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When Ally Menzies was a child, her father made yearly moose-hunting trips near Riding Mountain National Park, about 200 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
Moose was a familiar part of her family’s diet, said Menzies, a wildlife conservation researcher at the University of Guelph and a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation. But when she became a teenager, the moose population started to decline. First Nations and Métis people found it more and more difficult to harvest moose in the area.
Moose populations are declining across Canada. So are salmon and caribou — culturally important species that Indigenous communities have traditionally harvested. In a policy forum published in the journal Science last month, Menzies and a team of researchers, land stewards and First Nations leadership called for policymakers to set conservation targets informed by the constitutional rights of Indigenous communities.
“Indigenous Peoples have a right to a relationship with species and with their territories like they once had,” Menzies said. “If the species aren't there, aren't accessible, aren't available and aren't healthy, that isn't fulfilling the rights that are promised to Indigenous Peoples.”
People in Indigenous communities across Canada have a constitutional right to hunt, which the provinces must protect. According to the article’s authors, conservation laws often kick in too late, offering protection only after animal populations drop below the bare minimum needed for survival. For Indigenous people who have the right to hunt, those levels are not high enough to sustainably harvest.
“The way that species are currently assessed — whether they're at risk or not, or whether they should be prioritized — is very narrow compared to what would be needed in order to protect traditional relationships that people have and want to have with wild species,” Menzies said.
Roland Willson, a co-author of the policy forum and chief of the West Moberly First Nation in B.C., said northern B.C. caribou were traditionally a food source for his community. Citing elders, Willson said the nearby Klinse-Za caribou herd was once as abundant as “bugs on the landscape.”
But Willson said nearby development, like mining projects and road construction, drove the caribou population lower and lower. By 2013, only 38 were left.
“The resource development decisions that the province and industry have been making have pushed the caribou here to the brink of extinction,” Willson said. “They mismanaged our resource.”
A team of scientists and leadership of First Nations in British Columbia urged policymakers to protect the abundance of culturally significant species.
At its current population, nearby First Nations can sustainably harvest about three caribou per year — far fewer than the communities have historically hunted. Menzies said that infringes upon the First Nations’ rights.
Although treaty agreements guarantee Willson’s community the right to continue their traditional hunting practices, Willson said that’s not possible while the nearby caribou herd is so vulnerable.
British Columbia needs to do its part to ensure a sustainable caribou harvest, Willson said. According to the policy forum, the Klinse-Za caribou herd would have to reach a population of 3,000 to be sustainably harvested.
While Menzies said there isn’t as much specific data about culturally significant moose herds, she rarely eats moose anymore. It can take seven years for non-Indigenous hunters, like her father, to get the tags that authorize them to hunt for moose, Menzies said. Despite their right to harvest moose, the Indigenous communities nearby volunteered to stop.
“I've experienced a change from moose turning from a super common and abundant animal that the average person can hunt and eat to something that can't be hunted anymore in this area,” Menzies said. “I don't eat it anymore and it's not part of my diet or regular interactions with the environment.”
Menzies said the lack of regional-specific data about animal populations is part of the problem. She said often, governments track species at a broad level and miss when regional groups of animals — like caribou herds — decline.
“Crown governments tend to work at the level of imposed borders and jurisdictions. That includes federal boundaries at the country level, provincial or territorial boundaries at a smaller level,” Menzies said. “None of those align with traditional territories or homelands of Indigenous Peoples.”
To help these communities, Menzies said, provincial governments must work with Indigenous Peoples to monitor and keep culturally significant species abundant near their communities.
“For a lot of these communities, what matters most is what's going on in their own territory,” Menzies said. “If it's not where they have the right to harvest or they have access to then it's kind of meaningless.”
For Willson, braiding Indigenous rights into endangered species law goes beyond higher conservation targets. Willson said he wants the province to keep respecting First Nations’ jurisdiction over how land near their communities is used and developed.
“Our concerns or issues need to be a part of their decision-making process,” Willson said. “If we're sitting at the table with them, we can ensure that process is met.”