Pulling Canada’s Caribou Back From the Brink
First Nations communities are leading the effort to rescue the last remaining caribou herds from extinction.
On a family vacation last summer, driving along the empty highways of northern Idaho near the Canadian border, I saw an unlikely road sign—a relic. Diamond-shaped with a yellow background, the sign featured the familiar black silhouette of a deerlike animal. But unlike those on deer-crossing signs, the animal pictured had large antlers and appeared to be ambling toward the road, not leaping. It took me a moment to realize that it was a caribou.
Seeing a caribou wander onto an Idaho highway is about as likely as watching a UFO land there. The South Selkirk herd—the only remaining caribou herd that roamed the continental United States—has dwindled to just two animals, both female. “Not even Noah could save them,” a Canadian biologist told me. Last spring, scientists declared the herd functionally extinct.
Though that news barely registered with the American public, it was powerful: the imminent disappearance of a large mammal species from the Lower 48. And the Selkirk caribou are only the tip of the melting iceberg. Across a broad swath of Canada and Alaska, caribou populations have been plummeting for decades. The main cause: industrial development in their habitat. Today seeing caribou in their original Canadian range requires luck, patience, and often a helicopter.
One July afternoon in northeastern British Columbia, near where the Peace River flows out of the Canadian Rockies and toward the plains, I climbed into the back of a pickup truck. At the wheel was Line (pronounced Lynn) Giguere, a Francophone wildlife biologist. In the passenger seat was her husband, Scott McNay, an ecologist who has spent more than two decades trying to save caribou.
Here, in what’s called the South Peace region, on behalf of two local First Nations communities, Giguere and McNay have piloted a last-ditch effort to revive a different struggling caribou herd. It’s a remnant population of a much larger herd that once roamed the region’s forests. Trying to save this one small herd has been grueling at times—physically, emotionally, politically. Stemming the caribou declines on a larger scale, the couple say, could also take a personal toll.
Giguere and McNay live three hours away in Mackenzie, a town of about 3,500 people dominated by sawmills and pulp mills. McNay, who is tall with thinning hair and a bushy blond mustache, used to work as a biologist for the timber industry there. “Mackenzie is a small town,” he said. Saving the other herds in the South Peace region—six more, all in trouble—would require habitat protections that could shrink the area’s logging economy. Which would make the couple highly unpopular. “We might have to sell our house,” McNay said, half-joking.
Giguere, who exudes a cheerful, midwestern-style competence, agreed. “They’re gonna hate us,” she said in French-accented English.
We headed out of the tiny town of Hudson’s Hope into the mountains, and soon arrived at an active logging road. For about 60 miles, a two-hour ride, we bounced along dirt paths that grew steeper and rockier as we climbed. In the passenger seat, McNay, who hails from Prince Edward Island, dutifully called out our location over the truck’s radio every even-numbered kilometer, a protocol designed to avoid collisions. Trucks coming downhill called at the odd numbers, and soon one announced its location just uphill. “You should pull over soon,” McNay said. “Where? Shit,” Giguere replied. She found a narrow pullout and edged the Ford Super Duty out of harm’s way. A couple of minutes later, a truck loaded with logs came barreling past.
Up to 100 trucks a day carry timber down this road. About 20 years ago, timber companies carried out a series of big clear-cuts in this area, which impacted the caribou herds. “They’re just kind of getting back to it now,” McNay says of the logging, which has resumed on a large scale, in part to take away trees killed by the mountain pine beetle. “That’s what we’re up against in trying to protect habitat.”
A half hour or so later, as McNay called out our location—“36 up the Johnson, pickup”—a young deer pranced out of the woods. Giguere tapped the horn to coax it back into the forest. At the 42-kilometer mark, a lynx darted across the road. Further up, the road skirted a logging camp, with tents and RVs and piles of stacked timber. At 68 kilometers, a mother grouse and her chick appeared at the forest’s edge. We turned onto a bumpier dirt track, and then another, until we finally arrived at a flat clearing. A long, high fence covered in black fabric marked the edge of a caribou maternity pen—the centerpiece of an expensive, labor-intensive effort to revive the dwindling Klinse-Za herd.
