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Indigenous Knowledge and Science Team Up to Triple a Caribou Herd

By Chris Arsenault, Mongabay News

Wild caribou are on the verge of disappearing in Canada. In British Columbia, indigenous communities led a partnership that has tripled a caribou herd.

  • A wildlife recovery effort in British Columbia, Canada, has successfully increased a caribou herd from 38 individuals to 113 in less than a decade, according to a new study.

  • Two First Nations communities partnered with Canadian scientists, the government and private companies to reduce predators and care for new calves in the short term, while restoring habitat in the long term by securing more than 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of land for caribou.

  • Human interventions, including logging and energy infrastructure, are blamed for fragmenting caribou habitat and increasing predator numbers.

  • The project involves killing wolves, a main predator of the caribou, drawing ire from some conservationists.

Caribou are proudly displayed on Canada’s 25-cent coin, but in the wild, their populations are on the verge of annihilation. Carmen Richter from the Saulteau First Nations is working to change that.

She’s part of an Indigenous-led conservation program whose interventions have led one caribou herd in western Canada to triple its population in less than a decade, according to a new study.

Starting in 2013, two First Nations communities in central British Columbia partnered with scientists and government officials to tackle the decline of the caribou (Rangifer tarandus), known outside North America as reindeer.

Environmentalists say the mix of traditional knowledge from Indigenous elders, hands-on community engagement, and Western science offer a model for improved conservation.

“Indigenous values are the captain that steers the boat, but … both systems are being used to benefit caribou,” Richter, who has been a driving force on the project for years, told Mongabay. “Western science has been heavily utilized, but it’s been led by Indigenous goals and ways of knowing.”

Combining Western scientific methods to track and tag caribou, as seen here, with traditional Indigenous knowledge, the project to protect the Klinse-Za mountain caribou herd in British Columbia has helped its population increase from 38 in 2013 to at least 113 in 2022. Image courtesy of Wildlife Infometrics.

That collaboration is paying off. The size of the Klinse-Za mountain caribou herd rose from 38 animals in 2013 to 113 this year, said the study published in March in the journal Ecological Applications.

“We had a feeling the caribou could be lost within our generation; this work sort of rewrites that narrative,” said Clayton Lamb, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and one of the study’s authors. “Indigenous elders talked about them once being as abundant as bugs on a landscape.”

Down to business with maternal pens, armed guards

To try and rebuild the herd, the West Moberly First Nations, Saulteau First Nations and the government hired a consulting firm, Wildlife Infometrics, to build special pens for expectant caribou mothers and their calves. The idea is to protect from predators during this especially vulnerable stage of their lives.

The work on occasion requires airlifting pregnant caribou by helicopter into the 6-meter-tall (20-foot) pens on snowy peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

Protected by electric fencing, the pens are made from landscape cloth, Lamb said. Indigenous guardians tend to the expectant caribou mothers and their babies once they’re born, making sure they have enough food.

Members of the First Nations patrol the pens with guns to fend off wolves and other predators. Indigenous hunters on the ground, and government officials in helicopters, also shoot wolves to reduce their overall numbers. It’s unclear how many wolves have been killed in a bid to protect caribou, as the culling is done by both government contractors working from helicopters and Indigenous guardians on the ground, and collated data isn’t kept in a central location.

Rebuilding the Klinse-Za mountain caribou herd in central British Columbia has involved big interventions from scientists, First Nations and consultants. Here, members of the consulting firm Wildlife Infometrics track caribou via a helicopter as they move through the Rocky Mountains. Image courtesy of Wildlife Infometrics.

After they’re born in the spring and able to better fend for themselves, the caribou calves are release with their mothers from the pens, said Richter, who is a co-author on the research paper. As they grow, they’re monitored by scientists and First Nations members.

It’s an intense operation. One caribou can consume an entire shipping container full of lichen annually, said Richter, who studies lichens as a biologist. Gathering the lichen requires careful planning and lots of work: it must be picked by hand to avoid damage and requires months to dry out.

Fortunately for the team behind the project, there’s plenty of help. Schoolkids from the two First Nations and a small army of volunteers spend weeks gathering the lichen, Richter said, working together outside to properly store and transport it so the pregnant caribou mums have enough food for their babies.

It’s a time-consuming and expensive process that can’t continue indefinitely, but it has been working, said Darcy Peel, director of caribou recovery efforts for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

To protect pregnant caribou mothers and their babies from predators, conservationists have constructed maternal pens to help regenerate the population. Image courtesy of Wildlife Infometrics.

“This isn’t exclusively [a] B.C. issue; it’s a challenge across the country,” Peel told Mongabay. “In terms of the leadership of West Moberly and Saulteau … you can’t really measure that in terms of how it helps caribou.”

The province spends about C$300,000 ($240,000) annually to help finance the project, he added.

The two First Nations and businesses have also contributed tens of thousands of dollars. Elected officials in the West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations did not respond to interview requests.

For Indigenous communities across British Columbia and beyond, caribou are culturally crucial as a historical food source used in key ceremonies. Before the 1970s, members of the First Nations used to work as guides, earning a living by helping tourists hunt the prized animals, Richter said.

Population declines led the First Nations to stop all hunting in the 1970s, she added, as industrial development, including roads, logging and energy extraction projects, fragmented caribou habitat.