Quirks & Quarks

Indigenous-led conservation program saves caribou herd from extinction

A collaboration between two First Nations in British Columbia led to a program that is being celebrated as one of the first caribou conservation success stories in the world.

The Klinse-Za caribou herd in B.C. tripled in size over 8 years

A group of female caribou with their calves. An Indigenous-led conservation program included the use of maternal pens, which safeguarded young caribou until they were old enough to run away from predators. (Line Giguere/Wildlife Infometrics Inc)

An innovative caribou conservation program led by two First Nations communities has brought one of Canada's many dwindling caribou herds back from the brink of extinction.

"It was an all out effort. We didn't go into it half-hearted," said Chief Roland Willson, of the West Moberly First Nation. "I'm extremely proud of what we're doing. But at the same time, I'm mad that we're the only ones doing it."

The program is a collaboration between the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, in partnership with the University of British Columbia and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. It involved a holistic approach to conservation, combining Indigenous knowledge and Western science to almost triple the size of a local caribou herd, called the Klinse-Za herd, in less than a decade.

A caribou is released into the mountains of Northern B.C. (Clayton Lamb/Wildlife Infometrics Inc.)

"There hasn't been a lot of good caribou news in quite a while," said Clayton Lamb, a wildlife biologist from University of British Columbia who was part of the research. "One of the big takeaways from this work is that caribou conservation is possible."

The research was published recently in the journal Ecological Applications.

From thousands of animals to nearly extinct

Caribou play a significant role in Indigenous culture, not only as a source of food, but also as a part of traditional medicine. 

"The bones on caribou were used as fleshing tools [for cleaning hides]," said Willson. "The hides were used, like every aspect of the caribou was utilized."

Caribou excel at surviving in undisturbed old growth forest. But human activity, like oil and gas exploration and logging, have fragmented their herds from thousands of animals into smaller residential herds, which compromised their reproduction and made them more vulnerable to predators. 

"Our elders had noticed a decline in the populations, and they had decided to pass an internal law that we wouldn't harvest caribou until the populations started to increase, which never happened. They kept going lower and lower," said Willson, who added that at 55 years old, he has never been able to hunt a caribou.

Caribou eating grasses and lichen in Northern B.C. (Line Giguere/Wildlife Infometrics Inc)

Many of the fragmented herds in Canada are now considered functionally extinct. Between the 1990s and 2013 the Klinse-Za caribou herd shrank from approximately 250 animals to just 38, and research suggested the herd would disappear completely within 10 to 15 years without intervention.

Recovery plans for the most part have been ineffective.

"We sat with [scientists] and said, 'well, what can we do? What do we do? Like, what can be done? What has been done?' And we found out really quickly, nobody's actually doing anything on these things," said Willson. 

"It was actually our elders that said to us, the caribou were there for us when we needed them, and they need us now. So we need to step up and be there for them and try and help."

Protecting calves for the best chance at survival

The conservation program started with several meetings in Saulteau First Nation in 2012.

"We organized workshops with local governments, local First Nations, industry, even federal and B.C. governments. We invited everybody to the table here at Saulteau," said Naomi Owens-Beek, the Treaty Rights and environmental protection manager for Saulteau First Nation.

The group came up with three action items: predator management, habitat restoration and maternal pens. 

A researcher is seen in a helicopter, preparing to catch caribou using a net gun. The caribou were then taken to a pen to be kept safe from predators. (Wildlife Infometrics Inc.)

"It all makes sense because you're restoring the habitat for them to live in, you're reducing the predators so they don't get killed. And you're protecting the calves when they're in the maternal pen because they're pretty vulnerable when they're small," said Owens-Beek.

The province took charge of the wolf culling program, and the First Nations took charge of the maternal pens, with the help of scientists from the University of British Columbia.

Every winter, the scientists captured pregnant females from a helicopter using a net gun. Then, they brought the animals back to the maternal pens, which are fenced-in areas designed to keep the caribou in, and predators out. 

"It's not like they're in this random pasture," said Owens-Beek. "It's a wild enclosure which they're familiar with."

A researcher holds a pregnant caribou on the back of a snowmobile, as they travel into a maternal pen. The fencing that keeps predators out of the pen can be seen on the right. (Wildlife Infometrics Inc.)

Specially-trained Indigenous Guardians watched over the caribou from a distance for the next several months, making sure the enclosure was secure, supplementing the animals food, and only intervening if they saw an animal was sick.

"I think every year we're fortunate that we're able to release more than what we bring in. And I don't think we'll ever take it for granted, that's something special," said Willson.

The program, now in its ninth year, has seen a total of 65 calves raised in the maternal pens. This has allowed the herd's population to grow 12 per cent each year, going from 38 animals to 114. And the group has no plans to stop anytime soon.

"It's not something that we want to be doing, but if we want caribou, I think it's something that we have to do," said Willson. 

A caribou feeds from a trough inside the maternal pen near Moberly Lake, B.C. (Clayton Lamb/Wildlife Infometrics Inc)

And the work continues in other ways. In 2020, the First Nations worked with provincial and federal governments to secure nearly 8,000 square kilometres of habitat protection, making up more than 85 per cent of the Klinse-Za herd's territory, to ensure that the landscape can sustain caribou on its own.

A second study looked at the effects of only wolf reduction on caribou populations compared to areas with both wolf reduction and maternal penning, and found that reducing the number of predators only allowed caribou populations to stop declining. But in areas where maternal pens were used in collaboration with predator reduction, herd sizes grew significantly.

'Braiding' Western science and Indigenous knowledge

Lamb hopes that this project can be an inspiration to scientists looking to collaborate with Indigenous communities. 

"The braiding of knowledge systems is something that science is working fairly hard to do, or at least there's a lot of talk about it. But it's unclear how to do it in practice," said Lamb. 

"I think that this example was really a strong case of where Western scientists and Indigenous peoples came together and were able to co-produce a piece of science that really speaks to both of our strong suits, and is really richer as a result."

Willson agrees that collaboration was one of the keys to the program's success.

"I think the strength of this is that the First Nations, the local government, the provincial government and the federal government, were working together on this…. It's not a finely tuned machine yet. But, you know, we listen and we learn from each other and we're able to talk and bounce ideas off of each other and try things out."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.