Inside the fence was a 37-acre patch of woods and meadows, dense stands of pine and spruce opening onto sunny clearings, where a dozen female caribou and their nine babies were spending their summer. After being located by helicopter (many of the animals are radio-collared), the cows had been netted from the air, sedated, zipped into body bags, and flown to the enclosure, one at a time, back in snowy March. The pregnant cows had given birth inside the pen, where they and their babies were safe from wolves, bears, and other predators. In a couple of weeks, when the calves were two and a half months old—big enough to outrun a grizzly, if not a wolf—all the caribou would be released from the pen.
As a conservation measure, the maternity pen is a highly meddlesome intervention. But it’s one that McNay, Giguere, and members of local indigenous communities—who for millennia harvested caribou across their ancestral lands—feel is essential. “Because of where we are, we have to be a little heavy-handed until we can get things back into balance,” Roland Willson, the chief of the West Moberly First Nations, told me in his office on the shore of Moberly Lake. “The maternity pen is very obtrusive. Chasing caribou with helicopters, netting them—that’s not something you want to be doing. But because it’s an extreme situation, we have to take extreme measures.”
It’s becoming a familiar scenario, in North America and around the globe. As human activity pushes other species to the brink, the most feasible solutions seem more and more ludicrous. Yet meddling with nature in preposterous ways is often vastly easier than the alternative: fundamentally altering human behavior.
Caribou, a type of deer, live across a massive slice of the planet’s north, from the Arctic tundra south through the boreal, or northern, forest. They reproduce slowly: Females are pregnant for nearly eight months and give birth to just one baby at a time. They’re the only species on Earth in which both sexes grow antlers.
They are also what scientists call an “indicator species,” one whose own health shows the status of a whole ecosystem. And they’ve become unwitting sentinels, on some level, of life as we know it. The boreal forest, a vast band of spruce, fir, pine, and birch that covers one and a half billion acres of North America, stores roughly a third of the planet’s land-based carbon. It is a crucial source of Earth’s fresh water, and billions of birds from more than 300 species breed within it. The boreal is still the largest unbroken forest on Earth, representing a quarter of all remaining intact forest. But nearly a third of Canada’s boreal has already been carved up or earmarked for industrial use.
The starkest casualty so far has been the caribou. Though they belong to the same species as reindeer, rangifer tarandus, unlike reindeer they have never been domesticated. Perhaps that’s why they’re often used as symbols of wildness and freedom, and subtly tied to Canada’s national identity. Or not so subtly: They’re featured on Canadian quarters. In that sense, their story parallels that of bison in the United States—an animal that was immensely important to indigenous people, and which white Americans clung to as an icon even as they nearly let it vanish.
Canada’s woodland caribou, a subspecies, are most at risk. They live in old-growth forests, where they feed largely on lichens that grow on the ground and on trees. The reasons for their decline are not especially complex or mysterious. Cutting down forests wipes out their habitat. Building roads across forests provides easy access for animals that eat them. And because caribou reproduce so slowly, the problem boils down to simple math: Too many are dying, and not enough are surviving to reproduce.
In the South Peace region, where West Moberly lies, the Klinse-Za herd had dwindled to just 16 animals by 2013, down from around 180 in the 1990s. In the past, the herd would migrate in the wintertime to high in the mountains, where snow would act as a buffer from wolves. But the roads that now crisscross the region’s forests—and that continue to sprout like weeds—dealt a dual blow. They fragmented caribou habitat, slicing up interconnected herds into isolated groups. And they provided the wolves year-round access to tasty caribou flesh. Research suggests that wolves can travel up to three times faster along roads and trails than they can in unbroken forest.
Opening up the forest also brings in more of the animals wolves crave—deer, elk, moose. With more to eat, the wolves can proliferate, increasing the pressure on caribou. And because the wolves have so many species to feast on, their populations remain large even as caribou numbers shrink.
