Tribes help bring back declining caribou herd

If it weren’t for West Moberly First Nations and Salteau First Nations, the Klinse-Za caribou herd in central Columbia may not even exist anymore.

The number of Klinse-Za southern mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) fell to fewer than 40 before the First Nations stepped in.

Elders from West Moberly described these caribou as once being abundant—like bugs on the landscape—before they dwindled to just a handful about nine years ago.

“Without any intervention, those caribou would undoubtedly be gone today,” said Clayton Lamb, a TWS member and wildlife scientist at the University of British Columbia. “This is a story of people coming together to look after landscapes and wildlife they care deeply about.”

Caribou in British Columbia are being preyed on at rates that exceed their replacement. That’s because logging is opening up shrubby landscapes that moose (Alces alces) and deer feed on, which, in turn, attracts wolves that prey on them. With more wolves on the landscape, there are more chances for wolves to opportunistically consume caribou, which is now happening at an unsustainable rate. Roads and seismic lines also attract more wolves to the area and provide easy movement corridors for predators.

West Moberly First Nations and Salteau First Nations partnered with independent scientists, industry, environmental groups and governments to protect the caribou herds. They set out to increase adult survival and bolster the number of calves. The two First Nations signed a landmark Partnership Agreement in 2020 to secure nearly 8,000 square kilometers of habitat for caribou. “This protected area is one and a half times the size of Banff National Park,” Lamb said. “It’s a huge area.”

The goal of supporting the expeditious growth of caribou is to eventually reestablish a culturally meaningful hunt, Lamb said, which hasn’t occurred since the 1970s.

A collared caribou and its calf. Credit: Line Giguere, Wildlife Infometrics

A co-produced study led by Lamb published in Ecological Applications details what the First Nations and their partners did to increase the Klinse-Za herd. The author group included First Nations and non-Indigenous authors from across western North America—including Roland Willson, Chief of West Moberly First Nations—who weaved Indigenous and western approaches to uncover the success behind this Indigenous-led conservation effort. Another study in the same publication documents their success from a western science perspective using an integrated population model.

The first step was reducing the density of wolves to a point that would allow caribou to persist on the landscape. Then, the team brought female caribou into a maternal pen—an enclosure tall enough to keep predators out, allowing mothers to care for their calves before being released into the wild. Full-time First Nations guardians lived on site with these caribou at the pen, providing them daily food, care, and protection.

The guardians are charged with sure the caribou were doing well. Around the end of July, when the calves are six to eight weeks old and less vulnerable to predation, the guardians release them back into the wild with the females.

“Those two measures changed the population from declining at about 8% a year to increasing 9 to 12% a year,” Lamb said.

The project has continued. Calves from the original maternal pens have returned as adults to have calves of their own. Nineteen caribou occupy the pens now—the most since the project started. Seventeen are pregnant. Fourteen calves have already been born. “We have almost seen the abundance within the pen double,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to see that kind of growth.”

The lack of administrative red tape on Indigenous lands helped the project get underway before it was too late for these caribou, Lamb said. West Moberly and Salteau First Nations have rights and titles on the landscape, enshrined through a treaty with Canada that supports their right to steward lands within their traditional territory.

This project also provides a unique chance to recover caribou on a landscape that won’t be sold to industrial resources. However, Lamb said, it could take 30 years or more years to regrow the degraded landscape and bring the herd numbers back to historical levels. Meanwhile, they plan to continue to support caribou growth through maternal penning and predator management while working to restore habitats within the agreement area.

Lamb points out the importance of collaborating with First Nations people on this project and others. “First Nations have legal treaty rights and a longstanding knowledge about the landscape. This local presence on the land, combined with a different way of relating to the land than many settlers have, positions First Nations people as effective land stewards,” he said.

Header Image: An Indigenous-led conservation initiative helped improve the Klinse-Za caribou population.
Credit: Nikanese Wah tzee Stewardship Society