If they can survive, we can too
If you really want to know about climate change, get out of the classroom, the boardroom, far from the television and computer screen and Parliament hill, and follow those with the oldest relationships and clearest visions to the top of the world.
Have a seat, look, listen.
Peace River, B.C. is home to the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations, whose people have survived the never-ending onslaught of industrial development. If you travel to the Peace River region, you may meet one of four caribou guardians from the nations. They may truck you up logging roads, quad you up the mountain and tell you the story of a great and gradual change that led to their two bands standing together to save a herd of caribou whose story of survival mirrors their own.
Caribou guardians protect an ancient herd of caribou that has lived in peaceful coexistence with their people since time immemorial. Guardians work in and around a caribou maternal pen, living in an isolated cabin at mountain elevation, monitoring a herd they’ve brought back to life from the brink of extinction.
Julian Napoleon is Dunne-Za (Beaver) and Nehiyah (Cree) and he lives in his traditional territories in the house of his great grandmother. Napoleon is a biologist, hunter, trapper, moose surveyor and caribou guardian. During the spring and summer, he works eight days on and six days off, guarding a 30-acre caribou maternal pen, where the Kinse Za caribou herd now has the protected space to grow.
“We’re kindred spirits, the caribou and our people. Their story is our story and our story is theirs,” Napoleon said, at his kitchen table, dipping fat chunks of lingcod in warm garlic butter. “It’s the story of surviving an onslaught of exploitative industry for years. We’re doing so much for them to survive, because it represents so much more for us as a people ... If they can survive, maybe we can too.”
The Saulteaux (Anishinaabe), Nehiyaw (Cree) and mountain Dunne-Za people existed in the northeast of what is today known as British Columbia long before adhering to Treaty 8 in 1914.
Before settlers arrived, an agreement was made between the Saulteaux and the Dunne-Za people for coexistence, the Nehiyawak (Cree people) arriving later in phases. The groups are bound together by a collective history, worldviews, ancient laws and kinship, and they continue to uphold unique forms of governance, spiritual traditions and connections to the land.
But nothing is as it was before. Industrialization has pushed many species to the very limits of survival.
“It's no different for my people. We’re having a harder and harder time to find our culturally appropriate foods that define us as a unique race on the face of this planet,” Napoleon said.
Napoleon’s freezer is not unlike other freezers in the area, stuffed with wild game — buffalo, moose, elk, deer, lynx, lingcod, trout, jackfish, whitefish, grouse and rabbit, as well as huckleberry jam.
“We’re a food-based culture and those foods, to me, are the most significant part of who we are, and yet it’s harder and harder to get them. When we do get them, who’s to say whether they’re contaminated or if they’re even safe anymore?” he asked. “We’ve all been pushed to the absolute edge of survival.”
If one had a yearning to journey through hell, Napoleon told me, when about to leave his community, take a left at Hudson’s Hope and travel through what historically was hunting grounds for his people, a “darn good spot to get a moose." After a fat stretch of farm land, you'll hit "nothing but oil and gas development."
“It’s frack well after frack well on both sides of the road,” Napoleon said. Sometimes the frack wells are abandoned interspersed with gas processing plants that resemble “space stations,” sporting tubes and aluminum as apocalyptic plumes belligerently billow into the air, he explained. The last time Napoleon drove through the area, he nearly had a breakdown. The wounds on the land mirror the wounds embodied by his people, he said.
It is a burden they carry together.
“When I was a kid, that area was one of our main hunting grounds, but now everything's poisoned,” he said. “The ground water is poisoned with frack fluid, the air is poisoned with fugitive emissions, the surface of the earth is covered in settled toxic particulate and all the animals and plants are sick.”
The Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations have had heavy logging operating near their communities since the beginning of the 80s.
The closest town to Napoleon’s reserve, Chetwynd, has been a mill town for all 35 years of Napoleon’s life. With logging came the use of toxic chemicals used for vegetation management on new seedlings planted, Napoleon said, an issue his community has been dealing with using sheep.
Concerned with the onslaught of industrial development, coming from every direction, Saulteau Chief and Council teamed up with two shepherds and invested in a herd of sheep as a non-chemical solution to vegetation management. Rather than using toxic chemicals like Round-Up, the band uses sheep who eat the hungry vegetation that threatens to choke out little seedlings planted in reforestation efforts.
There are positive shifts, Napoleon recognized, but it’s hard to keep up with the impacts of industry.
“We’re on the Montney Shale gas plate and have well over 16,000 gas wells in our territory, and there’s talk of 40,000 more,” he said. “Mining is huge too. We’ve got a ton of coal up here.”
There are a number of coal mines operating in Napoleon’s territory - Conuma Coal Resources’ Wolverine Mine, Brule Mind, and Willow Creek mine.
The reality of these industries is that they release toxins, Napoleon said.
“We didn’t have cancer before the industrial revolution,” he said. “Cancers are a result of exposure to toxins - toxic chemicals, created by humans, that become lethal in the long run.”
It’s overwhelming and infinite to truly consider how much extractive industries have wrenched from the land, often causing more destruction than abundance.