As of last year, 28 of the 57 distinct populations of woodland caribou across Canada were shrinking. In Alberta, all of the woodland caribou populations whose ranges overlap with oil-and-gas development “are in rapid decline,” according to a recent study, and they are shrinking by half every eight years. Scientists now predict that nearly a third of Canada’s boreal caribou could disappear within the next 15 years.
“It’s North America’s greatest terrestrial conservation problem,” says Robert Serrouya, the director of the Caribou Monitoring Unit at the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. Unlike some endangered species that live in a discrete, fairly small area—a snail, say, that lives only in one hot spring—caribou naturally occur in relatively small populations but are broadly distributed across a massive landscape. And that landscape is irresistible to industry.
Although caribou were listed as threatened in 2003, under Canada’s nascent Species at Risk Act (SARA), it took almost a decade for the government to create a plan to save them. And though long awaited, that plan has so far had little impact. Not a single province met its federally mandated 2017 deadline to produce a recovery strategy.
For Willson and his community, that lack of action has been agonizing. The members of West Moberly, a small band of Dunne-Za people, historically ate caribou meat, made clothing from their skin, used their antlers for medicine, and even made tools from their bones; since childhood, Willson has listened to tribal elders reminisce about hunting caribou on their traditional lands. “Caribou were considered a convenient food because there were so many of them,” he said. “If you couldn’t get a moose or an elk, you could always go to the mountains and get a caribou.” Willson has hunted caribou, but to do so, he’s had to travel far to the north, where development is sparser and herds are faring much better. “But north of us is somebody else’s area. We’re going into their area and harvesting their caribou. And it’s not just us; it’s everybody that hunts. Everybody’s going to that area.” (West Moberly is one of 39 nations across four provinces that are signatories to Treaty 8, which governs tribal rights to hunting and fishing, among other things. Treaty 8 member nations can hunt and fish across the whole 325,000-square-mile territory covered by the treaty.)
The caribou crisis in the South Peace region began in the late 1960s, when construction of the W. A. C Bennett Dam flooded several nearby canyons and turned a long stretch of the river into the 680-square-mile Williston Lake. The new lake, the world’s seventh-largest reservoir, submerged the territorial home of two other First Nations, Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene. It sunk First Nations cemeteries, hunting grounds, fishing spots, and trapper cabins. It also slashed a large caribou herd’s migration route, stranding groups of animals on opposite sides of the lake. After the dam went in, the water rose far faster than engineers had predicted, sweeping timber down hillsides and drowning an unknown number of caribou and other animals.
With hydropower on hand, industrial development quickly followed: large-scale forestry, mining, oil, and gas. And not long afterward, local indigenous people “noticed this drastic decline” in caribou, Willson says. Local First Nations voluntarily imposed a moratorium on caribou hunting. Decades later, after SARA passed and caribou were listed as threatened, Willson waited for British Columbia to set some key areas off-limits to industry.
Instead, in 2008 West Moberly learned that a coal-mining company had applied for a permit in the core habitat of the Burnt Pine caribou herd, one of eight herds then remaining in the region, whose numbers had already dwindled down to nine. The nation filed an injunction to stop the mine, and in an important court ruling, West Moberly prevailed. But the decision came too late. Without permits, the mining company had been illegally clearing the forest. By the time West Moberly won its case, only two caribou—a male and a female—remained.
A few days after the verdict, tragedy struck. The bull fell to his death in a pit the company had unlawfully dug. The cow wandered off in search of companionship. Scientists later found her radio collar, but her fate remains a mystery. Less mysterious is the fate of the Burnt Pine herd: It’s extinct.
Today British Columbia continues to allow open-pit coal mines and fracking wells in caribou habitat, and it is building yet another hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, just south of the oil-and-gas boomtown of Fort St. John. Most of the electricity the dam produces will be exported to the United States, and it has been sharply criticized by local and national activists.
