Sustaining Caribou Means Conserving Canada’s Boreal Forest

Indigenous management emerging as best hope for dwindling herds and their habitat

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Sustaining Caribou Means Conserving Canada’s Boreal Forest

In its spring report on the health of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds, the Canadian government found that only 14 of them were on track to survive in the long term. “Boreal caribou have seen their numbers decrease by more than 30 percent over the last 20 years,” in large part because of loss of habitat from logging and industrial development, the report concluded.

Many Indigenous groups are working to protect this vital habitat. For example, the Peoples of the Ungava in 2013 created the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART) to improve caribou management across 1.5 million square kilometers of Quebec, Labrador, and Nunavik.  In 2017, the community of Déline in the Northwest Territories adopted a management plan—which in turn was recognized by the government of the Northwest Territories—for caribou around Great Bear Lake.

In November 2018, Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) Director Valérie Courtois participated in the biennial North American Caribou Workshop in Ottawa to discuss the importance of the boreal forest to the survival of the species and Indigenous traditions.

Steve Ganey, senior director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ lands and oceans programs, spoke with Courtois about how ILI and UPCART are working to protect caribou habitat and the social, spiritual, economic, and cultural benefits of the boreal to Indigenous peoples.

Q: Why are caribou important to Canada and Indigenous peoples?

A: I’m an Innu woman, and for us, caribou is the central animal, spiritually and in the natural world. Our elders often say that caribou and Innu are the same. 

From an ecosystem and Canadian point of view, caribou is also a keystone species. Where it exists, other things exist around it. And if it disappears, that leads to other things around it disappearing. Right now there's basically a systemic decline of all caribou in Canada.

Valérie Courtois

The Canadian government’s report speaks to the fact that all caribou in Canada are now in danger, in some form of danger of extinction. They're all listed—or about to be listed—under the Species at Risk Act.

Q: How are the health of caribou and the boreal forest linked? 

A: Caribou are the largest ranging ungulate species, which means that they need large habitats. They’re also particularly sensitive to any kind of disturbance, harassment, or noise. Studies show, for example, that caribou will avoid many disturbances, such as roads, by over 20 kilometers.

Because of these characteristics, they are often one of the first species to display impacts from environmental degradation. So it's a good way for us to say, oh, if there's something up with caribou, we need to look deeper in how our decisions are actually impacting the environment. 

Q: So for the boreal forest, caribou is like a canary in a coal mine. 

A: It absolutely is. 

Q: Elaborate on the relationship between caribou and your people.

A: When there are caribou around, it's the main part of our diet, what we make our clothing out of, what we make our drums out of. And our drums are what we pray with. It's everything. And if they disappear, we don't necessarily have alternatives for that kind of practice. Caribou is really, really important to us. And if there are no caribou, what will become of us?

That’s why many of us have been out in the media saying that it's time for Indigenous peoples to take the leadership of protecting that species because of its critical nature to our culture. 

Q: What’s an example of how you're doing that?

A: We started getting alarming signals from the inventory work on caribou. The George River herd in the early ’90s was the largest herd of any ungulates in the world—almost 1 million caribou. In 2013, a survey showed that number had dropped to 74,000. So the leadership of the Indigenous Nations that depend on the herd called for an emergency summit in Kuujjuaq, in northern Quebec, and people agreed that we needed to start to work together.

It was the first time those groups ever got together on any issue, and that’s a real testament to the importance of the species for all. Five years into the process, we’ve developed or our own caribou management strategy, based first and foremost on our cultural responsibility to the species and its ecosystem values. 

Q: How does that strategy differ from government caribou management?

A: Ours is much more sophisticated. The tool the public governments use is what I call the on-off switch: essentially allowing hunting (on), then banning it (off). And there's very little nuance in that tool. Our strategy proposes more of a circular way of decision-making based on indicators and conditions about where you are within the cycle of caribou.

Caribou cross the George River, called Mushuau-shipu in the Indigenous Innu language, in northern Quebec in 2016. The George River herd, like others across the country, has declined precipitously in recent years.
Valérie Courtois

We also have Indigenous Guardians—our moccasins and mukluks on the ground that protect and monitor the herds so that our governments can make good decisions. To act appropriately on caribou, we need to spend time with that caribou. It's not just about flying a helicopter and harassing the caribou and putting a collar on it and then letting it go. It's about observing caribou as they are, and that allows us to get a lot of information that Western science is not necessarily focused on.

Western science is all based on collaring caribou. The collars were first installed in Canada in Labrador in the early 1980s to track how military activities were affecting the animals. The Innu feared this might have a negative impact on caribou. When I first went to Labrador, I was a 24-year-old varsity hockey player doing forest inventory. A military plane on low-level maneuvers flew overhead, and it knocked me on my back.  My first thought I had was, “Wow, if this did this to me and I knew what that thing was, imagine what that feels like for a caribou to have the same thing happen.” Also, Western science only has a picture of how caribou move for part of its 70- to 90-year population cycle. Whereas our knowledge of and relationship with caribou dates back to nearly 10,000 years. 

Q: What more could be done to protect caribou? 

A: In Canada we’re really good at managing hunting but not so good at managing habitat. And there's lots of evidence that habitat quality is the major factor affecting population dynamics of caribou. Some forms of clear-cutting, for example, remove parts of that habitat for at least a century. 

Environment Canada says that the woodland recovers faster—in about 50 years. But I've yet to see a forest fully regenerate in that period of time, especially in the Northern Boreal. I think it's an optimistic estimate by the government.

We have three caribou subspecies in Canada—boreal, woodland, and mountain—and the migratory herds, which tend to live more in a tundra-type setting. They prefer to eat the ground lichen and like open areas with wind, which gets rid of the insects. 

The boreal caribou spend much more time in the forest cover but also eat lichen. So the forest has to permit the growth of that food. In the summertime, those caribou occupy wetlands a lot. 

It's really important to have a mix of healthy habitats. 

Canada is a resource-based country. We depend on a lot of extraction for our economy. But we're also a country that wants to do right by its people and by its land. We have to have a hard conversation about whether we want to have caribou in our future.

Our boreal caribou have been listed in the Species at Risk Act since 2003, and there’s still been a steady decline in their numbers since then. So the act is flawed. And there’s been very little involvement of Indigenous peoples up until very recently. Now Indigenous governments are regaining their power and their roles on their lands, and I think caribou in the boreal forest will be better off for it. 

Q: What roles can Indigenous Protected Areas and Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreements play in caribou management? 

A: Both of those mechanisms could be very helpful for the future of caribou in Canada. One of the major tenets of our campaign is that when Indigenous peoples are given the space to make decisions on their land, that they tend to be much bolder in terms of the conservation. When Innu consider lands for forestry, the first question isn’t “Where can we build a sawmill?” It is “What needs to stay on this land for us to remain Innu?” And “What can the land spare, if any, to be able to do this other activity?” 

We are running out of time to get this right, but if we take the Indigenous conservation approach, we stand a much better chance of leaving our children a healthy boreal forest and a healthy caribou population.

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