The recent paper “Indigenous-led conservation: Pathways to recovery for the nearly extirpated Klinse-Za mountain caribou” is worth your own read if you have any interest in how we can decolonize conservation and follow the lead of peoples who have lived with the land rather than as abusers of the land for many generations. From an intro discussion on the positionality of the different authors, to discussion of racism, to calling out the contradictory policies of caribou recovery and resource extraction, this was not the sort of paper I got to read during my science degree. But I hope it is part of a movement that will continue to grow.
For those of you who don’t spend a couple hours reading academic papers every week, I’ll do my best to do the paper justice here.
The authors include six members of West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations and seven ecologists who have worked with the Nations for between two and 15 years. They emphasize that all authors contributed significant knowledge to the project. And what is clear is that there is no hierarchy placed on Western and Indigenous knowledge: they are treated equally.
Part of Treaty Rights is the ability to maintain traditional ways of life. However, this has been undermined in many ways. Significant for this paper is how subsistence hunting of caribou has been destroyed by policies and practices that have devastated caribou populations. Caribou require undisturbed old growth forest. This increases their food access by limiting deer and elk populations who like more open habitats. It also limits wolf predation. Unfortunately, as Western resource extraction opens up these forests the caribou have declined. The particular herd in question was down to just 38 individuals in 2013. In the 1970s the Indigenous people recognized the decline and called their own ban on hunting. Of course Western observation methods didn’t necessitate a ban until 2003.
In an attempt to recover the herd, the groups have taken many actions. They started off with wolf culls (killing individuals to reduce the population) in order to bring the wolf population down to more sustainable numbers for the caribou. They also did maternal penning where they transported pregnant females to an enclosed space to protect the calves for the first three months when they are most vulnerable. These pens are monitored and protected by Indigenous Guardians.
While these actions had benefits they were being undermined by ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation. So efforts began to restore habitats. This has led to overt racism as non-Indigenous peoples accuse Indigenous residents of trying to undermine the Western based parts of the local economy. It also led to actions like bulldozing roads that had been reclaimed.
The Partnership agreement signed in 2020 recognizes the many different parties involved and includes the need to diversify the Western economy in the area while also protecting the habitat and restoring the caribou population to support traditional subsistence hunting. While there are many challenges ahead including coming to a common understanding of what recovery actually means, this project is an example of what happens when cultures and knowledge systems and, let’s be honest, political systems work together. I just hope this becomes common rather than part of a select few examples. And I can’t wait to introduce this paper to my sustainability students next semester as an example of where there is hope.