Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The issue of decreasing habitat and diminished population of boreal woodland caribou in the shared homelands of the Athabasca Chipewyan (ACFN) and Mikisew Cree (MCFN) First Nations in northeastern Alberta can no longer wait for action by the federal and provincial governments and industry.
There’s an urgency that took the two First Nations to Montreal last week to present their new Tâdzié/Sagow Atihk stewardship plan to non-government organizations at COP15, the United Nations biodiversity conference.
“We basically always try to exhaust all efforts, including presenting at conferences and raising the awareness of such an important species,” said Melody Lepine, director for government and industry relations for Mikisew Cree First Nation. “The more attention that matter gets, the better. The more people aware of the situation of the woodland caribou, the better.”
“The disappearance of these sensitive animals is a sign to Elders and knowledge holders from both nations that the boreal ecosystem, which is essential to the continued practice of ACFN and MCFN rights, is highly stressed. Protecting and recovering these ecosystems is critical to recover tâdzié/sagow atihk and restore ACFN and MCFN rights within their territories,” reads the stewardship plan.
Lepine says the plan got the attention of both levels of government.
Lepine is still in Montreal, meeting with Alberta government officials. On Monday night she met with representatives from Alberta’s department of environment and protected areas. She hoped to talk with the department’s Minister Sonja Savage, who is meeting with a number of environmental stakeholders.
Lepine points to Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, now 10 years old and being revisited by the province. She says that plan allows for cumulative industry effects and prioritizes development all while not including a biodiversity framework.
“I pushed and reminded Alberta (Monday) night that we need this biodiversity management plan framework, and caribou, …a very important species, needs to be included in that framework,” she said.
Chief Allan Adam of ACFN is in Ottawa meeting with ministers and MPs about the caribou ecosystem. He told Windspeaker.com, the lack of habitat is forcing behaviour changes in the animal.
“We’re starting to see the woodland caribou come on the winter road. It’s never been heard of before. Last winter was the first time that people were taking pictures of these caribou herds, some of them about 10, running alongside the road,” said Adam.
“This can’t keep going on. We’re letting the Alberta government know. We’re letting the federal government know as well,” he said.
On Monday he spoke with federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault and asked him to consider sending federal dollars allotted for an action plan to protect the woodland caribou directly to the two First Nations. Adam says the province has done nothing with the federal funding to protect the caribou.
Boreal caribou are included as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act, and their protection and recovery fall under the lead of Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“We were trying to convince (Guilbeault) that the funding that’s going to the provincial government, give us the funding and we will have our own guardians work with it…He was receptive to it. So we have some interest and that’s where I’m at,” said Adam.
The 86-page stewardship plan was prepared by the technical teams of the two nations with support from Firelight Research Inc., an Indigenous-owned consulting firm that focuses on ecology as well as culture, health, socioeconomics, and governance.
The plan concentrates on the four disconnected boreal caribou ranges of Richardson, Red Earth, and the east and west sides of the Athabasca River. All four ranges have low levels of undisturbed habitat and, with the exception of Richardson, the local populations have experienced steep decline since 2000.
“Our way of thinking is that the caribou are in danger and we have to come to their aid to help them because the caribou were the backbone of the Dene people. They housed us. They clothed us. They fed us,” said Adam.
“The plan will also guide and support regulatory and wildlife management decision-making processes for the recovery of the boreal caribou populations in these four ranges,” reads the document.
Knowledge holders will be the ones to identify when the populations and habitats have been replenished and will be guided by Dene and Cree laws “which consider the interconnectedness of the system, not simply one resource in isolation,” says the plan.
It sets out three stewardship zones: protection, restoration and active management. At least 65 per cent of the landscape within each of the four ranges will be included in a protection or restoration zone.
“While ACFN and MCFN will lead the implementation of this Stewardship Plan, the two Nations recognize that many parties must also be involved in implementation, including other Indigenous governments and organizations, the federal government, the provincial government, municipal governments, industry, and other interest groups,” the plan says.
Lepine says it’s important for industry to support the plan that has been developed.
“They can take some bold action in making sure that those areas are restored to standards within our stewardship plan. That they support us in efforts to reclaim and restore those areas that they no longer will be using,” said Lepine. “Bringing back what’s already disturbed is a key role where we see industry supporting the plan.”
She adds that what MCFN and ACFN are proposing isn’t unique. Earlier this year, the province, Canada and Mikisew Cree collaborated in the creation of the Kitaskano Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park. That park protects 140,000 hectares of caribou habitat. It also protects bison and provides protected space for Indigenous use.
As for the boreal ecosystem the two First Nations are now putting a protection plan in action for, “it can be done and we’re building on an example of the creation of the wildland park,” said Lepine.
The Tâdzié/Sagow Atihk stewardship plan can be accessed here: https://www.acfn.com/_files/ugd/75b7f5_c1236f1c4def4a0cb54a92d54895f5cb.pdf
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.