For thousands of years, caribou have roamed the mountain regions of what we now know as Canada. One migration spanned from the Rocky Mountains, extending northward to the Yukon, and traversing southward into Southern Alberta. However, colonial practices disrupted their age-old migration patterns. The Klinse-Za is just one herd of these mountain caribou, and their population has been declining for years. In the 1990s, their numbers stood at approximately 250 individuals. However, the situation worsened, and by 2013, their population had dwindled to a mere 38 individuals.
This drastic decline does not only affect the environment but also the local Indigenous population and their Treaty rights. Treaty 8 guarantees the right to harvest caribou, but at these low numbers, the local Nations cannot hunt without further endangering the population. Even knowing these facts, no population recovery was attempted by the federal or provincial governments. This lack of action influenced the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations to lead their own caribou recovery efforts. Between 2013 and 2021, this Indigenous-led conservation effort increased the population of the Klinse-Za caribou from 38 to a total of 101 individuals.
Photo by Clayton Lamb
This episode of the Canadian Mountain Podcast focuses on the Indigenous-led conservation of the Klinse-Za caribou. We feature two guests, who share a profound dedication to the growth and revitalization of the Klinse-Za caribou herd. The first guest is Roland Wilson, Chief of the West Moberly First Nations, a Dunne-za-Cree community located in northeastern British Columbia (BC). They are located on the west end of Moberly Lake and have occupied these lands for at least 13,000 years.
Our second guest is Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist with Biodiversity Pathways and the University of BC. He works on wildlife-related science across western North America, as well as on caribou recovery with Chief Wilson and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.
In this episode, they discuss their research and the actions they have taken and continue to take to recover the population of the Klinse-Za caribou.
The Klinse-Za caribou herd
The Klinse-Za caribou are a sub-herd of a larger herd that once migrated back and forth across the Peace River. For millennia, smaller local resident herds were replenished by this larger herd of migratory caribou that spanned vast areas of Canada. However, a landscape-altering damming project in British Columbia in the 1960s inflicted severe disruption upon the herd's established migration patterns. The subsequent onslaught of industrial development further exacerbated this fragmentation, leading to the splintering of the once cohesive population into progressively smaller factions. Tragically, a once-thriving caribou community, numbering in the thousands, was reduced to a mere remnant of 19 individuals.
Our understanding of the Klinse-Za caribou is primarily reliant on the invaluable knowledge passed down by the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations. The historical record of these caribou as documented by Western scientific methods, however, has a relatively recent origin, beginning in the 1990s. By that time, the population had already dwindled to around 190 individuals, reflecting a prolonged decline that had been underway for a significant period.
Photo by Clayton Lamb
Caribou were once a vital food, tools and medicines source for many First Nations for thousands of years, and every part of the caribou was used, from the hide to the bones to the antlers. The Treaty between the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations and the federal government explicitly recognizes their inherent right to hunt caribou as an integral aspect of their traditional way of life. However, the severe and persistent decline in caribou populations has rendered this vital aspect of their cultural heritage inaccessible for many decades, resulting in a direct infringement upon their treaty rights.
The decline of caribou populations has led both First Nations and non-Indigenous hunters to increasingly depend on alternative species such as moose, deer, and elk, placing additional pressure on these animal populations. The absence of caribou recovery efforts has had a ripple effect, negatively impacting the overall ecological balance and well-being of other species in the region.
In the face of the government's lack of action and infringement of their Treaty obligations, the First Nations have taken matters into their own hands. Recognizing the urgency of caribou recovery, they have proactively initiated independent fundraising initiatives to implement dedicated recovery measures.
The Klinse-Za Caribou Restoration Project
The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations identified predation as a significant limiting factor faced by the caribou in a highly fragmented landscape with dwindling population numbers. They observed that vulnerable caribou calves were falling prey to wolves, further jeopardizing the survival of the species. In light of this pressing concern, their overarching objective became to enhance the reproductive success of adult female caribou and increase the chances of calf survival.
They implemented two emergency-level actions In 2013, they took proactive measures to reduce predator density to a level that would be more compatible with the survival of caribou. Furthermore, in 2014, they initiated a maternal penning program, a collaborative effort led by the First Nations with support from scientists. This program specifically focused on enhancing the survival rates of female caribou and their vulnerable calves.
Dedicated First Nations guardians undertook the crucial task of monitoring and supervising the caribou within the pen around the clock, residing alongside them, providing food, and ensuring their overall well-being. The enclosure, spanning 30 acres and encircled by electric fencing, allowed the caribou to forage naturally while also providing some supplementary feeding when necessary. The guardians diligently maintained the enclosure, inspected for predator tracks, and monitored surveillance cameras to ensure the safety and welfare of the caribou population.
Photo by Clayton Lamb
The results of their efforts have been promising, with the maternal penning program yielding notable improvements in calf survival rates. Studies have shown that the penning intervention has led to a two-to-threefold increase in the survival of calves, underscoring the effectiveness of these measures in safeguarding the future of the caribou population.
The Western scientists support this initiative by collecting data, placing radio collars on the animals, enabling enhanced monitoring and studying of the recovery efforts. This data-driven approach allows for ongoing refinement and improvement of the initiatives in the future. To ensure the utmost welfare of the caribou and gather valuable insights, the maternal pen is relocated each year as a preventive measure against disease, while also facilitating access to fresh forage. This strategic movement not only safeguards the caribou population but also aids in comprehending the optimal placement of the pen within the habitat. By observing the caribou's response and behaviour in different locations, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to the pen's effectiveness.
In order to conduct comprehensive assessments, only a limited number of caribou, such as 19 individuals in the current year, are captured and placed within the enclosure. This selective approach allows for a comparative analysis of survival rates between caribou residing inside the pen and those born outside its boundaries. By studying these contrasting scenarios, researchers can discern the impact and benefits of the maternal pen, enabling a more informed evaluation of its efficacy in enhancing calf survival.
Photo by Clayton Lamb
Restoring the caribou for harvest
The overarching objective of the recovery efforts is to enable the First Nations to resume their ancestral practices by once again engaging in sustainable caribou harvesting, thereby reconnecting with their traditional way of life. However, despite the remarkable progress achieved over the past decade, with the caribou herd more than tripling in size, it is crucial to acknowledge that significantly larger numbers are still necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the population.
While this group represents a remarkable achievement as the first to successfully lead caribou recovery efforts, it is essential to recognize the existing implementation gap that persists. Despite the abundance of scientific studies and meetings conducted, what is now crucial is the translation of this knowledge into tangible on-the-ground recovery programs.
Thanks to a groundbreaking partnership agreement signed between the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations and the BC and Federal governments, a substantial portion of the Klinse-Za caribou herd habitat has now been safeguarded. This landmark achievement represents a significant milestone in the ongoing efforts to protect and preserve this precious ecosystem.
The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations' exceptional leadership on this project has not only transformed the narrative around caribou conservation but also paved the way for a brighter future. Their dedication and commitment have been instrumental in shaping the re-establishment of caribou habitat, ensuring the long-term sustainability of this vital species. Caribou holds immense cultural and ecological significance, particularly for Indigenous communities, and its presence enriches the world we inhabit.
Photo by Clayton Lamb