The Dehcho First Nations' negotiations towards a land claim has suffered a setback, as the federal government's chief negotiator in those talks is stepping down.

Tim Christian, who has represented Ottawa in Dehcho talks for the past seven years, says he is retiring at the end of March.

"Despite the fact we've had some very difficult issues to deal with, the table is characterized by real respect and a lot of humour," Christian told CBC News on Friday.

"In the last couple of years [we] have moved things, I think, quite considerably. And while I'd like to stay around to conclude it, it's just not likely to be done very soon."

The Dehcho First Nations is an organization that represents nine Dene communities and two Métis communities in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories.

Replacement not yet announced

It is the only aboriginal group along the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline route that has not signed a land claim agreement.

A new federal negotiator for the Dehcho process is expected to step in on April 1, but Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan has yet to announce who that will be.

"We certainly like to know what could happen," Dehcho First Nations Grand Chief Sam Gargan said.

Gargan said his organization would like to have a say in who Christian's successor will be, but he said his request to meet with Duncan has gone unanswered to date.

The grand chief said he hopes the good working relationship the Dehcho First Nations had with Christian will continue with the new negotiator.

"Tim doesn't shy away from issues, but he also is very honest," Gargan said.

"When he comes to the table, he looks at things, and if there's a way around it, he will find it. But if not, he's not going to try to excuse himself from discussing it."

Major sticking points

Christian said the two sides are still one or two years away from reaching an agreement-in-principle, provided that major sticking points can be resolved surrounding land use and the regulation of resources on Dehcho lands.

"I've been lucky to have been involved in some pretty incredible agreements that we didn't think would be possible at the outset," he said.

"I think if you work hard and develop respectful relations with the other party, it's possible to really come quite a long way. And frankly, I think the Dehcho are capable of doing that."

Christian does have a number of settled land claims and agreements to his credit, including agreements with Smith's Landing First Nation, Salt River First Nation, and Fort McKay First Nation.

When he retires, Christian will also be handing over negotiation files for the First Nation and Métis in Fort Liard, N.W.T. Fort Liard broke away from the Dehcho process in 2009 to pursue its own land claim.