Course:CONS370/Projects/Protecting Woodland Caribou in British Columbia: applying Traditional Ecological Knowledge of First Nations and conservation strategies

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Woodland Caribou subpopulations located on the territories of the West Moberly and Saulteau are seeing a significant loss in their population. This is categorized by this species being labelled as a "special concern" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). There are a variety of anthropogenic factors impacting Caribou populations, such as the loss of critical habitat due to industrialization processes. In protecting Caribou populations, consideration of traditional First Nations practices can help support a healthy ecosystem. First Nations peoples of British Columbia have thousands of years of historical land usage, with practices engraining Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). TEK is seen in the management of Caribou in various sustainability practices. West Moberly First Nations (WMFN), Saulteau First Nations, and Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN) have been implementing strategies to help support these populations that build on Indigenous TEK. In future success of protecting Woodland Caribou in BC, provincial and federal government need to take political action and consideration to the traditional practices of local First Nations groups that can help support the revival of these populations.

Keywords: Woodland Caribou, British Columbia, West Moberly First Nations, Salteau First Nations, Species at Risk Act

Country: Canada
Province/Prefecture: British Columbia

This conservation resource was created by Course:CONS370.


History of Woodland Caribou

Historically, First Nations have used patterns in caribou migration and population fluctuations as indicators for land use[1]. Depending on the density of caribou populations, certain agricultural practices done by First Nations were halted or amplified[1]. During times of migration, some plant species would not be harvested in order to provide a larger nutrient supply for the migrating caribou herds[1]. Conversely, during times of non-migration, it may be used as an indicator to rotate crops[1]. Caribou have been used in First Nation’s Traditional practices for clothing and tools, as well as sustenance[1]. It provides elements of cultural, spiritual, and physical stability for these communities[1].

Current Status of Woodland Caribou

In 2014, four subpopulations in West-Central British Columbia and North-Eastern British Columbia consisted of less than 50 mature Woodland caribou individuals[2]. These subpopulations are located on the territories of the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations who have been negatively affected by Woodland caribou decline[2]. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) reviewed the status of Woodland caribou in British Columbia and Alberta for the third time in 2014, they recorded range loss, significant and exponential population declines, unsustainable predation rates, and increasing loss of area and connectivity within functional habitat, which has then resulted in smaller and isolated subpopulations[2]. Many of these populations have been assessed to be of 'special concern' with increasing risk of 'endangered' and 'threatened' classifications[2].

Impacts of Anthropogenic Changes

Caribou in its natural habitat

Within British Columbia, the increase of human industrial infrastructure, anthropogenic practices, as well as legal issues have caused a decline in Woodland caribou populations[3]. Caribou are migratory during fall seasons, their migration is dependent on weather, parasites, predators and availability of food resources[4]. The industrialization processes of mining, as well as uncontrollable anthropogenic forest fires have impacted caribou migrations[4]. The development of roads are of great concern by Indigenous communities as they can act as unnatural barriers that prevent Woodland caribou movement[4]. Over recent years, there has been an increase in the building of roads in remote areas through Woodland Caribou ranges[3]. These roads are created to access different sites that are used for forestry, mining, and other natural resource heavy extraction industries[3]. All of these industries as well as roads themselves have heavily impacted the Woodland caribou populations due to land degradation, road mortality, range encroachment, as well as human intervention[3].

Canadian caribou populations assessment by COSEWIC in 2002 and 2014

Road infrastructure, forest harvesting, wind energy, agriculture, and gas exploration all contribute to habitat change which is a growing concern with negative impacts on all species, especially when it comes to biodiversity[5]. There has been an increased rate of habitat change from the late 19th century and continuing into the present due to these industries[5]. These impacts and habitat change are seen to greatly affect Woodland caribou who previously had a broad distributions range, and who display an increased sensitivity to human activities[5].

