Caribou recovery better with First Nations involvement: study

EDMONTON -- If Canada is serious about reconciliation with First Nations, a new study suggests that giving them a greater voice in caribou conservation might be a good place to start.

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The Boreal Leadership Council -- made up of First Nations, business leaders and environmental groups -- released a study Thursday that concludes having indigenous people on board makes a big difference to conservation programs.

And, said report author Valerie Courtois, the cultural value of caribou could make the animals a powerful way to bring indigenous and mainstream society together.

"Recognition of the role and responsibility of indigenous people towards caribou is a recognition of culture," said Courtois. "It's a much healthier place to start from in seeking reconciliation than one of non-recognition."

A recent survey of boreal caribou across the country graded efforts to conserve the shrinking herds to be mediocre at best.

While a few provinces have made positive moves, the report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society found the amount of protected habitat for the animals increased only one per cent, despite federal requirements.

But Courtois' survey says conservation programs rooted in indigenous communities have big advantages over those that aren't.

Elders or hunters frequently on the land can provide early warnings of changes before they show up in formal surveys. Indigenous-led programs were often more flexible in adjusting to changes, the survey found.

First Nations can also provide extra capacity to provincial environmental agencies that have had budget cuts. And the committment of indigenous people to maintaining caribou -- especially if traditional knowledge is incorporated into recovery plans -- helps ensure best practices.

And First Nations have the benefit of long experience with an animal whose numbers have gone through large swings over the decades.

"Wev'e got people who are present and can notice trends and changes over long periods of time."

Some bands, such as the Athabasca Chipewyan in Alberta or B.C.'s West Moberly, are already playing a significant role in caribou conservation, said Courtois. But most such plans are still run by bureaucrats, she said.

"The norm for recovery planning is that it is led by provincial recovery teams. Many First Nations have had a dissatisfying experience with that process because it's been mostly framed around western science."

Courtois said the type of habitat frequented by woodland caribou is also ground zero for large resource developments. That makes caribou recovery a complicated task -- but it's also where different groups in society can meet to work together.

"Caribou is one of those things that can really show the impacts of leadership," Courtois said. "As we started looking across the country, we started noticing that there's some real innovative stuff coming out of First Nations."


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