David Suzuki: Indigenous people hold key to caribou

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

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.

They speak of 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. It’s time for Indigenous peoples to share their stories of the land at decision-making tables and to play a leadership role in planning and implementing caribou habitat restoration efforts and other land- and water-management issues, with adequate resources to support them. That would be a big “win” all around — for the caribou, for Indigenous communities, for reconciliation efforts and for all of us who depend on nature for our well-being and survival.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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.

Just Posted

Sarah Simpson
Sarah Simpson column: A shift in perspective can sometimes change everything

Have you even been forced to wake up at 5:30 on a Saturday

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

North Cowichan’s committee of the whole have rejected staff’s recommendation to limit the use of fireworks to Halloween. (File photo)
North Cowichan rejects limiting fireworks to Halloween

Municipality decides staff recommendation would be unpopular

Things are looking up for Vancouver Island as zero COVID-19 cases have been reported for the first time since October. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Island records zero new COVID-19 cases for the first time since October

For the first time since October, the province is reporting zero new… Continue reading

CVRD Area E director Alison Nicholson, right, hiked two hours to Waterfall Camp at the Fairy Creek watershed along with Comox town councillor Nicole Minion and Comox Valley Regional District director Daniel Arbour to meet with old-growth logging activists on Monday, June 7. (Submitted)
Cowichan Valley regional director visits Fairy Creek protest camps

‘They clearly communicated that they are committed to what they are doing’

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

A lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS
No winning ticket sold for Friday’s $70 million Lotto Max jackpot

The huge jackpot has remained unclaimed for several weeks now

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Karl and Stephanie Ann Johanson were thrilled to spot a pair of Sandhill Cranes in the Panama Flats this month, an unusual appearance for such birds. (Photo by Stephanie Ann Johanson)
WATCH: Sandhill cranes an unusual, joyful sight in South Island parkland

These birds don’t often touch down on their way between northern B.C. and Mexico

(V.I. Trail/Google Maps)
Now 90% complete, Vancouver Island trail forges new funding parnership

Victoria Foundation takes on Vancouver Island Trail Association; fund valued at $40,000

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

Most Read