Caribou numbers flourish thanks to local First Nations: University of British Columbia study

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – A University of British Columbia researcher says Klinse-Za caribou numbers have nearly t…

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – A University of British Columbia researcher says Klinse-Za caribou numbers have nearly tripled in under a decade thanks to the collaborative effort of the West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations.

The university says that despite recovery efforts from federal and provincial governments, caribou populations across Canada continue to decline, primarily due to human activity.

But according to a new UBCO study, in central British Columbia, there is one herd of mountain caribou, the Klinse-Za, whose numbers are going in the opposite direction. The university says this is due to a collaborative recovery effort led by West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations.

Partnering with many organizations and governments, the Indigenous-led conservation initiative paired short-term recovery actions, like predator reduction and caribou guardians at maternal pens, with ongoing work to secure landscape-level protection to create a self-sustaining caribou population.

According to research conducted by Dr. Clayton Lamb, a Liber Ero Fellow, along with Carmen Richter, a biology master’s student, and Dr. Adam T. Ford, Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology, their efforts paid off, with Klinse-Za caribou numbers nearly tripling in under ten years.

“We have an Indigenous-led conservation effort to thank for averting the looming extinction of this herd,” says Dr. Lamb. “The population was declining rapidly—a West Moberly Elder once described the herd as a ‘sea of caribou,’ but by 2013, it had declined to only 38 animals.”

Today, the university says the herd’s population is more than 110, and numbers continue to rise.

Richter, a Saulteau First Nations member, says Indigenous communities have come together for the good of the caribou.

“We are working hard to recover these caribou. Each year, community members pick bags and bags of lichen to feed the mother caribou in the pen while other members live up at the top of the mountain with the animals. One day, we hope to return the herds to a sustainable size,” Richter said.

Although the partnership has seen great success, Dr. Ford is the first to acknowledge that more time and effort will be needed to recover the Klinse-Za fully.

“This work is also an important part of decolonizing the mindset of conservation, which has historically worked to exclude the views of Indigenous Peoples,” he adds.

With caribou declines exceeding 40 per cent in recent decades across the country, many populations have already been lost.

But Dr. Ford insists there is a brighter path forward and says this study proves it.

“This is truly an unprecedented success and signals the critical role that Indigenous Peoples can play in conservation,” he says. “I hope this success opens doors to collaborative stewardship among other communities and agencies. We can accomplish so much more when working together.”

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