Economic and Political Factors

For Canadian Woodland Caribou, land use change driven by the oil, gas, mining and forestry industries are the primary driver of decreases in populations[6]. Woodland caribou are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) but face economic conflicts of overlapping use of resources that support a multi-billion-dollar forestry industry on mostly provincial lands[7]. The province currently lacks SARA legislation that could provide the legal protection needed for the critical habitat of the Southern Mountain caribou on provincial land[7]. Woodland caribou also have low reproductive potential and need large areas that have low densities to maximize their risk of survival[7]. State activities and infrastructure further lower these rates and destroy critical habitats, putting Woodland Caribou at higher risk[7].

Impacts on First Nation Communities

The decline in Caribou populations is detrimental to the well-being and livelihood of First Nations, whose traditional practices rely on and tend to the species[1]. There has been a recent push and call for indigenous knowledge and involvement in the protection and advocating for Woodland caribou herds[1]. Interestingly, the time periods in which this decline has accelerated is coinciding with legislation and policies designed to reduce caribou loss and improve populations’ recovery have been developed and implemented[6].

Tenure arrangements

Aboriginal Title

In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada established and defined Aboriginal Law within Canadian law. According to the Supreme Court, Aboriginal Title is defined as having inherent right to traditional lands, for resource extraction (hunting, fishing, gathering), and if the government wished to carry out a project on Crown Land they must consult with and or compensate First Nations whose rights might or would be affected[8]. Aboriginal Title had always existed, but was not recognized or legally defined well up until this point[8]. Note the broad discretion which the Province retains: ‘In the case of asserted aboriginal rights and title, the scope of consultation is based on an assessment of the strength of claim, and the seriousness of potential impacts upon the asserted rights’ (Government of British Columbia. (2014). Guide to involving proponents when consulting First Nations).

Today, this means that First Nations whose traditional lands include natural Caribou Ranges have impact or must be consulted before government action is implemented[8]. This can be used to advocate for the protection of the Caribou range and herds that migrate through[8]. However, the use of Caribou resources in traditional practices is still limited due to harvesting laws[8].

Administrative arrangements

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

The Forest Stewardship Council - FSC - is an independent assessment of responsible forestry, which includes criteria and indicators of First Nations stewardship over crown lands, and the implementation of traditional knowledge[9]. The FSC assesses compliance of FSC certificate holders in forested areas that have marginalized groups including many First Nations, as well as through caribou ranges[9].

The FSC has three basic principles for all associated companies that operate on land under their assessment[9]. These companies range from large logging corporations to community forests[9]. The three principles create standards in regard to respecting indigenous peoples rights[9]. Secondly, defining benefits and compensation to Aboriginal communities from companies under the FSC[9]. Thirdly, an ethical operation standard for all FSC companies[9].  

FSC certified companies are held to high standards to keep practices ethical within Crown Land, including the Canadian Boreal Forests[9]. The FSC also works closely with the Tembec First Nation, Mistik Management, and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries[9]. Together, they advocate for financial benefits and compensation to Aboriginal communities, legal recognition and agreements of rights to land between Aboriginal communities and forest companies (reconciliation process)[9].

Indigenous Rights and Title

Apart from SARA and several provincial legislation, some protections for caribou also stem from Indigenous rights and title, under which the Canadian state is obliged to protect Indigenous people's access to hunting and culturally significant species, like caribou, who provide food, medicine, manufactured items, clothing, and regalia[6].

Affected Stakeholders

First Nations Communities

Caribou have cultural and traditional roles in First Nations communities[10]. As caribou numbers have decreased, their body fat percentage has declined as well[10]. Additionally, the size of herds are much smaller and this makes them more vulnerable to predation which decreases their numbers further[10]. This has severe negative consequences for local First Nations communities, culturally, socially and health-wise[10].

There is conservation attention brought by not only the government including provincial and federal but from Aboriginal communities, industries and community members as well[5].

Indigenous governments have recognition of rights in Section 35 Canada Constitution Act[7]. This is also seen in Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA), these areas allow the incorporation of Indigenous values and western values in these critical habitat management decisions[7].

