In response to what he calls an “offensive” response by the Canadian government to address a declining woodland caribou population in northeastern Alberta by killing thousands of wolves, an elder from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is taking habitat protection into his own hands.
Pat Marcel, chair of the elders’ committee and chief negotiator for ACFN, said he is currently working with a band consultant to draft a habitat conservation proposal that would keep a designated piece of their traditional territory development-free for preserving caribou herds.
“The designated area is one I’ve had in mind that caribou have lived on forever,” he told The Journal while in Fort Smith for the Dene leadership meetings. “I’m talking about real caribou habitat with real caribou and protection they would have from ACFN members.”
The land Marcel proposes for a caribou preserve would cover the area south of Hay Camp, Alberta between the Slave River and the Saskatchewan border down to the 27th baseline, where it would run west to the Athabasca River.
“We know there’s caribou there,” said Marcel. “Everybody knows on the shield it’s too hard for them – they’ll wander off or wolves will get them. They need a fen condition. That’s where they’re safe because they can run in there but the wolves can’t.”
The area was set aside in 1935 by the government of Alberta for ACFN’s traditional hunting grounds in response to concerns from then-chief Jonas Laviolette that the nation could not survive off the reserve alone. However, Marcel said the First Nation would not be using the area to hunt the endangered caribou.
“We don’t go out of our way to hunt caribou,” he said. “If we’re hungry and come upon a caribou, maybe we’ll take one. But people wouldn’t go there hunting. We would say that in our proposal.”
Marcel said he expects to be met with full opposition from both the Alberta and Canadian governments who, he said, eventually want to develop the area.
“They have found uranium on our reserve and right now it’s not quite a moratorium, but they’re holding off because of controversy,” he said.
ACFN, along with two other First Nations in the region, took federal Environment Minister Peter Kent to court in August over caribou conservation and were victorious. Judge Paul Crampton of the Federal Court of Canada found Kent to have erred in not recommending emergency protection for the gravely threatened woodland caribou herds of northeastern Alberta and ordered him to release a draft caribou recovery plan.
The plan was made public in early September, but to the dismay of ACFN did not include measures for habitat conservation, and instead recommended culling of thousands wolves – something ACFN chief Allan Adam called “a slap in the face.”
“In nature wolves are there to keep the herd healthy. They cull out the sick and weak and let the healthy ones survive, which is really good,” said Marcel. “But when there was such a fuss over caribou habitat and how we can preserve the stock, they came back with the answer that will be to kill off all the wolves, which is totally against what we believe in. Aboriginal living is to live and let live. We don’t stop wolves from killing young caribou or moose. We take offense to that. It shows the ignorance when talking about culture and habitat.”
Marcel said he and other elders knowledgeable on caribou habitat will be drafting the land management proposal to be presented to chief and council in the upcoming months.
“We’re really facing a hard time when we see the land being destroyed,” he said. “But we’re still there. We haven’t quit fighting.”