Support from northerners like you keeps our journalism alive. Sign up here.



Do endangered species laws set culturally meaningful targets?

Caribou crossing a patch of snow. Photo: Line Giguere
Caribou crossing a patch of snow. Photo: Line Giguere


Recovery targets under North American endangered species laws tend to leave wildlife populations at reduced levels, according to a new paper.  

Species in those declined states could technically be considered recovered, but the paper’s authors say their numbers remain so low that they impede Indigenous peoples from carrying out cultural practices and exercising food sovereignty.

Species at risk and their habitats are protected through a range of laws.

Federally, the primary pieces of legislation protecting at-risk species in Canada and the United States are the Species at Risk Act and Endangered Species Act, respectively.



In Canada, federal recovery targets are often vague. Recovery is generally defined based on reducing extinction risk. In the US, legislation focuses on recovering species to a minimum viable population – meaning the number of animals needed for a population to persist with minimal human intervention.

“That’s the bottom of the barrel of what a self-sustaining population could be, and often is a long way from what would be a culturally meaningful target,” said Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist at the University of British Columbia. Lamb co-authored the paper, which appeared in the journal Science in May.  

A diagram from Lamb et al (2023) shows how infringement on Indigenous rights starts at population levels much higher than those laid out in endangered species laws. (
A diagram from Lamb et al (2023) shows how infringement on Indigenous rights starts at population levels much higher than those laid out in endangered species laws.

Other co-authors include Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations, Naomi Owens-Beek of the Saulteau First Nations and scholars from various institutions. The group works on a variety of species, including salmon, moose and caribou.

According to Lamb, the issue of reduced species abundance – and that lack of abundance failing to meet cultural needs – kept coming up.



For Lamb, the problem became particularly apparent when he was writing about the recovery of the Klinse-Za caribou herd in northern BC. Efforts by the West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations are credited with more than tripling the herd’s numbers in recent years, from 38 in 2013 to 114 in 2022.

A file photo of caribou. Photo: Cory DeStein
A file photo of a caribou. Photo: Cory DeStein

Lamb said that, as he was trying to describe the caribou numbers and the hope of a culturally meaningful hunt in the future, Willson pointed out how many meals the current herd size would mean for the local communities.

As the authors wrote in Science, 114 caribou translates to about three animals annually for a sustainable Indigenous harvest.

While it may be satisfactory from a Western perspective to have a few caribou in the mountains, Lamb said, abundance really matters for communities that interact with them and hunt them.

“Having 100 is not satisfactory to basically rekindle those cultural connections that they’ve long had with caribou,” he added.

A two-sided problem

The gap highlighted in the paper doesn’t only apply to recovery targets.

There are also concerns about how animals get listed under endangered species legislation, according to Allyson Menzies, a wildlife biologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph, who is of Red River Métis and settler descent.

Menzies has worked on several species throughout her career but now mainly works on moose.  



“The experiences of a lot of First Nations in central Canada are that moose are in trouble and that moose are declining, and it’s going to impact their livelihoods greatly. But because of the way species at risk legislation works, they’re not currently listed at risk,” she said.

As a result, Menzies said, there’s less of a focus on moose than other species, such as caribou, which has been frustrating to communities.

“It’s all kind-of the same problem: that current policy and legislation doesn’t align with what folks on the ground need to interact with wild species like they have in the past, and would like to in the future,” she said.

Bison. Photo: Brandon Kittson
Wildlife biologist Brandon Kittson crouches next to a bison. Photo: Brandon Kittson

Another example that hits close to home for Menzies is that of bison on the plains, which she said used to be the lifeblood of the area.

“We talk about bison recovery, but they’re nowhere to be seen in this area in a way that anyone can interact with them like they used to,” she said. She added that the majority of bison are now found within protected areas or domesticated on farms.

“It raises a lot of questions in my mind about what’s the goal of conservation,” Menzies said. “It really seems like the point is just to be able to say that they exist on the landscape.”

Progress, but work remains

Asked what might help address the problem, Menzies suggested more Indigenous inclusion and self-determination in wildlife conversation and decision-making.

Some areas in Canada, including the Northwest Territories, say they are moving in that direction.  



“Although there’s always room for improvement, the Northwest Territories is working on a lot of these things and has been for quite some time now,” said Michele Grabke, a species at risk implementation supervisor at the NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change.

Unlike many jurisdictions, the NWT has its own Species at Risk Act, she said. Within that system there is a co-management structure, Grabke said, which entails working with Indigenous governments, organizations and management authorities throughout the territory.

Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge are used both in the assessment of species and in the development of recovery plans, she said.

Grabke added that the territory doesn’t use numerical recovery targets. Instead, objectives typically focus on stabilizing declining populations and maintaining sustainable ones.

Many recovery strategies and management plans also point to ensuring sustainable harvests now and into the future, she said.

For polar bear management, for example, one of the goals is to “ensure the long-term persistence of healthy polar bears in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region while maintaining traditional Inuvialuit use,” Grabke said. Similarly, an objective in the long-term vision for barren-ground caribou recovery is to “support and maintain the caribou-people relationship.”

A polar bear. Steven Baryluk/GNWT

According to Menzies, there are success stories in Canada. Some places have been moving in the right direction, she said, particularly in the North and on the West Coast.

But she said there is still a long way to go.



“It’s very bleak where I am, in areas with numbered treaties that haven’t really been re-assessed in a very long time, because there’s no legal framework for co-management,” she said.

According to Lamb, there has been some movement to set more ambitious recovery targets under current legislation, but these objectives generally aren’t legally binding. (Under the NWT’s legislation, for example, listing a species does not trigger any legal protections.)

Another possible path forward, according to the paper’s authors, would be to create entirely new laws that focus on restoring culturally meaningful abundance.

Indigenous peoples affected by reduced populations could also pursue legal enforcement of their rights, the authors say. In 2021, for example, a BC Supreme Court judge ruled that the province violated Blueberry River First Nations’ rights to hunt, fish and trap through the cumulative impacts of industrial development.

“We are seeing, in real-time, Indigenous nations litigate Canada and the provinces and territories,” Lamb said. It’s something he suspects we’ll see more of until Canada strengthens its legislation.