BC’s First Nations lead the recovery of mountain caribou in collaboration with CMN researcher
Caribou conservation is one of Canada’s most important ecological challenges. For millennia, many Indigenous Peoples lived alongside and relied upon caribou, a species of great cultural and ecological importance. Unfortunately, caribou populations have severely declined across Canada due to habitat loss caused by human activities, such as logging, dams and roads.
The recovery of caribou populations brings together on legal, ecological and human-rights issues. Although restoration of caribou holds great promise for both reconciliation and conservation, conflicts remain between legal frameworks, economic growth and evidence-based policy. Furthermore, caribou recovery has not yet been demonstrated in any southern caribou population.
Postdoctoral Liber Ero fellow Dr. Clayton Lamb is working with Indigenous and academic partners to identify how and where to successfully restore mountain caribou to ecologically and culturally significant numbers in British Columbia’s Peace Region (“the Peace”). Healthy caribou populations are integral to healthy, whole ecosystems in the Peace, which has been home to Indigenous Peoples since time immemorable.
“The recent past has been one of major caribou declines and intense human disturbance on the landscape. We are collaboratively working to change that,” says Dr Lamb. Project partners include the Canadian Mountain Network, West Moberly First Nation, Saulteau First Nation, University of British Columbia, University of Montana, Wildlife Infometrics, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations have been leading a substantial effort to recover the Klinse-Za caribou herd in their traditional territory before the animals are gone forever. Thanks to short-term population management strategies like maternal penning and wolf control, the herd increased from 36 animals in 2013 to 85 in 2020.
In 2020, the First Nations were successful in securing a landmark Partnership Agreement to protect over 8000 square kilometres of caribou habitat. “The Partnership Agreement brings meaningful habitat protection for the central mountain caribou, especially the Klinse-Za herd,” confirms Dr Lamb. “I was very pleased to see this deal signed, and it marks an important commitment by indigenous, federal, and provincial governments to recover these caribou and their habitat.” The First Nations’ goal is to achieve a recovered caribou population large enough to satisfy their legal treaty rights for hunting.
Dr Lamb is seeking the most effective methods to restore disturbed areas in the Peace by implementing a range of management measures, integrating scientific and local stewardship methods, to recover caribou populations and restore caribou habitat. “This is a team effort to save caribou,” states Dr Lamb. “My job is to learn from the Nations, and weave Indigenous knowledge with Western science to help recover these caribou. We are trying to re-imagine the future for caribou in British Columbia.”
He will investigate whether the implementation of the Partnership Agreement allows the caribou herd to reach population sizes necessary for a meaningful harvest by First Nations. Dr. Lamb will also determine which combination of habitat protection, connectivity or management actions are needed to reach these targets. This includes habitat and population modeling to test a range of management scenarios that would lead to a successful recovery. Management scenarios include modifying the boundaries of habitat protection in the Partnership Agreement, future fire and human disturbance scenarios, enhanced protected areas and restoration, and assess the effects of maternal penning and predator control.
“We will only sustain caribou in the long term by ensuring these animals have a landscape that they can sustain themselves in.” warns Dr Lamb. “This may mean protecting habitat from disturbance where populations are currently self sustaining, or restoring disturbed habitat where populations are declining. For the declining populations, we may need to enact short-term “emergency” measures, such as predator reductions and maternal penning, to avoid losing the population while the habitat recovers.”
Results of this project will inform the First Nations on-the-ground recovery of caribou, and can be used to build future policy and conservation agreements on habitat restoration in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples. “This is a story of courage and peoples’ connection to the land,” states Lamb. “The caribou are a core piece of this landscape, both ecologically and culturally. The future should include Indigenous people and their voices in caribou management, involve more data and science-based decision making, and ultimately this future should have more caribou in it.”