Interested Outside Stakeholders

There is a broad diversity of actors, including government at both regional and provincial levels, auditing firms, certification organizations both nationally and internationally, advisory committees, industry, and Indigenous political organizations involved[11].

Government Jurisdiction

There is government control in the Federal and Provincial perspectives[7]. These are government jurisdiction seen in the Species at Risk Act and Federal recovery strategies[7]. There is provincial jurisdiction seen in the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA) and Oil and Gas Activities Act (OGAA), Environmental and Land Use Act, Ecological Reserves Act, Park Act[7].There is the federal conservation legislation in Canada, known as the Species at Risk Act, 2002[5].


There is the position of Industry as well, seen by the cumulative effects on industrial development impacting the patterns of resource selection by caribou[5]. This would suggest a connection between declining woodland caribou with loss of high-quality habitat due to industries[5].


West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Willson at a caribou maternity pen project site in the Peace region.

First Nations Caribou Recovery Projects

In the past, the majority of cumulative and interactive impacts have not been considered when assessing caribou populations and  this leads to ineffective mitigation measures by the Canadian government[10]. The declines of caribou numbers have had serious effects on Indigenous Nations across British Columbia and Alberta[6]. West Moberly First Nations (WMFN), Saulteau First Nations, and Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN) have been developing and implementing caribou recovery action plans, independent management plans, caribou maternity penning, and taking legal action to recover the affected populations[12]. Overall, there have been several successful Indigenous-led mitigation measures, the maternal penning project in tandem with habitat restoration has led to the total number of animals in the herd rising to more than 80[12]. Before this program, there were only 16 animals recorded in the Klinse-za herd, as of 2013 and the West Moberly and Saulteau nations decided to take matters into their own hands following inaction from the provincial and federal governments[12]. There have also been instances of successful mitigation strategies, with the use of methods like Community based monitoring (CbEM)[10]. These monitoring systems can be a powerful tool in land use conflict resolution and it represents a low-cost method of monitoring Northern regions[10][6]. They are successful as they meet economic, ecological goals while integrating traditional and indigenous knowledge systems[10]. Traditional knowledge of these areas and species can help provide information on their ecological importance and what species should be prioritized in restoration initiatives, as well as the traditional landscapes that would produce success of these restoration projects[13].

The area of the Dene traditional territory has evidence of hunting caribou for thousands of years[4]. Dene lived in many settlements and moved around camps as needed during the winter season in order to track caribou herds[4]. Landscape was a key factor in hunting caribou as the narrows of big lakes were places these hunters knew they would likely see caribou[4]. There was a high importance held for good hunting practices by these communities such as showing respect by proper harvesting through using every part of the animal[4].

Use of TEK in Ecological Restoration

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), is known as a “Cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and the environment”[13]. TEK is place-based and has been linked to biodiversity, as well as natural resources management[13]. Traditional knowledge is important as it embodies knowledge of historical land use and the formation of these areas[13]. Indigenous peoples have used TEK for sustainability for historically long periods of time seen in use of fire for ecosystem management and traditional harvesting practices that are sustainable[10][13].

Ecological Restoration

Ecological restoration as defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SERI) is “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”, that may or may not be directly caused by human activities (p.227)[13]. Ecological restoration is important as a way to recover a natural ecosystem back to balance that is required for a healthy planet through consideration of ecological and social systems including historical, social, cultural, political, aesthetic and moral aspects[13]. Ecological restoration is beneficial to ecosystems through improving the biological diversity, increasing population levels, widens distribution of threatened species, increases landscape connectivity and the availability of environmental goods or services can support the well-being of humans[13].

There has been evidence shown of TEK contributing in the conservation, management and sustainable use of natural resources[13]. An ecological restoration plan should be based on its current states and consideration of historical evidence of past structures [13].This shows the potential TEK holds in ecological restoration, that builds off long histories of cultural practices and connections to the land[13]. TEK can provide history based on their cultural diversity as well as the sustainable practices that have occurred for hundreds of years[13]. This includes providing knowledge that is site-specific, with a well known history of the area, the vital resources needed often passed on in oral traditions as well as the knowledge from traditional resource management[13]. A habitat ecological restoration will likely need continued management to prevent any destruction of the ecosystem in the future from human activities, climate change, or other potential destructive forces[13]. Local peoples of these areas with the traditional knowledge they hold can be a vital part of the monitoring and assessment of these various restoration projects including; spatial distribution, and specific health conditions[13].


