It isn't every day that an international science summit brings together traditional Aboriginal knowledge and Western science. However, threats to a unique species call for a unique approach.
The issue in this case is the staggering decline of North America's caribou populations. Hundreds of scientists, wildlife managers, and Aboriginal leaders from across Canada and as far away as Greenland, Russia, and Norway recently met for four days in Winnipeg to discuss the problem.
Biologists estimate that global caribou populations are less than half of what they were 50 years ago. Canada is no exception. A 2009 federal study by a blue-ribbon panel of caribou biologists found that 29 of the 57 remaining herds of boreal caribou in Canada are not self-sustaining, and in some places, like northeastern British Columbia, are on the verge of collapse. The scientific evidence points to two leading factors: expanding industry in the caribou's boreal forest home — including forestry, mining, and oil and gas development — and climate change, which is putting caribou populations under enormous additional strain.
Caribou are a timid animal, easily spooked and disturbed by the slightest changes in their sensitive boreal forest habitat. Scientists have discovered that a single road can completely alter the migratory path of an entire herd.
Caribou are also an indicator species of overall forest health. The strength of their populations can reflect the health of the surrounding forest environment on which they depend. The precipitous drop in caribou numbers over the past few decades sends an alarming signal that all is not well in Canada's boreal forest.
The decline of the boreal caribou is both an ecological and social problem. Not only do caribou play a primary role in the ecology of Canada's boreal forest, they are also important to Aboriginal and Métis people who live in the North. Caribou meat is hearty and rich with calories, and their bones and hides are commonly used for tools and clothing. Many Aboriginal groups also have longstanding spiritual connections with caribou, so the continued persistence of caribou is critical to the ongoing health and well-being of indigenous communities in the North.
The Caribou Summit was held to exchange information about how to forestall a major ecological and social disaster in Canada's North if local caribou populations decline further or even disappear altogether, as has already happened in some parts of their historical range. However, unlike many other international scientific gatherings, this one had Aboriginal representatives and keepers of "traditional" knowledge, such as elders, at the forefront to lead discussions and share insights from communities that have coexisted with caribou for thousands of years. While the application of traditional scientific methods is critical to any species-recovery planning, such planning would be incomplete without the deep-rooted knowledge and on-the-ground experiences of those closest to the caribou themselves.
And it is they who stand to lose the most in terms of culture and livelihood should caribou recovery attempts fail.
As noted by Dene Nation President and former Northwest Territories Premier Stephen Kakfwi, Aboriginal people have a critical role in shaping and leading caribou conservation. "First Nations people have a wealth of intricate land-management knowledge as it applies to caribou," he told media at the summit. "Losing caribou is not an intellectual exercise for us and it is not an option. If the caribou are destroyed, our people are destroyed."
Mr. Kakfwi has gone even further, issuing a challenge to stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, industry, and governments to sit down and work together. "We can't keep fighting each other," he said, referring specifically to environmental groups, tar sands companies like Syncrude, and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.
We agree. Scientists tell us that protecting large, interconnected expanses of boreal habitat is crucial to preventing further losses and to eventually recovering caribou populations. But we can only develop a plan to solve the caribou crisis with full participation of and collaboration with Aboriginal people and their governments.
Government decisions on the fate of caribou habitat, such as new habitat regulations under Ontario's Endangered Species Act and Quebec's Plan Nord land-use plan, are pending. To succeed, government actions must be based on the best available science as well as First Nations knowledge of this iconic animal of the North.