Great Bear Lake on track to become protected area

Great Bear Lake on track to become protected area

The 8th largest lake in the world is one step closer to becoming an Indigenous Conservation and Conservation Area.

Tsá Tué or Great Bear Lake, according to Délı̨nę Ɂek’wahtı̨dǝ́ (Chief) Danny Gaudet, is the backyard, highway and utility of the Délı̨nę community. Tsá Tué covers more than 31,000 square kilometers – roughly the size of Vancouver Island.

The Government of Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę, the Northwest Territories and Canada pledged to establish the proposed Sahtú K’aowe Indigenous Conservation and Conservation Area that would preserve Tsa ́Tué by signing a memorandum of understanding on December 17. The announcement was made at COP15, the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, which ends in Montreal on the territory of Kanien’kéha. The MOU also commits to exploring long-term financing options.

Tsá Tué will bring Canada about 0.3 percent closer to its goal of protecting 25 percent of land and sea by 2025. The three levels of government agreed to include Tsá Tué in Canada’s database of protected and protected areas. Gaudet said they reached the terms of the MOU last month and intend to finalize an agreement in the spring and do all the necessary work to fully establish Sahtú K’aowe by 2025.

On a sunny day at Great Bear Lake, Raymond kneels by the water and scoops some in his palm.  He wears an elaborately beaded waistcoat
Deputy Director Raymond Taniton kneels by the Tsá Tué, which cares for the Sahtúgot’ı̨nę, as well as wildlife such as moose, caribou and grizzly bears. Photo: TessaMacintosh

It may seem quick, but it’s the culmination of decades of work and a consistent vision from their elders, Gaudet said.

“All elders, you have gone to great lengths over the past month to ensure our interests are considered and to support Canada in its initiatives,” he said.

“We owe a great deal to the elders who taught us the direction and the vision.”

The announcement followed Manitoba, Canada and four First Nations also committing to conduct a feasibility study for the proposed Seal River Watershed Indigenous Conservation Area that would protect eight percent of Manitoba.

“Supporting indigenous conservation initiatives through strong partnerships like this makes a significant contribution to the goals in Canada,” Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement protecting Tsá Tué. “We all benefit from further cooperation, and this is the only way we can achieve our common nature conservation goals.”

The next step in a decades-long journey to conserve Great Bear Lake

The Sahtú K’aowe Conservation Area is covered in boreal forest and is home to musk oxen, caribou, moose and grizzly bears. The lake is home to the Sahtúgot’ı̨nę, the people of Bear Lake. The self-governing municipality of Délı̨nę, meaning “where the water flows”, is the only municipality in the watershed.

The Sahtúgot’ı̨nę have come a long way to protect Tsá Tué. From the 1940s to the 1960s, 740,000 tons of uranium tailings were dumped into the lake as documented in a TVO episode Impressive balance.

The Sahtúgot’ı̨nę favored preserving the lake as part of their 1993 land claim, but the other levels of government opposed this.

Years later, in 2016, the Sahtúgot’ı̨nę successfully established the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve. The massive 93,000-square-kilometer reserve was the first established north of the 60th parallel and the first to be run by indigenous peoples.

Northern Lights Great Bear Lake
The Northern Lights can often be seen on long winter nights at Great Bear Lake. Photo: TVO

While the proposed Sahtú K’aowe Indigenous Conservation and Conservation Area is described as a “protected” area, Gaudet emphasized how they will continue to engage with the land. They will still hunt, fish and rely on the lake’s resources – but in a respectful manner by their own laws.

“We still intend to develop resources around the lake,” he said. But what sets them apart from non-Indigenous extraction is that there is “no evidence we were there” after going into the bush and harvesting resources.

“For us, that’s conservation,” he explained. “We’re certainly water rich, we’re resource rich, we’ve got tons of minerals in and around the lake. So there’s still this idea that we could develop our resources, but we want to do it in a way that respects the environment, respects the lake and all the animals, plants and trees around us.”

The countries of the COP15 biodiversity conference agree to protect a third of the earth by 2030

Another element of the MOU that still needs to be worked out is long-term funding. The Sahtú K’aowe Conservation Area is associated with the Project Finance for Permanence Initiative in the Northwest Territories, a pilot project that aims to create financing arrangements between private donors and all levels of government that can “maintain healthy lands and local economies.” for the long term.

The federal government recently pledged up to $800 million over seven years to support up to four projects for permanent Indigenous-led initiatives that it said could protect one million square kilometers.

The MoU was signed just days before countries signed an agreement at COP15 to conserve 30 percent of the world’s land and waters. The agreement reached on Monday recognized the importance of protecting indigenous people.

According to a draft report from the COP15 meeting, Minister Guilbeault said: “Government has a key role but must work closely with civil society, the private sector, foundations, academia, citizens and indigenous and indigenous peoples.”

Goal One of the agreement outlines the goal of halting biodiversity loss by 2030, “while respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities”.

At COP15, people march with visible signs reading 'No pride in genocide' and 'Our country is not landed property, respects indigenous sovereignty'.
Indigenous rights and indigenous-led conservation took center stage at COP15, from a flurry of funding announcements to street demonstrations and Indigenous youth interrupting a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo: Stephanie Foden / The Narwhal

Sahtú K’aowe is home to endangered caribou and melting ice

The region faces challenges from both biodiversity loss and climate change. The caribou population on barren soils has fallen from over two million in the 1990s to about 800,000 in 2015. In 2018, the Northwest Territories included eight of its nine poor-land caribou herds in its species-at-risk legislation.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada listed barren soil caribou as threatened in 2016, but they are not yet listed under federal endangered species laws. The federal government earlier this month announced $3.8 million to protect caribou in barren land in the Northwest Territories.

Gaudet said he saw how climate change was affecting the landscape.

“When we were young, Ice was about eight feet tall. Now we’re lucky enough to get five, maybe six feet,” he said.

Winters start later, ice takes longer to freeze and it melts earlier, he said.

“Last year the water in the lake dropped a little over a foot. That’s probably the first time in my life that it’s fallen so quickly in one season,” he said. He thinks it’s related to melting permafrost.

“We’re not getting the runoff we should be getting. The water is just in the ground instead of flowing into the river or lake.”

Northwest Territories A lone desolate caribou walks across a grassy landscape, buildings in the background
A caribou from the Bathurst herd walks near the former Lupine gold mine in Nunavut. The Bathurst herd has been in sharp decline and was listed as Vulnerable by the Northwest Territories in 2018. Photo: Pat Kane / The Narwhal

Gaudet said the elders were preparing for a future where water would be scarce. And that’s why the elders said it was so important for Délı̨nę to ensure self-government – preparing for a future where outsiders will come for the precious fresh water.

“People are going to need food, so they’re going to come to that lake… The elders wanted to make sure that our laws, our customs and our beliefs are kept by the people who come to live among us,” he said.

Their goal, he explained, is to conserve fresh water and resources for future generations.

“We definitely need to start being ready [for climate change],” he said. “We don’t want to be reactive. We want to be prepared.”

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