Before oil and gas in the region, before mining and forestry, large scale commercial agriculture operations greatly contributed to the displacement of Indigenous peoples, as well as hydroelectric developments, like the ones along the Peace River, including the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.
The water created from the floodwaters of ten rivers and creeks were converged to fuel the hydroelectric power-generating unit, which spins the blades of a giant turbine and creates energy. When settlers built the W.A.C. dam, they didn't bother to inform local communities, like members of the Kwadacha First Nation whose riverboats were swamped.
The next project slated to start is the controversial $8.8 billion Site C dam, which the government approved in December, 2017. Currently under construction, once completed, the dam will flood 107 kilometres of the Peace River regions, land Napoleon and others grew up fishing, paddling, harvesting plants grown unique to the area.
The impact of all the development has severely fragmented those who call the land home.
Saved from extinction
West Moberly and Saulteau elders remember a time when caribou were so numerous, the Peace River region was described as being covered by a “sea of caribou.” Recognizing the need for habitat protection in the 1970s, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations started a self-imposed ban on caribou hunting.
In 2011, West Moberly First Nations took First Coal Corporation to court over a mining exploration proposal in the area of the Burnt Pine caribou herd. In the case, the Court of Appeal upheld an Order of the B.C. Supreme Court, declaring that the Crown breached its duties to consult and accommodate the West Moberly First Nations when granting permits.
The last of the Burnt Pine herd died on site at a coal mine, despite the nation’s best efforts to protect their species.
In 2012, the population of the Klinse Za caribou herd, the central group of the southern mountain caribou, was down to a staggering 16 animals. The Klinse Za (Dunne-Za translation of ‘Twin Sisters’) caribou carry the name of the sacred Twin Sisters mountains, a place of prophecy for the Indigenous people of this place. The Twin Sisters mountains are the eastern door for the Klinse Za herd, a place that has been protected from industry, a place where people will return again one day, for protection and resurgence.
Recognizing the devastating impacts humans caused the Klinse Za population, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations decided there was enough evidence of their staggering decline, but too little action, and something needed to be done. They held a series of workshops and invited all levels of government to participate.
From those workshops, the communities established action plans, including the idea for a maternal pen, Naomi Owens-Beek told me, sitting by Fire Lake, with a view of the Twin Sisters mountains. She works for Saulteau First Nations as the Treaty Rights and Environmental Protection director, but she’s currently on maternity leave, about to welcome a new family member.
Owens-Beek has worked closely to support the caribou maternal pen for the last six years. In the beginning, it was the Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations who decided something desperately needed to be done. The province and feds came on board shortly after.
“We did a massive letter writing campaign to fund the maternal pen. We told industries that if they’re going to be working in our area, they should at least be doing something to help us recover the caribou,” she said.
Industrial support came in from organizations like Tech Coal, Shell, Enbridge with larger contributions, as well as donations from West Fraser Mills, B.C. Hydro, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation, Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and more.
In September 2015, Saulteau negotiated a New Relationship and Reconciliation Agreement (NRRA) with the B.C. government, and in 2017, the provincial and federal government asked the two bands to negotiate a Partnership Agreement for caribou recovery consistent with the Species at Risk Act. In 2017, the two governments asked Saulteau and West Moberly to begin discussions on a government-to-government Partnership Agreement for caribou recovery. In 2018, the federal Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna announced an “imminent threat” to the recovery of caribou in B.C., speeding up negotiations for the Partnership Agreement.
The caribou pen was just one of many action plans established by the two bands, but it’s costly and time-consuming. Six years later, the maternal pen has become a source of pride and story of success for the two communities. The population of caribou, once down to 16 animals, has risen to 100 animals, as of March, 2019.
The two communities decided to build the protected maternal pen in an area of former calving grounds for the Klinse Za herd, Owens-Beek told me. In the beginning, she said, they were working with what funding had become available, and accessed two helicopters and support teams, including veterinarians and biologists, ready to capture the wild caribou and bring them into the pens, where their babies could stand a fighting chance of survival.
That first year was a trial run, Owens-Beek remember, but the teams have nearly perfected their methods, with 13 calves born in the protected area this year, where they have access to every component they would in their traditional habitat.
Ryan Desjarlais is one of two caribou guardians from West Moberly First Nations. He has been a part of the operations since it began. Desjarlais said a key to the program’s success is strong communication between all the crews. He joined a helicopter crew the first year, but after that, he remained with his skidoo, ready to greet the team who had captured the caribou, to bring her into the pen.
The team locates the caribou through GPS data in their collars. They’ll head to the area by helicopter and hone in on the specific location through telemetry where they’ll find a herd of 4-8 animals. They target one specific animal at a time, using the copter to break it off from the group, run it into deep snow, shoot it with a net gun, get on it, hobble it, sedate it and put it in the helicopter while monitoring the temperature, in just a matter of minutes.
“These caribou have always been here on this land, it’s natural to have them in the mountain range, doing what they do,” Desjarlais said as we sat in a look-out point in the pen, watching the new calves awkwardly chase after their mothers. “It’s human error that almost annihilated them, so it’s only right we do something about it.”