At the visitor center next to the W. A. C. Bennett Dam, there is a monument to the reservoir’s impacts on First Nations. Walls are lined with personal accounts of loss, including Willson’s own. He tells of his grandmother catching fish, collecting wild plants, and passing the knowledge along to his mother. “Nowadays,” reads his statement on the wall, “what I get to do is teach my son how to throw contaminated fish back into the river.” (Fish in Williston Lake are contaminated with methylmercury from the decomposing forests beneath the surface.)
When the First Nations Impact Gallery opened two years ago, an official from BC Hydro, the dam’s operator, publicly acknowledged the harm done to both indigenous people and the environment. He pledged that the company would “not repeat the mistakes of the past.” Yet the new dam, known as Site C, would submerge both historic and contemporary tribal sites, and BC Hydro is already clearing forest and moving earth in preparation for construction. The week after I met Willson, he headed to court to testify in one final attempt to stop the project.
After the debacle with the Burnt Pine herd in 2008, Willson called McNay. “We were not going to run around the rose bush with the province,” Willson says. Across the country, many First Nations communities have reached a similar inflection point; unwilling to sit by as provincial governments allow territorial lands to fall to development and climate change, they are launching their own land-management plans—and beginning to set the agenda for conservation in Canada.
McNay, who has worked on caribou issues for both government and industry, was by then as fed up as Willson. “I’ve been involved in three different major pushes the province has initiated for caribou recovery,” McNay says. “They’ve all been about planning and research and collecting more data, instead of getting on the ground and doing stuff.” He told Willson: “I’m not going to work with you unless we do something action-oriented.”
Willson was thrilled. West Moberly joined forces with the neighboring Saulteau First Nations and formed a nonprofit caribou-conservation society. With McNay’s guidance, it hammered out a plan for the seven remaining nearby herds. But when McNay delved into the population data, he discovered that the Klinse-Za herd had already crashed. “We thought we were around 90 caribou there, but we were down below 20,” Willson recalls. “Something had to be done almost immediately in order to save that herd.”
Maternity pens had been tried in a handful of other areas, to varying degrees of success. But McNay believed a pen was the only way to give the herd a chance at survival. He says the First Nations communities mostly embraced the plan, viewing it as an unfortunate short-term necessity. (Other communities have been less receptive, put off by the severity of the meddling. McNay gave a presentation to one Alberta First Nations that was, he says, “appalled at what we were doing.”)
“Caribou were always an animal that if we ever needed something, we could go to them and they would help,” Willson says of West Moberly. “Now the caribou are in a struggle, and they need us. We have to at least try.”
British Columbia declined to fund the maternal pen, so the group sought money from industry and launched a crowdfunding campaign. It raised around $300,000 (almost entirely from industry; crowdfunding only scared up around $1,000), and during the first year in 2014 the group captured 10 females, each of which gave birth in an enclosure 30 miles from the town of Chetwynd. Nine calves survived and were released, yet only four were alive a year later. Two calves born outside the enclosure also survived that year.
In addition to the maternity pen, the program includes a substantial wolf cull and habitat restoration. The first restoration project decommissioned and reseeded a four-and-a-half-mile stretch of road through the forest. “Not even a month later, somebody went in behind us and reopened the road,” Willson told me. “They ruined everything we were doing there.”
In the six years since they began McNay’s program, indigenous trappers have killed 139 wolves on the ground. Over the past four years, the province has killed another 173 wolves by shooting them from helicopters. That’s an awfully bloody short-term fix—and the cull is growing contentious. Two conservation groups have petitioned the government to stop using tax dollars to slaughter wolves, which they call “inhumane” and “a morally bankrupt display.”
As of last year, the Klinse-Za caribou herd had grown to 66 animals.
Inside the maternity pen’s perimeter, behind the tall walls and an elaborate electric fence, McNay, Giguere, and I hiked to a rustic wooden observation platform built into a tree. Below us stretched a meadow, where several red metal troughs were filled with pellets made from vitamin-and-mineral-enriched barley, wheat, and corn, a supplemental diet for the caribou. (The fenced-in forest is too small to provide enough food for the animals.)
