First Nations cut out of caribou management

by Steve Galea | February 22, 2023
caribou on the roadside

The Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and Michipicoten First Nations have called on the province to withdraw a request for bidders for the development of a management plan for the threatened Lake Superior caribou (LSC) herd, according to a December 2022 media release.

The First Nations believe their expertise and conservation ethic are being snubbed by the proposal and have called the approach insulting.

They say they have appealed to the Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks (MECP) repeatedly over the last several years to save the last caribou in the LSC range, which is the southernmost extent of woodland caribou in Canada. The herd decreased over the last several decades to about 60 animals isolated on two Lake Superior islands.

The First Nations say scientific evidence indicates the decline was due to provincial indifference, which enabled significant habitat disruptions detrimental to the herd.

They believe forestry, access development, and other intrusions that clear the forest destroyed the caribou’s preferred old coniferous forests outright or replaced them with younger mixed woods or deciduous-dominated forests more conducive to moose. As moose moved in, they contend, so did wolves and other predators, which preyed upon caribou.

Caribou considerations

Caribou, which are much smaller than moose, have fewer young. This, and habitat degradation, made their populations more susceptible to predation.

Their numbers took another hit in the winter of 2014 when wolves were able to cross 13 kilometres of Lake Superior ice to get to Michipicoten Island, home to most of the herd’s remaining population. The herd was decimated.

After heavy public pressure, members of the Michipicoten First Nation and local conservationists moved some of the last survivors to nearby wolf-free islands by helicopter.

Those populations have now rebounded and there is potential to return the caribou to Michipicoten Island, which is once again wolf-free, and to the mainland in conjunction with habitat management and stewardship efforts.

Stewardship Plan proposed

The Biigtigong Nishnaabeg had previously presented a Caribou Stewardship Plan to MECP and the federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada. They also reminded the governments of their obligations for meaningful engagement on the issue given that the bulk of the caribou range is in their traditional territories. They say this has fallen on deaf ears in Ontario, especially since the First Nations were not told in advance that outsourcing to consultants was going to occur and were informed of details regarding how the plan would proceed. Nor were their interests and histories included in the request for bidders.

They contend they already have a strategy to restore caribou to their traditional range around Lake Superior.

“This is already done. It doesn’t need to be contracted out. They just need to work with us,” said Steven Murphy, who works on caribou for the Michipicoten First Nation.

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