A photojournalist documents an unprecedented effort to restore caribou herds that are central to Indigenous foodways.
A photojournalist documents an unprecedented effort to restore caribou herds that are central to Indigenous foodways.
October 29, 2020
“I’m picking lichen to feed to the caribou, so that one day I will get to eat the caribou,” said Daniel Desjarlais, a professional cook from the West Moberly First Nations, during a recent outing. Over the course of a day, under the warm, late-summer sun, Desjarlais and about a dozen compatriots carefully harvested lichen from the forest floor. Around them, the spruce and fir forest spread out for miles in the glacier-carved valley, surrounded by high peaks rising into alpine tundra—the realm of mountain caribou.
The traditional territories of the West Moberly and their neighbors, the Saulteau First Nation, include portions of the northern end of the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding boreal forests in northeastern British Columbia (B.C.), Canada. Both First Nations have been battling for decades to save caribou, a traditional food for their people, from extirpation.
Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, are a circumboreal species native to Europe, Asia, and North America. But in the rugged interior mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the caribou are part of a behaviorally unique and endangered ecotype of the species, known as mountain caribou.
There used to be many thousands of mountain caribou. They provided a sustainable staple food source for Indigenous peoples for millennia. But when miners entered the region in the 1800s, market hunting for caribou to feed the burgeoning settler community began to damage the population. Today, their numbers are on a steep downward trajectory; currently only about 1,200 remain, divided into a dozen disconnected subpopulations including a small number in the territory of the West Moberly and Saulteau.
After commercial hunting ended, logging and mining activities continued to deplete caribou numbers by destroying the large tracts of old growth forest they called home and making them more susceptible to predation. By the 1970s, the animal’s numbers had dropped so precipitously that the two First Nations unilaterally stopped hunting caribou. They looked to the provincial government to initiate a recovery plan, but an effective plan never materialized.
Forty years later, after a series ineffective of conservation plans and continued declines in caribou numbers, one local herd, Burnt Pine, was completely gone. Another, the Klinse-za, had dwindled to just 16 animals. Taking matters into their own hands, in 2011, the First Nations people sued the provincial government for violating their treaty rights to hunt caribou by allowing for unchecked resource extraction in their traditional territory and failing to come up with an effective conservation strategy.
Rather than waiting for the colonial governments to fix the problem, they began their own recovery efforts. These included capturing and penning pregnant caribou cows to protect them and their calves during birthing, then releasing them back into the wild; predator control efforts on landscapes where logging, mining, and road construction has destroyed refuge habitat for caribou; and restoration work to recover this habitat so caribou will be able to thrive on their own once again.
Their leadership has led to one of the only bright spots on the map in western Canada for caribou recovery. Today, the Klinse-za herd has grown to nearly 100 animals. The members of the West Moberly and Saulteau aren’t carrying out a subsistence hunt today, in hopes that they may one day see the population rise to the point where they’ll be able to do so again.
“Our elders tell us the caribou have been here for us, and now we need to be there for the caribou,” said West Moberly Chief Roland Willson.
Meanwhile, the West Moberly and Saulteau Nations won the lawsuit filed in 2011 and, in the winter of 2020, they signed a historic partnership agreement with the Canadian federal government and the province of B.C., committing the colonial governments to a robust recovery program for the caribou. Early stages of its implementation have been positive, but full implementation of the plan will roll out over the next several years.
On a larger scale, the First Nations’ recovery work reflects the larger movement within their communities to address food sovereignty, cultural survival, and their link to first foods. Members of both Nations point to the physical, cultural, and spiritual health benefits of eating moose, caribou, saskatoon and other berries, and many other plants, which provided sustenance for them for hundreds of generations.
In their remote communities, getting fresh and healthy food through the colonial food system is challenging and expensive, said chef Desjarlais, and yet all around them, healthy, fresh traditional foods abound.
Along with the caribou restoration project, the two Nations started Twin Sisters Nursery to help tribal members feed themselves. The nursery grows native plants for restoration projects around their territory, focusing on culturally important foods for themselves and the animals they hunt. The Saulteau people also started Aski Reclaimation Ltd., a company that works with the oil and gas industry to restore impacted industrial sites (Aski is the Cree word for “Earth”).
Both ventures employ members of the community and are providing the opportunity to open a new chapter in their efforts to maintain their cultural identity, provide food for their members, and follow through on their responsibility to provide stewardship to their traditional territories.
The photos below document some of the work these First Nations are doing to support the caribou’s return.
On the eastern slope of the Hart Ranges and the northern end of the Rocky Mountains, the West Moberly First Nations reserve sits where the Moberly River enters the top of Moberly Lake. The Saulteau reserve is at the east end of the lake. The river drains out of the Indigenous Protected Area, created in 2020 as part of the partnership agreement signed between the First Nations, Canada, and B.C. to protect caribou habitat.