When the hype of the yearly capture slows down, it’s Desjarlais and three other Indigenous guardians who spend long days and nights in a humble cabin outside the protected pen. The crews make sure someone’s always on site — making sure there aren’t issues with predators — and to confirm the health of the caribou. They see the animals twice a day, observe their behaviour, take notes, dust their feed, and working on the double-electric fence system surrounding the pen.
Desjarlais said he's learned a lot about the special animal in the last six years. On top of being extremely social and slightly skittish, he’s impressed by how fiercely protective mothers are of their babies.
The primary part of the mountain caribou diet is terrestrial lichen, wispy organisms that grow at the very tops of the mountains, above the treeline. The caribou have a digestive system that allows them to break down the lichen for protein and rich minerals.
“They are incredibly gentle, trusting, curious animals,” Napoleon later added, pushing his truck down the logging roads after a day-long visit to the pen and an ATV ride up to the top of the world. “I’ve been so fortunate to witness them, spend time with them. They’re communal creatures, very affectionate.”
When the calves are a few days old, the guardians enter the pen to put radio collars and ear tags on the newborns, all within a few minutes. The moms always stay close, Napoleon said, and though you can tell she doesn’t like what’s happening, she will never charge. The female adults take turns looking after each other’s young, giving each other a break, and he’s seen them nurse each other’s calves if they need to.
“When there’s a new calf born, all the cows will come in one-by-one to greet it and touch noses with it,” Napoleon said. “They’re acknowledging this new member of their family in a beautiful way.”
Napoleon called the caribou his elders. He said he respects the way they live, the small impact they have on their environment and how they can survive with so little.
“I’d like to see anything else survive on snow and lichen,” he said. “That harsh climate doesn’t make them harsh, they have warm loving spirits. I learn from them everyday. I hope I can be like them, in the way I carry myself and interact with other living beings on this planet.”
You say jobs, I say survival
Last year, B.C. offered to establish a new caribou conservation area in a low elevation habitat, and Canada offered to provide Saulteau with funding that could be used to help establish the Twin Sisters and Moberly Lake areas as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA).
The provincial government, federal government, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations continue to negotiate an Intergovernmental Partnership Agreement for the conservation of the Klinse Za herd. The province has held a number of public engagement meetings with affected communities and is working on a ‘What we Heard’ report expected to be released this summer.
But there is opposition. Word has already spread throughout the communities that not everyone is on board with the caribou restoration program and proposal for larger protected areas, including the former mayor of Chetwynd.
“A wrong decision on Caribou Recovery has the potential to wreak enormous havoc on our Peace River economy and especially the lives of those who have made their homes here,” wrote Merlin Nichols in a letter addressed to B.C. Premier John Horgan on April 9, 2019. “Any solution that comes close to satisfying the conditions of the Draft Partnership Agreement will devastate communities and lives in the northeastern British Columbia. You might think workers can simply pack up the old kit bags and move on to another community. Not so.”
Nichols continued to explain his concern at the closure of a sawmill in Chetwynd, opining the loss of up to 500 jobs in the region.
“We will not easily give up our homes built over generations by blood, sweat, and even tears,” he wrote. “But that is what some people advocate for the sake of preserving a herd of caribou.”
I ran into the current mayor of Chetwynd at an event in celebration of the opening of Fire Lake in Saulteau First Nation territory. I asked mayor Allen Courtoreille if he supported the caribou program, and he said he did, calling it a “success story.”
At some provincial public engagement meetings, non-Indigenous members of neighbouring communities voiced their concerns, fearing the loss of jobs due to restrictions on forestry companies. More than one person told me, over the course of the week I spent visiting the communities, that racial tensions have escalated in relation to the caribou program.
What was shared at the first community engagement meeting in Chetwynd was brutal, Owens-Beek said. As far as she’s is concerned, there’s a lot of anger rising from misinformation and the governments need to do a better job of informing the public.
“If you want to protect a population and see it grow, you need habitat restoration and land protection measures,” she said. “There would be some closure to forestry, but it’s nothing like what people are saying. People like to throw things out of proportion without doing research and understanding exactly what is going on.”
People are tough while behind their computers, she added.
“What was most frustrating is the government not supporting the First Nations as they should have been. We can’t let all the blame get piled on to the First Nations,” she said.
Their communities called an emergency meeting and asked for more transparency, more support.
Regardless of the pushback, the two communities are standing strong together to protect a sacred territory they have always shared among their people.
“We need each other,” Owens-Beek said. “It almost feels like an obligation what we’re doing here. There’s so much industrial development in Treaty 8 territory. We have all sectors, oil and gas, mining, wind development, hydro development, agriculture, it’s insane.”
Many of these projects were signed off without consultation with the affected First Nations, and far from any concept of consent. So this turning of the tide, a chance to work together for land protection, is nothing short of amazing, she said.
Her cousin, Napoleon, agreed.
“What we have here is a really rare opportunity in the history of human life on the planet,” he said, before dropping me off at the airport. “We have the opportunity, by doing very little and sacrificing very little, to save an incredible species from going extinct from this landscape, and it;s not very often that you get that opportunity.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”