First Nations members patrol the pen in week-long shifts, bunking in a plywood shack they built outside the fence. These “guardians” walk the perimeter a few times a day, look for compromises in the fence line, keep watch for predators, and feed the caribou. In addition to the pellets, they feed the animals lichens, which are harvested by locals—including schoolkids and tribal elders—and hauled up the road in big mesh sacks.
As we stood on the platform and watched the far end of the meadow, where Battleship Mountain towered above the pine and spruce, two caribou slowly appeared like apparitions at the forest edge. Their fur was mottled in shades of gray and brown, and they sauntered through the field under bands of shadows cast by fast-moving clouds. Soon, more caribou joined them, including a few fuzzy calves, some of which lay down in the grass while their mothers browsed. The calves looked surprisingly small and fragile, considering they were just a couple of weeks from release. The scene—moms, babies, sun-dappled meadow—looked so peaceful, so primal, that I half-wished the animals could remain here in safety forever, though of course that was absurd.
The guardians had been tracking the whereabouts of four grizzlies they’d seen hanging around not far from the enclosure and which seemed “to have a little more interest in the pen than we’d like them to have,” as McNay put it. If the bears remained nearby, the caribou release might have to be postponed.
For the better part of an hour, we watched the caribou as they lolled about the field. And then, as the wind picked up, they vanished back into the trees.
Outside the enclosure, at the guardians’ hut, Steven Desjarlais had just arrived to join his cousin for a week-long shift. Both men are members of West Moberly, and they had spent months up here—building the pen, maintaining it, watching over the caribou, living in the forest. They lamented the looming end of the job, and said they would soon have to find new work, possibly on logging crews. Desjarlais said he saw the caribou as key to protecting the whole landscape; if the caribou die out, there’s no hope for saving the boreal forest. “Without them here, industry would run wild, and you’d never get them back,” he said. “The province would never put them back. They’d just build roads all over, go nuts.”
Under SARA, if provinces aren’t acting, the federal government can step in. That’s beginning to happen. Last May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government declared an “imminent threat” to British Columbia’s caribou. Now, if the province doesn’t act, Ottawa can take control of its natural resources—making decisions about things such as logging and mining permits.
News of the possible federal intervention set off a panic, as British Columbians worried about economic calamity. Even in the outdoor-recreation mecca of Revelstoke, where you might expect sympathies to lie with the caribou, city leaders warned of financial doom. Protecting caribou habitat, they said, would spell ruin for the town’s heli-skiing businesses and destroy its backcountry-tourism economy, in addition to killing the local forestry industry. Instead of limiting human activity in caribou habitat, they suggested more research.
This kind of response drives McNay bonkers. There’s nothing more to research, he says. It’s time—past time—to act. He shook his head as he described the province’s decision last spring to spend the equivalent of 20 million U.S. dollars over five years to jump-start a new caribou-conservation effort. If you divide the money by the number of herds in trouble, and divide that by five years, you end up with less than $150,000 for each herd a year—a number, he said, that is essentially useless.
“If we want to do a serious job here,” McNay said, “it’s going to [have an] impact—socially, economically. The local-level municipal governments are pretty scared.”
As with so many at-risk species, the real obstacle for caribou-conservation efforts is socioeconomic. Recovering caribou broadly, across Canada, would require severely curtailing industrial activity across their habitat. Research has shown that woodland caribou avoid areas within 500 meters of human development—which means that the impact of, say, an oil well is far greater than just its footprint on the soil.
The energy sector accounts for a quarter of Alberta’s economy and about 13 percent of Canada’s total GDP. (Three-quarters of Alberta’s oil goes to the United States.) And Canada contains a tenth of the world’s proven oil reserves.
Which is the main reason no one has been willing to do the one thing that matters: protect the boreal forest from development.
“You could go across the boreal and see the exact same story playing out,” says Tim Burkhart, the Peace River coordinator for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “The response of government has been to try to save as many caribou as they can without impacting industry in any way.”