Conservation biology is designed to assess immediate causes of species declines, like land-use change[6]. Conservation science data goes through many layers before it becomes a policy[6]. Most of these layers are impacted by biases, priorities and power of stakeholders[6]. Many major projects all over Canada are often approved by the government even when they have negative projected effects for caribou despite the state's policy commitment to caribou protection and recovery[6][10]. Hence, environmental assessments backed by western science and the policies that back them are dictated by government priorities of economic growth[6]. Mitigation strategies formulated by the ‘western conservation science- federal and provincial government’ duo attempts to treat surface level issues, examples are wolf culling to reduce predation[6]. Regulatory measures, environmental assessments, and conservation efforts led by the government are still failing to tackle the root issue and have been partially or entirely ineffective because of the weak inclusion-exclusion of Indigenous and Traditional knowledge systems[6][11].

Main Legislative Tools

There are three main legislative tools that exist to potentially protect southern mountain caribou, this includes the BC provincial government, Indigenous governments and Canada federal government that can overlap one another[7]. Provincial authority due to the Constitution Act, 1867 has allowed provinces to have power over the lawmaking of provincial lands[7]. In the case of southern woodland caribou, most of the critical habitats are located on provincial lands[7]. British Columbia does not have any SARA legislation on its own[7]. To date, mining and industry development across polar regions has a requirement for approval from national, federal, and territorial institutions[10]. This is done through project-specific environmental and social assessments which are rarely conducted with First Nations communities[10]. This shows a clear power imbalance, and the presence of biases in the decision making process- but just not from all the stakeholders[10]. What are you trying to say in this last sentence?

Species At Risk Act (SARA)

Current status for Woodland Caribou

There are SARA policies that are meant to guide provincial governments to implement policies on provincial lands, in order to protect species and habitats[7]. SARA legislation was created to protect critical habitat through various methods such as prohibiting activities that would impact those areas[7]. This legislation often comes into conflict with social, economic and political goals[7]. There is not a lot of clarity about to what degrees identified critical habitats are protected[7]. This act is used to determine critical habitats within Canada, it does not automatically provide protection to provincial lands but has the potential power of legal protection to apply policies on non-federal lands[7]. Woodland caribou are listed under Canada’s SARA but face economic conflicts of overlapping use of resources that support a multi-billion-dollar forestry industry on mostly provincial lands[7]. “BC currently has no SARA legislation to provide legal protection for southern mountain caribou critical habitat on provincial land” (p.2)[7]. Woodland caribou also have low reproductive potential and need large areas that have low densities to maximize their risk of surviva[7]l. This conflict with the forestry industry leads to habitat loss and predator prey dynamics (economic conflicts)[7].

SARA Policies

Section 61, “If they form the opinion that an endangered or threatened species is not effectively protected through existing federal or provincial legislation” (p.3)[7]. Section 80, “Issue an emergency protection order that identifies any habitat that is necessary for the protection of a listed species and to prohibit activities that may adversely affect the species of its habitat” (p.3)[7]. Implementing an order under Section 80 for woodland caribou may result in negative social and economic impacts due to the forestry industry[7]. Section 11, “Allows the government to enter a conservation agreement with any government, organization, or private land owner to benefit a listed species, including by protecting its critical habitat” (p.3)[7]. There are currently 6 agreements regarding woodland caribou but there lacks clarity in the extent it will provide legal protection[7].There is a bilateral agreement for woodland caribou that was established in February 2020, that allows cooperation between government forces for strategies to recover woodland caribou populations[7]. There have also been agreements made with the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations to provide protection of woodland caribou[7].


