Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
To replenish the mule deer population that has been hit hard by wildfires and clearcut logging in the Skeetchestn territory in British Columbia, Gabe Jules says hunting must be limited by both First Nations and non-Indigenous hunters.
But it’s going to be a battle, says the wildlife representative with the Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation (SNRC).
First Nation members are allowed to hunt year-round, and subsistence hunting is primarily how they put meat on the table.
“We're looking at reducing our harvest. Probably, most likely, it won't be indefinitely, but until we start seeing (mule deer) populations come back up anyways,” said Jules, a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band.
Protocols that will regulate hunting in the community are being considered, he says.
“We're looking at...some of the hunters that…are experts within the community. They'll go out and harvest the animals so that we know what's coming off of the land,” said Jules.
Discussions have yet to take place with the community though, he adds.
Another “struggle” Jules anticipates is with non-Indigenous hunters. SNRC is working with the B.C. Conservation Officer Service to develop a memorandum of understanding to create a regulatory process for hunting mule deer.
“Hunting is a pretty big thing in B.C.…(and) it's already been signaled that we won't have influence on the hunting (regulations),” he said.
Jules, who is also a title and rights representative for SNRC, says he is frustrated by what is happening in the Skeetchestn territory.
He sites the Delgamuukw decision of 1997. In Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada observed that Aboriginal title constituted an ancestral right protected by section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982.
“Our rights—hunting, fishing and gathering—are well recognized right across Canada,” said Jules.
“It is very frustrating dealing with these other impacts and now, with the mule deer (population), because hunting is a recognized right and it really affects us going forward,” he said.
Skeetchestn territory is just under 700,000 hectares. While the fires this year in B.C. did not impact the territory, previous wildland fires have had a devastating impact on habitat.
The Elephant Hill fire in 2017 burned “pretty much the entire west side” of the territory, says Jules. In 2021, the Tremont Creek wildfire encompassed the south side of the territory and the Spark Lake fire, also 2021, burned the east side. New studies indicate that the 2021 forest fires burned 30 per cent of the territory, including 50 per cent of the key mule deer winter range.
“So that, compounded with other projects and logging over the last 30 to 40 years, has really reduced the ecosystems and habitat for the mule deer,” said Jules.
Now two years after the wildfires, access restrictions are being lifted to the region, something that has Jules concerned.
When he goes out on the land on weekends with family, Jules says he sees healthier deer, partially because the fires have rejuvenated the forage. However, that doesn’t tell the full story.
“So even though they may look healthy, the populations are probably not as healthy as they were at the height of the mule deer population. That would have been decades ago, probably before a lot of the logging happened,” said Jules.
Not only did logging reduce habitat, it also opened up areas for predators like wolves. Jules points out that roads and clearcuts allow wolves to chase animals farther and longer.
It’s also opened the area up to hunters on all-terrain vehicles and encouraged larger volumes of people and hunting dogs higher up in the mountains. Hunters also track the deer on the ground.
To assess the exact impact of the wildfires and clearcutting on the mule deer population and to bring political pressure to bear that supports Skeetchestn’s rights and title and sustainability with resource development, SNRC is collecting data.
Among the data already collected are pellet samples, which are being sent to the lab to get fetal cortisol levels assessed. That assessment will indicate the stress level of the mule deer.
Jules notes that results from pellet samples last year showed a high composition of poison ivy.
“We figure they were eating it because of a lack of forage because the fires would have burned pretty much all their winter foods in a lot of the areas around here. Poison ivy doesn’t kill them but I don't think it would be good for them, that's for sure,” he said.
Researchers like Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a postdoctoral fellow at the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, are working with SNRC to investigate wildlife recovery and ecosystem restoration throughout the territory.
Dickson-Hoyle’s work is supported by Mitacs, a national innovation organization that helps with research solutions from academic institutions. Mitacs is working in partnership with the Secwepemcúl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society (SRSS). SRSS was founded by eight Secwépemc communities, including Skeetchestn, to support Indigenous-led restoration, environmental stewardship, and protection of cultural heritage throughout Secwépemc territory.
“Rather than us, as researchers, leading this work, it’s about drawing on some of the tools and methods of western science to support Indigenous-led monitoring and restoration throughout First Nation traditional territories,” said Dickson-Hoyle, a Mitacs intern, who has been involved since February.
“We're collecting that data now and hopefully within the next couple of years we'll have enough to show that we need these regulations changed, at least for the interim until we can figure out how healthy the populations really are and if the current regs are sustainable at those numbers,” said Jules.
He expects the next few winters will be tough for the mule deer. Fir trees have been burned up high enough that the animals will have trouble accessing the foliage and there will be more disease and predators.
In the time it takes for the data collection and measures to be put in place, Jules remains optimistic that it won’t be too late for the mule deer population.
“We're hoping that with the fire rejuvenating a lot of the forage that those populations will come back up because they'll have a healthy source of nutrients,” he said. “But, I mean, time will only tell…(It) could go the other way.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.