Presented by: Clayton Lamb

Indigenous Peoples around the northern hemisphere have long relied on caribou for subsistence, ceremonial, and community purposes. Unfortunately, caribou are currently in decline in many areas across Canada. Caribou recovery efforts by Federal and Provincial agencies highlight a complex intersection of legal, economic, ecological, and human-rights issues. In response to recent and dramatic declines of mountain caribou populations within their traditional territory, the West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations (collectively, the ‘Nations’) came together to create a new vision for caribou recovery on the lands they have long stewarded. The Nations focused on the Klinse-Za subpopulation, which had once encompassed so many caribou that Elders remarked that they were “like bugs on the landscape”. The Klinse-Za caribou declined from >300 animals in the 1990’s to only 38 in 2013. In collaboration with Treaty 8 First Nations, Provincial and Federal governments, and scientists, this Indigenous-led conservation initiative paired short-term population recovery actions—predator reduction and maternal penning—with long-term habitat protection in an effort to create a self-sustaining caribou population. Here, we review these recovery actions and the promising evidence that the abundance of Klinse-Za caribou has more than doubled from 38 animals in 2013 to 89 in 2020, representing rapid population growth in response to recovery actions. With looming extirpation averted, the Nations focused efforts on securing a landmark conservation agreement in 2020 that protects caribou habitat over a 7,986 km2 area. The Partnership Agreement was signed in 2020. and the lands will be co-managed by the WMFN, SFN, and Provincial governments. The Agreement provides habitat protection for >85% of the Klinse-Za subpopulation (up from only 1.8% protected pre-conservation agreement) and affords moderate protection for neighboring caribou subpopulations (29-47% of subpopulation area, up from 0-20%). This Indigenous-led conservation initiative has set both the Indigenous and Canadian governments on the path to recover the Klinse-Za subpopulation and reinstate a culturally meaningful caribou hunt. This effort highlights how Indigenous governance and leadership can be the catalyst needed to establish meaningful conservation actions, enhance endangered species recovery, and honor cultural connections to now imperiled wildlife.