Over a seven-year period, in the nearly ruined range of a single caribou herd, Alberta killed 841 wolves. Yet during that same time, the province issued hundreds of permits for new oil-and-gas wells in the same area. Restoring caribou habitat in that area would require buying the energy leases from the companies that hold them. But purchasing those leases on the range of just one herd in Alberta’s oil-sands region would cost 33 billion U.S. dollars, according to a 2010 estimate. Mark Hebblewhite, an ungulate ecologist at the University of Montana, has calculated that “effective habitat protection” in Alberta alone would cost more than $112 billion.
Against this economic reality, trying to save Canada’s woodland caribou can seem like a lost cause. “Piecemeal solutions aren’t going to get to that broader threat of their habitat disappearing,” says Courtenay Lewis, the manager of ecosystems policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project.
It’s why Hebblewhite, who is Canadian, suggested last year that triage may be the only option—choosing some herds to protect, and letting others simply die off. “Pretending we can continue to conserve everything, and asking wolves to pay the price while energy development continues, is not only ethically and morally wrong, it is extremely poor conservation policy,” Hebblewhite wrote in a paper published last year.
It’s something British Columbia is discussing, especially as climate change presents yet another threat to the southerly herds. “We know we are going to have to make some of these tough calls,” says Chris Ritchie, the acting executive director of the Species at Risk recovery branch of the provincial agency in charge of forests and natural resources.
Meanwhile, though, the federal government’s imminent-threat order has required the province to negotiate a caribou-conservation plan in partnership with both Canada and the West Moberly and Salteau First Nations. The draft agreement, whose finalized details have not yet been released, proposes to set aside nearly 1 million acres in the South Peace region—more than 1,540 square miles—for caribou, closing much of it to logging, hunting, and snowmobiling. Some land might be set aside as provincial parks with no industrial activity permitted; other areas might allow some logging or mining but under “a more caribou-centric management regime,” Ritchie says.
As the outline of the agreement leaked, anger in the region grew. A petition on Change.org by a snowmobiler-backed group called Concerned Citizens for Caribou Recovery bears the headline “Your back country access is being seriously threatened right now” and warned that “our way of life in Northern BC is at risk.” It demands that “all negotiations halt immediately.” In less than a week, more than 13,500 people signed the petition—though it’s unclear how many of them are locals. The group appears, from its Facebook page, to be connected to the outdoor-recreation industry.
McNay says he’s beginning to see pushback from all sides. Snowmobilers are livid about potential trail closures. He’s gotten hate mail from environmentalists furious about the wolf killings. And he fears the opposition will only increase, given the economic turmoil that could follow large-scale conservation measures. How many sawmills will have to shut down? How many jobs will be lost? “It will come. I see the edge of it already,” Mcnay says. “Because we are talking massive, massive impacts. I really don’t know where it’s all going.”
Back in the Ford Super Duty headed down the logging road toward Hudson’s Hope, I asked what would qualify as successful recovery for the Klinse-Za herd. The federal recovery plan sets a threshold of 120 animals in a herd, but McNay says that number doesn’t mean much. For First Nations, recovery means a self-sustaining population that members can hunt on a limited basis. Right now, the Klinse-Za herd is growing by about 15 percent a year. At that rate, in another decade there would be maybe 350 animals, and the local First Nations communities could potentially harvest a few caribou a year. “Back of the envelope, I’m saying in 10 years we might be looking at something that you could kinda say is on its way,” McNay says. But that, he stressed, is just the beginning of real recovery. “I don’t want people to get the impression that in 10 years we’ll be able to take a few animals and then we’re done.”
A couple of weeks after my visit—right on schedule, with no other humans around—the caribou guardians opened a portion of the fence. Over the next few hours, the caribou ventured out, wandering uphill, into the alpine. In the four months since, one cow has been killed by a grizzly, probably while defending her calf, which survived. The rest of the caribou are still alive.