In order to conserve caribou habitat and protect their populations, the view that conservation is a purely environmental science needs to be eradicated[6]. To stop governments from failing biodiversity in Canada and around the world, we need to realize that species decline and biodiversity loss is as much a social, economic and political issue as it is environmental[6]. Once governments recognize that decreasing caribou populations is one of the symptoms of our failing scientific, economic and social systems, it may be easier to address and mitigate the issue[6]. One of the ways that this can be achieved in the case of caribou in Canada is through rigorous involvement of Indigenous Knowledge systems and leadership in every level of the recovery and conservation process[6][13].

Future Steps

Several steps need to be taken to reverse and mitigate the damages done to caribou populations and their habitats in Canada[2]. Firstly, short term measures have to be undertaken to reduce predation in declining populations and reduce overall habitat intrusion[2]. It is important to note that these drastic measures will result in social and economic trade-offs which are necessary to reverse the historic negative impacts on caribou[2]. Secondly, regular surveys and monitoring are required to observe the condition of caribou subpopulations and implement necessary measures in areas that show signs of population declines or acceleration of threats[2][10]. Thirdly, a proactive, inclusive and planned approach is critical to address the widespread crisis at hand. Rigorous involvement of Traditional Knowledge systems is important in the conservation process[2][10][13].

Inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge

When assessing caribou populations, it is important to use strategies like systematic community mapping of all possible interactions[10]. Cumulative impacts need to be understood in order to recognize the species’ vulnerability in the context of multiple stressors[10]. Hence, when cumulative factors are not accurately identified, any mitigation is ineffective[6][10]. There is evidence of work from Quebec, where Cree and Naskapi First Nations combine rugged GPS-equipped handheld computers with touch screen software (CyberTracker) and developed a GeoPortal to collect field data on changes in caribou behavior, migration, and habitat as a result of mining activities in the Eastern James Bay area and around Schefferville[10]. This is an example of how integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge into ecosystem restoration and management is an increasingly valuable approach[10]. Modelling studies have shown that such industrial development projects can remain profitable, while simultaneously taking into account indigenous needs[10]. This is causing growing interest in community-based environmental monitoring (CbEM) where local knowledge and observations are recorded and used to inform management processes and decisions[10].

Change in Asymmetric Power Dynamics

Another change in conservation decision-making processes revolves around power dynamics[9]. There were two cases assessed involving the FSC in Quebec and in both of these cases, the government was at the centre of negotiation dynamics and had superior influence in determining the course of events, as well as outcomes[9]. An example of a step in the right direction is the new infrastructure based framework that is currently being implemented and discussed in regards to building roads in British Columbia[3]. The framework aims to establish regulations and further access potential developmental risks to habitats[3]. If a road were to be built, a clear study and evaluation of environmental impacts that could occur would be assessed and weighed[3]. This would also take into account asking for permission and consent from affected First Nations if a road were to be built into their territory, and what stewardship information of the land they can provide to give a more detailed assessment[3]. This is a good step into establishing safer areas for roads to be built, without harming wildlife and ecosystems[3]. Assessing the critical ranges and habitats of the Woodland Caribou and where a road may cause damage may help in conserving and protecting the herd populations[3]. For already developed and built roads, framework on how to better upkeep the roads for the future can be assessed[3]. Developing new techniques or practices that would not cause as much pollution, degradation, or disturbance to the surrounding ecosystem would be beneficial in trying to preserve the land and ranges for the Caribou populations and would include an evaluation of risk assessments[3].

Recognition of Aboriginal Title and Legitimacy of Indigenous Knowledge

First Nations groups, as well as other civil society actors, have always demonstrated considerable expertise and political literacy that lead to political and social improvements like the infrastructure framework[3][9]. They are likely to continue to seek accountability from public and private institutions, including organizations like the FSC[9]. The qualities of collaborative governance are increasingly important in the form of strong heterogeneity of participants[9]. In addition, multiple areas of discussion and decentralized patterns of decision making, i.e., less local government involvement and more unbiased international influence can be a viable solution to restoring caribou populations and habitats[6][9].


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