By Caitlyn Vernon
Here in British Columbia, we have been failing in our responsibility to take care of the world’s last remaining southern mountain caribou, majestic creatures that have sustained Indigenous nations with food and culture for thousands of years.
Today, many of the herds are threatened with imminent extinction. We’ve lost three herds in the past five years. More than a dozen herds have fewer than 25 animals remaining.
The good news is that the Saulteau and West Moberly Nations are leading the way to their recovery.
These nations have reached a partnership agreement with Canada and B.C. to set aside a small amount of caribou habitat so that at least one herd has a glimmer of hope for survival. For the B.C. government, supporting the nations’ leadership is an important gesture of reconciliation.
It can’t be overstated how close this herd was to extinction. In 2014, the Moberly (Klinse-Za) herd was down to only 16 animals. A successful maternal penning program led by the Saulteau and West Moberly Nations brought the numbers up to 80 in just five years. Incredible results, yet elders recall a "sea of caribou" in the past, so true recovery is a long way off yet.
Saving caribou means protecting at least some of the mountains and forests in which they live. It’s both that simple, and that hard. The recovery plan to protect a mountainous area of caribou habitat in northeast B.C. will require reducing some logging activities.
Cue the outrage. One company is claiming if this habitat protection goes ahead, 500 jobs will be lost. This is causing fear and could fuel a worrying racist backlash.
Logging companies’ claims must be put into context. First, the annual allowable harvest in that region is 7.9 million cubic metres per year. The area allocated to caribou habitat represents only about 300,000 cubic metres or 3.8 percent of the present cut.
Second, in recent years the provincial government raised the rate of cut by about three million cubic metres per year, so the companies could harvest dead trees killed by the bark beetle epidemic that has ravaged B.C. forests due to climate change.
That deal resulted in record profits for logging companies in recent years. But the companies and their investors also understand that those days are over. The unsustainable cut level will have to be reduced now that the beetle-killed trees are mostly logged.
That’s why those companies have been laying off B.C. workers and buying mills in the southern U.S. and in Scandinavia.
I don’t want anyone to fear for their job. We all deserve safe, meaningful work and a way to support our families. It is unconscionable, however, for any resource company to provoke racism by stoking fears and deflecting blame onto Indigenous nations.
Our communities are facing severe wildfires and droughts. Our health and security are undermined by increasing extreme weather events as a result of climate change. The underlying anxiety is palpable. To build our resilience and keep our children safe, we’re going to need to learn a new way of living with the land.
Our current approach resulted in bark beetles, dying caribou, and unpredictable extreme weather. Who is better situated to offer wisdom and teachings for a renewed way forward than the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years?
Growing up in B.C, no school or government program taught me that if we take care of the land, it will take care of us. Instead, our history is one of colonial plunder, assuming rights to use land in whatever way we desired, without any associated responsibility to look after it or to respect the people who were already living there.
With their approach to caribou protection, the Saulteau and West Moberly Nations are reminding us what resiliency and leadership looks like: it looks like taking care of the land that feeds us and our children.
Let’s recognize their leadership and show them the support they deserve.