Researchers Urge Intertwining Indigenous Rights, Endangered Species Laws To Move Beyond Simply Avoiding Risk Of Extinction

Photo Credit: Line Giguere, Wildlife Infometrics

Increasing caribou populations in northeastern British Columbia demonstrate that partnerships between Indigenous and colonial governments can reverse prolonged declines, yet the emphasis must now be placed on establishing culturally significant restoration objectives, assert a collective of scholars and community members in a recent publication featured in Science this week.

Clayton Lamb from University of British Columbia Okanagan and Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nation jointly spearhead the article, “Intertwining Indigenous Rights and Endangered Species Law,” alongside nine additional authors, for the academic journal.

“Abundance is crucial. In numerous instances, endangered species regulations have successfully averted extinction; however, the indications of decline often manifest long before these laws come into play. Those who reside and engage with the land witness these transformations, and it is imperative that we heed their observations and collaborate to prevent further declines,” said Lamb, a biologist and MITACS postdoctoral fellow at UBCO’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science. “There exists a substantial disparity between the species recovery standards defined by laws and the requirements of communities for their health, food security, and cultural well-being.”

The policy document expands upon the collaborative work of Lamb from UBCO and Adam Ford, who have previously released studies showcasing the restoration endeavors concerning the Klinse-Za caribou herd in close proximity to the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.

Additionally, their research explored the progressing initiatives for bison and salmon recovery in North America.

The researchers had the opportunity to listen to accounts from West Moberly Elders, who recounted a time when a vast number of caribou populated the landscape, resembling an expansive “sea” or an array of “bugs.” However, by 2013, the caribou population had dwindled to a mere 38 individuals. Thanks to the efforts spearheaded by Indigenous groups, the numbers gradually increased to 115 over the course of a decade. Although these initial signs of recovery are a reason for great rejoicing, it is important to note that the herd size still falls significantly short of historical levels.

“We must transcend the mentality of merely providing life support to biodiversity,” asserts Ford, who leads UBCO’s Wildlife Restoration Ecology Lab. “Our focus should shift towards actively restoring nature and reestablishing the traditional ways in which people interact with the land, which have been revered for generations.”

According to the authors, the endangered species laws in both Canada and the United States aim to restore species abundance to levels that minimize the risk of extinction. However, these recovery targets fail to consider the culturally significant abundance and distribution of plants and animals, as emphasized by the authors.

The paper underscores that the current caribou population would only yield approximately three animals or one meal per person annually for the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations. In contrast, to meet the culturally significant count, a herd of over 3,000 animals would be necessary. Such abundance would better align with the historical levels that resembled the impressive “sea of caribou.”

Naomi Owens-Beek, manager of Treaty Rights and Environmental Protection for Saulteau First Nation, contributed to the research and the policy paper.

She emphasizes the crucial role of collaboration between Canadian and Indigenous leaders in safeguarding traditional ways of life. For some Elders in the region, the experience of tasting caribou has never been realized, despite it being a fundamental component of their ancestors’ diet, offering essential nutrition, materials, spiritual significance, and a deep connection to their sense of place.

“We gazed upon the land and contemplated what it would take for these caribou to reclaim their status as the magnificent herds our Elders recounted,” she explains. “Our initial step was to mitigate predation, ensuring the caribou would not be further diminished. Currently, our efforts are directed towards the protection and restoration of their habitat.”

“The mistreatment of caribou habitat has persisted for a significant period, resulting in the drastic decline of their numbers. To enable these herds to flourish once again, they require ample space. That’s why we are collaborating with the nations, the province of British Columbia, and Canada to restore these lands and augment the population. Our goal is to eventually return to the mountains and engage in caribou hunting as part of our cultural practices,” she explains.

The paper also delves into the endeavors to rehabilitate salmon and bison habitats in North America. Chief Willson notes that while both species display some modest indications of recovery, the progress made thus far falls far short of what is truly necessary

“By intertwining Indigenous rights with laws aimed at safeguarding endangered species, nations can not only honor and protect the rights of Indigenous communities but also mitigate the risk of species loss, leading to extensive societal benefits,” he affirms.

Lamb, Willson, Ford and Owens-Beek were joined by Allyson Menzies (School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph), Michael Price (Earth to Ocean Research Group, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University), Scott McNay (Wildlife Infometrics), Sarah Otto (Department of Zoology & Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC), Mateen Hessami (Wildlife Science Center—Biodiversity Pathways at UBCO), Jesse Popp (School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph) and Mark Hebblewhite (Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana).

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