In a cramped cabin in western Canada, Starr Gauthier’s mornings begin with a comforting routine. As the sun flits through stands of mountain evergreens, she brews coffee, chops wood and prepares food – for her co-worker and for the endangered caribou whose fate rests in her hands. “I get fired up every morning knowing that we’re actually doing something that matters,” says the former oil worker.
“And it’s not just that we’re serving a purpose for our community and the ecosystem around us. We’re serving a global purpose. And I’m grateful to be a part of that.”
Gauthier, a member of the Saulteau First Nation in British Columbia, is part of an Indigenous-led effort that has saved a caribou herd from destruction. The group’s success in using a carefully guarded maternity pen has become an example for Indigenous communities grappling with the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
The pen, in a forest along the slopes of the Selkirk mountains, is surrounded by about 1.5km (1 mile) of black geofabric wall and protected by two layers of electrified fencing. Inside, a ridge runs down the middle, dividing the enclosure into a wide meadow and an area of thick forest.
In two-week shifts, members of the nearby First Nations, known as caribou guardians, spend their days watching over the the hardy mammals that thrived for thousands of years on the lichen-rich forests in the highlands of eastern British Columbia. They were once so common that Indigenous elders likened them to “bugs on the landscape”.
The damming of a large river in 1960, however, shattered a key migration route in what would be the first blow to the caribou. Indigenous communities voluntarily banned hunting as populations plunged, but decades of mining and logging projects in the region destroyed the vast expanses of forests the caribou needed to survive.
“As a kid, I always thought of them as this beautiful and mysterious animal in the mountains,” says Gauthier. “But they were something we rarely got to see.”
Today, many of the province’s mountain caribou, an ecotype of woodland caribou, are imperilled. The province has lost at least five herds, including the Burnt Pine herd in 2013, despite legal efforts from West Moberly First Nation to save it.
The following year, with the Klinse-Za herd recording only 16 members, the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations decided to act to prevent another loss. They took five females from the Klinse-Za and five from the neighbouring – and equally embattled – Scott East herd.
Working with biologists, the aim was to shelter the pregnant caribou from predators and then release the mothers and calves when they were old enough to survive in the wild.
The bold experiment was a success: many of the calves survived and the move effectively combined the two herds, bolstering their chances of survival. In the years since, the herd has grown from 36 animals to nearly 135.
“It’s been amazing to see the success we’ve had,” says Gauthier, who has spent four years working on the project. “And I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the numbers kept dropping … If [community leaders] hadn’t acted, today that number could have been zero for all we know.”
The remote location of the pen can prove challenging, however. During the spring melt, the area is more swamp than land and catching a newborn calf inside the pen for tagging requires running headlong through dense forest, over uneven ground, vaulting fallen logs, thickets and sucking mud.
When mother and calf are ready to leave, the team dismantles part of the wall and guides them back into the forest to join the herd. The survival rate for calves born in the pen is nearly 60% – double that of calves born in the wild.
Much of the success comes from guarding against predators. Armed with a rifle, a guardian walks the perimeter of the fence every morning, checking for signs of any animals trying to break in.
Behind rocks and thick undergrowth, cougars, grizzly bears and lynx lie in wait. Wolverines can slink as low as a few inches and squeeze through seemingly impossible spaces – past electric fencing and into the pen.
Even smaller predators can deal an ultimately fatal blow to the calves. Ravens will sometimes peck out a newborn calf’s eyes, says guardian Lucas Talving. The blind calf is then unable to feed. The ravens wait for it to starve to death before swooping in to feast on the carcass.
“They’re incredibly smart,” says Talving, who carries a .22 rifle. Whenever ravens show too much interest in the calves, he is forced to act. He says killing one bird can sometimes deter the rest. “They learn very quickly,” he says.
The caribou’s largest predator, however, is the wolf. But while provincial officials in British Columbia and neighbouring Alberta have approved controversial wolf culls, killing hundreds of wolves in a futile bid to stabilise caribou numbers, the guardians and other experts say focusing on wolves ignores larger threats to the ecosystem.
Logging clearances have done far more to damage the prospects of caribou than wolves, removing the animals’ main refuge and food source. The open spaces also lure moose when vegetation sprouts through the scars in the landscape. The moose bring wolves – wily predators that quickly realise they have a far higher (and less perilous) success rate stalking caribou.
Strategies such as penning are an effective bridging measure, says biologist Rob Serrouya, but widespread habitat loss is the biggest driver of the decline of caribou herds.
“Society needs to decide how much they’re willing to increase habitat protection, which has economic cost in the short term, in order to eventually eliminate the more intensive management,” says Serrouya, a professor at the University of British Columbia. “How much are we willing to sacrifice?”
Seemingly aware of the damage their operations have wreaked on the landscape, many of the forestry and mining companies are now funders of the maternity penning project.
“There’s obviously renewed optimism because of initiatives like the penning project. If you had asked me 10 years ago if there would be half a dozen herds that are increasing, I would have predicted no,” says Serrouya.
He believes the success of the penning project has created the impetus to expand habitat protections. “If the [Klinse-Za] herd hadn’t started cranking upwards in the early years of the penning, would the 7,900 hectares [19,520 acres] have been protected in 2019? I don’t think so.”
Gauthier, who spent years away from her community working in the oil industry, sees the project not only as a local success story, but as an opportunity for Indigenous communities to take the lead in conservation projects. For years, Indigenous leaders have watched, frustrated and devastated, as species disappeared. Often hamstrung by jurisdictional red tape, they acted without permission from the province to set up the maternity pen.
“Hopefully other First Nations take our lead and will be able to just stand up and say, ‘Hey, let’s get this done. This is what’s right’,” says Gauthier.
“Caribou are part of the landscape, and they belong there, and they should be there. And they should be there in large numbers, whether or not we’re ever going to hunt them again.”
This article by Leyland Cecco was first published by The Guardian on 8 September 2022. Lead Image: A mother and her newborn calf in the protected enclosure run by members of the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations. Photograph: Jesse Winter/Reuters.
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