What it was like to photograph endangered baby caribou

In our latest newsletter, we chat with photographer Ryan Dickie about his cultural connection to caribou and his experience documenting a First Nations-led effort to help bring the species back from the brink

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Ryan Dickie can remember the days when he would spot caribou after caribou on a half-day’s drive from Fort Nelson to Hudson’s Hope, in northeast British Columbia.

“You would lose count of the amount of caribou you would see alongside the road,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s extremely rare to even see one in that same stretch of highway. … it would almost be like seeing a ghost.”

If there’s anyone who would be suited to observing those changes, it’s Ryan: as a documentary photographer, he has long had an interest in wildlife conservation and has done work with his nation, the Fort Nelson First Nation, tracking caribou herds that are now on the verge of extinction.

“Speaking as an Indigenous person, a lot of our Dene communities in the North, we more or less relied on caribou and moose to sustain ourselves,” Ryan says. “It was a big part of our diet and a big part of our culture.”

But over the decades, industrial development has put that centuries-old relationship at risk. 

So when Ryan got the chance to take photos for The Narwhal of an innovative First Nations-led effort to help restore the endangered species, he jumped at the opportunity.

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Near Hudson’s Hope, in the Misinchinka mountains, lies a maternity enclosure co-managed by guardians with the Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations.

It’s a project that first began in 2014, when there were only 16 caribou remaining in the Klinse-Za herd. Frustrated by inaction on the part of the B.C. government, and seeking to prevent the caribou from going extinct, the two First Nations merged the Klinse-Za herd with the Scott herd and built a pen high on a mountaintop.

Every March, pregnant caribou are captured and brought to the pen, before being released mid-summer when the calves are old enough to survive in the wild. The merged herd now numbers 95 caribou, including eight calves born in the pen this year.

First Nations guardians caribou calf pen

The calves are not tranquilized, and generally stay quiet. Collars and ear tags are buried in dirt and natural vegetation before they are used, so they smell like the surrounding area. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Ryan visited the mountaintop just days after a baby caribou was born. He had the chance to hear from the guardians who spend weeks at a time living in a cabin, where they monitor the caribou on a daily basis. He witnessed firsthand the care they took to make the caribou feel as safe as possible — and the pride they took in their restoration efforts.

Witnessing the success of the project, Ryan says, was awe-inspiring. And while there’s still plenty of more work to be done, each new calf birth is a reminder of what’s possible if we prioritize wildlife protection.

As West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson says: “They symbolize hope.”

Go here to see Ryan’s stunning photo essay.

Take care and save our endangered species,

Arik Ligeti
Audience Engagement Editor

The Narwhal in the world

As Kelsi Littler approached graduation from the forestry technology program at Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C., one instructor asked her class to pitch a final project about what it means to work sustainably in the sector amid the battle against climate change.

So Kelsi reached out to students across the School of Environment and Geomatics, compiling their poetry, photography and visual art into a book she dreamed up titled The Edge Effect (that’s Kelsi on the left, and Jonathan Chapplow-Hansen’s art contribution “Understump Spirit” on the right).

kelsi littler and Jonathan Chapplow Hansen

The concept won the class contest. And guess what Kelsi decided to do with the more than $1,000 in proceeds from the book sales? Make a donation to The Narwhal!

“Honestly, you guys are my main news source,” Kelsi says, noting that it’s hard to find news outlets that take a critical look at the impact of industry on our natural world. “The Narwhal is brave in doing that and I think that’s really awesome. I respect it a lot.”

We think you’re awesome, Kelsi! Your contribution blew us away. And we wish you all the best after graduation.

And hey, if you also think The Narwhal is awesome, consider joining our pod today as a monthly member — for whatever amount you can afford.

This week in The Narwhal

Up close with B.C.’s endangered baby caribou — and the First Nations trying to save them

caribou mother calf Klinse-za maternity pen

By Sarah Cox

In 2014, with just 16 caribou remaining in the Klinse-Za herd, Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations decided to take matters into their own hands, building a pen for pregnant cows atop a remote mountain. Six years later, the herd is up to 95 caribou, including eight calves born in the pen this year. Photographer Ryan Dickie visited the maternity enclosure for The Narwhal to meet the newest caribou calves. Read more.

Alberta’s renewed bet on coal: what Kenney’s policy shift means for mining, parks and at-risk species

sonya savage jason kenney alberta ucp

By Ainslie Cruickshank

The UCP government has rescinded a decades-old policy that restricted coal mining in parts of the Rocky Mountains and Foothills, setting the stage for a coal mining expansion in Alberta. Read more.  

Yukon’s Gold Rush-era system for staking mineral claims, explained

Staked mining claim Rambler Creek Yukon

By Julien Gignac

Critics say the territory’s free entry system, which is the first step toward mine development, unfairly gives prospectors rights to First Nations’ land and private properties. Read more

CAPP, LNG industry lobby B.C. government for long-term discount on hydroelectricity

Transmission lines

By Zoë Yunker

If the province agrees to give the oil and gas industry another financial break, B.C. residents — who already pay substantially more than industrial customers — could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Read more.    

Opinion: A decade after UN declared water a human right, it’s time for Canada to make it law

Fort McKay water contamination

By Vi Bui

The Canada Water Agency must address boil advisories in First Nations communities, establish national quality standards and protect fresh water, writes a campaigner with the Council of Canadians. Read more

What we’re reading

arctic research bloomberg news

polar bear research globe and mail

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Arik Ligeti is The Narwhal’s audience engagement editor, with a focus on growing a dedicated community of members and readers.…

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