Science Matters: Indigenous people hold the key to caribou survival

When government biologists in Canada want to learn where caribou are

When government biologists in Canada want to learn where caribou are, they put radio-tracking collars on some animals and monitor their movements.

This gives them a rough idea of where herds are, and where they travel, but it doesn’t tell them much about a caribou population’s history — travel routes before their habitat was degraded or historical feeding, breeding and calving spots.

It’s a critical issue. Northern landscapes where caribou roam, feed and breed have been so badly fragmented by industrial activity — including forestry, mining, oil, gas and hydro development — and by climate change impacts and roads and seismic lines that open the areas to hunting and predators, that many herds are in danger of being wiped out.

One thing governments could do to ensure caribou survive and thrive in the face of development: Listen to the people who have shared the area with caribou for countless years.

First Nations in Northern Canada have relied on caribou for millennia, for food, clothing and more.

They’ve followed, observed and hunted the animals.

They’ve seen changes in habits and populations as their territories face increasing development pressures. They’ve handed down knowledge through generations.

The people of Doig River First Nation in B.C.’s Peace River region have watched caribou populations in their traditional territory dwindle to the point that they can no longer hunt them, which is an infringement of their treaty rights. Doig River elders talk about clearcuts that used to be hunting camps, well sites that were once calving grounds, and farms and fields where caribou could always be found in the past.

Each caribou herd has different habits and habitat needs, and all face steep declines, with some in danger of local extinction.

A new report by the First Nation, David Suzuki Foundation and the Firelight Group examines the Chinchaga boreal caribou herd, the one most familiar to Doig members.

The government’s own figures from 2012 show that industrial activity had destroyed or degraded 74 per cent of this herd’s habitat — and it’s become worse since then.

The recovery strategy for boreal caribou under Canada’s Species at Risk Act sets a target of at least 65 per cent undisturbed habitat in each herd’s range, and that only gives them a 60 per cent probability of survival.

Despite the challenges, the recovery strategy says caribou recovery is feasible.

The Doig River report uses traditional knowledge to shed light on how the declines have affected the community and what should be done to restore highly degraded habitat.

Under species at risk and wildlife legislation, federal and provincial governments have the legal and regulatory responsibility to ensure caribou herds recover such that they are sufficiently abundant to be sustainably hunted, and do not rely on interventions from humans like penning or predator control.

Without protection from further industrial activity for the habitat that remains, and restoration of degraded habitat, there’s little chance of that happening.

Without caribou recovery, the people of Doig River can’t continue or return to caribou-related traditional activities.

With their knowledge, Doig River First Nation is in an ideal position to lead and monitor restoration efforts.

Based on interviews with elders, the Doig River report makes a number of recommendations, including an immediate “rest period” with a halt to industrial development for a minimum of 10 years in at least two-thirds of the Chinchaga historical range; a ban on industrial activity in important calving habitat, especially during the critical late-winter and early-spring periods; fencing off contaminated sites; restoring abandoned well sites; imposing significant fines for oil and gas leaks and spills; a moratorium on forestry in critical areas; closing some areas to hunting; and a Doig River-led, community-based monitoring program to ensure management recommendations are followed.

Policy-makers have ignored the wealth of knowledge that indigenous peoples hold about caribou and ecosystems for too long.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Science Projects Manager Rachel Plotkin.

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