Boreal Woodland Caribou

Rangifer tarandus caribou



Boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are a subspecies of reindeer found in nine provinces across Canada. This forest-dwelling species has large, crescent-shaped hooves that help it stay on top of snow and allow it to dig for ground lichen, its primary source of winter food. The distribution of boreal caribou in Canada extends from the westernmost provinces to the east, and as far south as the lake area near the United States border. However, the distribution has been moving northward since the 1900s. Boreal caribou are now red-listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) due to an observed population reduction of over 30 percent in the last 20 years. Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge attributes this northward movement and population decline to habitat loss in Canada’s southern regions.

Pikangikum Traditional Knowledge

Pikangikum is an Ojibway First Nation located on Pikangikum Lake in Ontario. Pikangikum Elders described people’s interactions with caribou and the environment as customary stewardship. The relationship is reciprocal: the land provides everything needed for the Pikangikum, and the people acknowledge this gift by harvesting the abundance and leaving the rest to return.

The Whitefeather Forest Initiative

In the past, Pikangikum relied heavily on the fur trade for income, but with the collapse of the trade due to animal rights activism, the community has seen a decline in employment and community well-being. The Pikangikum adopted the Whitefeather Forest Initiative in 2006 to provide employment in commercial forestry for community members and as a way to keep with ancestral stewardship roles of caring for the land. The Initiative includes a joint plan for managing commercial forestry between the Pikangikum First Nation and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (The Ministry), with priority placed on caribou protection as a primary concern.

The plan is an exercise in integrating scientific and traditional ecological knowledge about caribou habitat requirements. This marriage of knowledge has the potential to help recover declining caribou populations while managing human activities on the land. The Whitefeather Forest Initiative is one of the few in Canada that recognizes the value of integrating scientific and Traditional Knowledge. Michael O’Flaherty’s 2008 analysis of the Whitefeather Forest Initiative offers valuable insight into challenges and solutions for integration.

A Marriage of Perspectives

The Pikangikum people see woodland caribou as a gift from the Creator. The Ministry is also vested in caribou protection due to legislative and policy requirements through the National Accord for Species at Risk. Their common desire to protect caribou populations led the parties to integrate Pikangikum’s concept of customary stewardship with scientific knowledge in an effort to maintain commercial forestry as well as to protect caribou populations. Pikangikum Elders were interviewed and their local knowledge of caribou sightings, locations, and behaviours was used to describe woodland caribou habitat needs across the Whitefeather Forest Planning Area. The Ministry conducted aerial inventories and calving surveys, and compiled historical records of caribou sightings in the area. Parties set out to integrate this knowledge into a management framework.

However, dialogue between the First Nation and Ministry wildlife managers soon exposed differing interpretations of caribou habitat needs and the role of humans in managing these needs. For example, wet swampy areas have been shown to act as caribou calving ‘islands,’ protecting caribou and newborn calves from wolves. Although the Ministry and Pikangikum people agreed on particular locations and the importance of protecting these calving islands, the parties disagreed about the need to place protections on these and the remaining habitat used by caribou. The Ministry suggested that zones of protection be placed around critical habitat areas, while Elders stated that segmenting the land and keeping caribou confined to certain areas would “only invite trouble” and welcome wolves to ravage the herds. The planning process was faced with differing values and the inability to agree on basic caribou management strategies. However, in his 2008 paper, O’Flaherty suggests that it may be possible to acknowledge such differences and move forward without coming to agreement, as long as both parties share outcomes and methods for measuring success.

In the case of woodland caribou in the Whitefeather Forest, parties shared the desire to increase caribou population numbers while supporting the Pikangikum community with benefits from commercial forestry. The Whitefeather forest acts as a model for other First Nations and governments to begin working collaboratively towards the common goals of protecting wildlife populations and maintaining the well-being of communities that rely on them.