In Northern B.C., there were once so many caribou that Indigenous elders said they were “like bugs on the landscape.”

Unfortunately, populations have been declining for decades. In 2013, there were just 38 animals left in the Klinse-za herd.

But according to the author of a new study looking at the herd, that’s all changing.

“That was when West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations got involved, and essentially were not going to accept the loss of those caribou,” says Clayton Lamb, a Ph.D. researcher at UBCO and lead author of the study published in Ecological Applications. “And they started an ambitious recovery program.”

The two nations took the lead in conservation efforts. Now, even as caribou populations around Canada continue to dwindle, the Klinse-za herd population has tripled in just 8 years.

To achieve this, they had to use a few different tools. First, maternal penning, which involves placing adult females into pens during the summer to have their calves. This significantly reduces the young caribou mortality rate.

“It’s one of the only caribou repopulation initiatives that’s been successful that I know of,” says Chief Justin Napoleon of the Saulteau First Nation.

Another part of the project was removing predators. Changes to the local landscape bring more deer and elk to the area, which also brings in too many wolves for a caribou population to live sustainably. Through trapping and hunting, they brought the wolves down to a more natural level.

"Within a couple years we were going to lose those caribou forever,” says Lamb. “We were at kind of an emergency status of all hands on deck to make sure we can keep caribou around."

But more long-term changes are required to keep the herd growing.

In 2020, West Moberly and Salteau First Nations signed a Partnership Agreement with the Provincial and Federal governments to protect almost 8000 square kilometers of land. Over the next few decades, this will be crucial in rebuilding the caribou habitat, and making sure they are still around for future generations.

"There used to be herds and giant herds of caribou years and years ago before the dams and stuff were put in,” says Napoleon. “So I think it's a good intiative to try and get them back so those herds don't go extinct.

And scientists say this Indigenous-led approach could work elsewhere. Many more herds need help growing. Also in the past 20 years, at least 12 herds in Canada have died out completely. This type of work could even help bring those herds back.

"Caribou are in tough shape in Canada and in British Columbia,” says Lamb. “And that's why this work is so important in that it signals that all hope is not lost."