Starr Gauthier, a member of the Saulteau First Nation, works as a caribou guardian at the maternity pen. Here, she checks the outer electric fence around the pen designed to keep predators away. According to Gauthier, the efforts “shows what we can do as human beings to take responsibility rather than just taking and extracting. . . . We need to think about more than just ourselves.”
Daniel Desjarlais of the West Moberly First Nation picks lichen to feed caribou in the maternity pen. He aspires to bring better food back to his community through a restaurant that will include the “bush foods” that are a traditional part of his people’s diet.
Pauline Walker, a member of the Saulteau First Nation, collects lichen. A self-described “elder in training,” Walker said, “I consider it an honor to be able to give back to the caribou. . . . We want caribou here for our great-grandchildren.”
The Twin Sisters Mountains are in the heart of the newly created Indigenous Protected Area, which is a central part of the new agreement between the Canadian government and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.
According to Ken Cameron, councilor and former Chief of Saulteau First Nation: “The Saulteau people were guided here by vision and ceremony from the Creator to find a safe sanctuary. [In the 1800s in Manitoba,] they were confined to a small reserve and they were [facing] starvation. Through prayer and ceremony, they asked for guidance, and they were given these Twin Sisters Mountains, a safe place to live forever with protection. . . . For us, it is a very sacred area.”
Cameron noted that these mountains are also considered sacred to the West Moberly and many other Indigenous nations as well.
Cameron signed the partnership agreement with Canada and B.C. for the Saulteau people. At the signing ceremony, he cited the agreement as a step toward reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government.
Julian Napoleon, Saulteau member and caribou guardian, at the pen. “Caribou have the right to exist, and we don’t have the right to take that away from them,” he said. “There was a time in the past where they were a primary source of food. . . . [But] in my lifetime, we haven’t been able to hunt them. That’s a thing of generations past—for my great-grandmother’s generation, [caribou] were a big part of their diet.”
Napoleon shows a piece of dried moose meat from an animal he hunted, which he said is as good as money on the reserve. “You can get anything you want with dried meat,” he said. He learned a lot from his grandmother, who got much of her food from the land in traditional ways.
“[My work] comes down to my philosophy around food. . . . We exist together in what we call sacred relationships. For the moose and caribou to thrive, we need to continue to honor them in our prayers and ceremonies, and we need to continue to work with them—eating them is a part of that. There is no way to express deeper gratitude to an animal than when it offers itself to you and you bring it home and share it with people you love.”
Napoleon hopes that in his lifetime, his people have the chance to honor caribou in that way again. “What we need is right in front of us all the time, if we just learn how to see it,” he said. “The medicines we need to heal are in the plants in our yard. If we base our diet on what’s right around us, then we will be optimized for the environment around us.”
Industrial logging, as well as oil and gas development, have created huge impacts on the landscape in the region. Mature forests are critical refuge habitat for caribou. Clearcuts such as this will take nearly a century to recover before they become secure habitat for caribou again.
The Twin Sisters Nursery, named after the mountains at the heart of the newly created protected area, was designed to help restore the landscape and create local employment for members of the First Nations.
Diane Calliou, Saulteau member and general manager of Twin Sisters Nursery, oversees the nursery’s expanding operations. Besides plants for restoration projects, the nursery is looking at ways to feed more people. “Food security is going to be a big concern and [food] is going to be a critical piece to what we grow here,” she said. This spring, they produced starts for gardens that community members planted for elders.
Teenage members of the two First Nations work in the nursery preparing plants that will be used for restoration projects on their traditional territory.
“When we asked our elders ‘How do you say ‘Saskatoon’ in Cree,’ they said ‘Saskatoon,’” said Carmen Richter, a treaty and lands biologist for the Saulteau people. This continuity underscores how much traditional knowledge tribal elders hold. “[These are] great berries, we love eating them and we love planting them because they do great in the sun. They are hearty plants for restoration,” she said.
Alycia Aird, Saulteau member and project manager of Aski Reclamation, surveys a recent restoration project. Aski Reclamation was started by Saulteau people to address the large number of industrial sites, such as abandoned oil and gas wells, that have not been properly restored.
Aird notes that traditional industrial reclamation didn’t use native plants and “wasn’t working to meet the end land use goals that the Saulteau are hoping to see as a community.” Aski focuses on incorporating traditional values into their projects, with a focus on culturally important plants, in order to restore their access to traditional foods and hunting areas guaranteed to them by the treaty.
Aird inspects a recent planting in the restoration site.
Shed caribou antlers. Despite the huge efforts of these First Nations, the future of caribou in the region is still far from secure.
This article was updated to correct Pauline Walker’s last name.
All photos by David Moskowitz.
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