou is logging – in the past 10 years logging has moved into forest types that were previously avoided, particularly high-elevation subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, certain cedar (Thuja plicata), and hemlock. Stevenson et al. (1994:1) explains: “The habitat requirements of mountain caribou, as they are understood today, are incompatible with traditional forest management practices at the stand and landscape levels. Caribou are adapted to use large areas of suitable habitat. Suitable winter habitat for mountain caribou has attributes characteristic of old forests (at least 150 years), including abundant arboreal lichens. ‘Managing’ this forest through a cycle of clearcutting and treeplanting removes winter habitat for these caribou.”

A recent project brought Splatsin Elders to inform scientists monitoring the Revelstoke area caribou. The Columbia North caribou herd found in the Upper Columbia region near Revelstoke shows some potential for recovery, with close to 200 animals and a small increasing population trend. Human industrial activity has brought about enormous changes in the Revelstoke area. More than a century of industrial logging, dams, mining, and related road building have meant habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation.

One of the areas conservation scientist Mateen Hessami is exploring is the effects of cutblock logging on moose populations. Mass flora change brings mass fauna change, and an increase in plants moose eat increases the numbers of moose, which translates to an increase in wolf predation. When wolves are drawn to the area’s moose, they also prey on caribou – while caribou food and habitat decline. The collaboration of Indigenous ecological knowledge with western science suggested applying for an increase to the local moose hunt, seeking balance in these populations thrown out of balance. The Splatsin band are now regional leaders in caribou recovery, partnering with Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute’s Caribou Monitoring Unit.

Moving forward, together

There are many critiques of wildlife conservation, including the problem of shifting baselines, yet few have examined the core conservation values that the current conservation model and Indigenous-led conservation share.

Researchers such as Mateen Hassami are beginning to refine that focus and find a way forward. In August 2021 Hessami and a  team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists published a comprehensive report outlining a justification and pathway for Indigenizing the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation” (NAM) – the go-to framework for how wildlife are managed. Through identifying the common ground and gaps that exist between the NAM and many Indigenous worldviews and conservation approaches, they created a new model – Indigenizing the NAM (I-NAM) which “centres active listening and learning from Indigenous Peoples and emphasizes coexistence, co-management, and shared governance for how the land and wildlife are managed.”

Faced with biodiversity loss on a mass extinction scale, Indigenous-led conservation projects are strong reminders of how we used to – and still could – live in balance.

Odette is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother. As a freelance journalist, Odette’s bylines include Watershed Sentinel, The Resolve, La Converse, The Tyee, Asparagus Magazine, and APTN National News. Odette lives on Klahoose, Homalco, and Tla’amin territories (Cortes Island). You can follow all her stories in one place here.

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