It was the mid 2000s when the Gitanyow, whose Lax’yip (traditional territory) is situated north of Kitwanga, British Columbia, started to notice fewer moose on their territory. Hunters were coming home empty handed. The community was missing out on an important source of food and cultural sustenance. The Gitanyow Chiefs— already feeling the effects of declining salmon stocks — became concerned.
Approximately 80% of the Gitanyow Lax’yip lies in the Nass River watershed, and between 2001 and 2007 the Nass moose population declined by roughly 65 percent — a result of poor management — so the Gitanyow Lax’yip Guardians sprang into action.
The Gitanyow Lax’yip Guardians are one of many Indigenous-led stewardship groups across Canada that are highlighted in TNC Canada’s new Indigenous Guardians Toolkit. Though the names vary — guardians, watchers, watchmen, monitors, rangers, observers — they are essentially the eyes and ears of their territories, using a blend of Indigenous knowledge and western science to steward lands and waters.
In response to the decline, the Gitanyow Guardians began tracking the moose populations and implemented a permitting program based on traditional laws and practices. “It’s all about just reasserting the traditional law around hunting and permission,” explains Kevin Koch, a wildlife biologist for the Gitanyow Guardians. “You have to seek permission from the chief of the territory if you want to hunt as an aboriginal hunter. That’s nothing new, that’s age-old laws.”
The Gitanyow Guardian program is now in its seventh year, and Koch says the key to success is its boots-on-the-ground approach. “We said, ‘if we’re going to do this, if we’re going to try and monitor hunting and harvest and implement permitting, we need [to hire] wildlife monitors.’”
The upshot is that this is not just good for conservation outcomes, it also makes for healthy communities. Across Canada, Indigenous Guardian programs employ local community members in roles that include monitoring priority issues, protecting cultural and ecological values, patrolling for illegal activities, conducting field research, acting as ambassadors to their territories, connecting youth and elders, and much more. “These jobs are engaging,” Koch says. “They get people back in touch with their territory. You have young people becoming experts which is super empowering.”
Indigenous Guardian programs also build relationships with other governments and resource agencies to ensure a coordinated and effective approach to resource management in their territories. In fact, the Gitanyow Guardians have established strong relationships with provincial conservation officers and they now work alongside each other not just to manage the moose hunt but also monitor goshawk nests, assist in bear-human conflicts and more.
“You can develop all the plans you want, put all the legal frameworks in place,” says Claire Hutton, Community Conservation Advisor for TNC Canada, “but if you don’t actually have the people on the ground to implement, then it’s all for naught. Indigenous Guardians are critical. It’s kind of at the heart of it.”
That is why TNC Canada has made support of Indigenous Guardians programs central to its conservation strategy. “Our focus is on supporting communities as they strengthen their on-the-ground stewardship capacity,” Hutton says. “We look for effective and strategic ways to offer support to a lot of different communities across different landscapes.” TNC Canada recently launched the Indigenous Guardians Toolkit – an open-source repository of tips, learnings and experiences where communities can learn, share and connect about their Indigenous Guardians work.
“The goal is to foster peer-to-peer connections so these programs, which are scattered all over Canada, can connect and learn from each other,” says Hutton. “We’re hoping to create a space where people can share the nitty-gritty details of creating and running a Guardian program.”
Nitty-gritty details like how the Gitanyow Guardians used Facebook to spread the word about their permitting program, or a downloadable template of a data sheet that could otherwise take a program manager days to create from scratch. The hope is that this ability to find practical information and share knowledge and experiences will propel Indigenous Guardians programs forward in a way that’s never been possible before.
In the Gitanyow Lax’yip in remote, northwest B.C., the Gitanyow Guardians have had an unmistakable impact. “There was [a moose survey] done in 2017,” says Koch speaking with the authority of a person who loves the land and the caution of a scientist who knows the data. “The numbers are somewhat preliminary because we haven’t had that much time to critique it — but it’s clear the population has gone up.”