Protecting Biodiversity in the Boreal Forest
In the season finale we visit Thaidene Nëné, a huge swath of land in the Boreal Forest, and learn how the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation and the Canadian government came together to protect an area that’s vital for birds, Indigenous people, and the health of the entire planet.
There's more to the story!
- Help protect boreal birds
- Learn more about the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area
- Meet the birds of boreal forest
- "How to Find Comfort in Watching for Boreal Birds" - advice from Jeff Wells
Special thanks to Emily Blake, Emily Cousins, and Janna Graham for their help in making this episode.
Ari Daniel: Hey there, I’m Ari Daniel. And this is Threatened, a new show from BirdNote about answering the call to protect the birds and places we love.
This is the final episode of our pilot season and we’re ending our journey in one of the most important bird habitats in the Western Hemisphere, the boreal forest. Billions of birds nest and hatch their eggs here. The boreal is also the ancestral home of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, who’ve spent decades trying to preserve the land on their terms. Their solution could well provide a blueprint for sustainable conservation around the world. Let’s get started.
Ari Daniel: Iris Catholique has always had a strong sense of herself.
Iris Catholique: When I was growing up as a child, girls were not allowed to do a lot of things. There was a lot of taboos — “girls can’t do this, girls can’t do that.” I just didn’t agree with it.
Florence Catholique: I raised her the opposite of being restrained, and to let her flourish.
Ari Daniel: Florence Catholique is Iris’s mom.
Florence Catholique: I had grandmothers that took on the role of hunting and trapping and fishing.
Iris Catholique: You know, I was so headstrong that I saw some of my aunties who used to live out in the barren lands and say, “Well, if they can do that, how come I can’t do that?”
Ari Daniel: Iris and Florence belong to the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation people of the Northwest Territories, in Canada.
Florence Catholique: There’s no differentiating between the role of a man and a woman in my culture.
Ari Daniel: Or at least, that’s how it used to be… a culture of hunting and harvesting that men and women participated in equally.
Iris Catholique: My grandfather, his name was Jonas Catholique… boys and girls in his generation, there was no shortage of work. Everything was hard. They had to live off the land. There was no store when they were growing up, they had to go and harvest their food. They had to do everything on their own, so everybody had to pitch in. My grandfather used to work on hides with my grandmother right up until he passed away. I was very close with him and I just told him, I was like, “Abah, I want to learn how to do this. I want to learn how to do that.” He said, “Okay, my girl, I’m going to teach you everything you want to know because,” he said, “that’s how I was raised.” So I was taught how to be a hunter at a very young age.
Ari Daniel: A deep affection grew inside of Iris… for the land and water of her ancestors.
Iris Catholique: Łutsël K’é is actually situated on the furthest most eastern tip of the Great Slave Lake. It’s a very big lake.
Ari Daniel: The Great Slave Lake, named after the Slavey First Nations people, is the tenth biggest in the world, and the deepest in North America. Every August, nearly half the Łutsël K’é Dene community — somewhere between 60 and 80 people — take their boats onto the lake and travel to a remote and sacred patch of land for a spiritual gathering.
Shonto Catholique: That’s how I learned how to navigate the lake, and learn how to drive a boat on the lake cause I’ve been going there ever since I was young.
Ari Daniel: Shonto Catholique is Iris’s cousin.
Shonto Catholique: So people go there and pray, that your family will do good, that your community will do good.
[fade up drumming]
Ari Daniel: They sing songs…
Shonto Catholique: Songs that people have been playing forever.
Ari Daniel: Pray to the Lady of the Falls spirit, visit the Dene people who are buried there, and ground themselves in their surroundings.
Shonto Catholique: It’s just — the water’s clear. That’s like our holy water to our people. The land is just so untouched. After you leave, you feel so rejuvenated.
[fade out drumming]
Ari Daniel: The Łutsël K’é Dene are on the water all the time. Take Iris. Here she is in the early fall, revving up her 18-foot fishing boat…
…and motoring into the Great Slave Lake.
Iris Catholique: Our water is so clear and so pure that you can take a cup right out of your boat and you can just drink it—it doesn’t need to be filtered. There is no contaminants in it whatsoever.
Ari Daniel: And if you look at an aerial map of this part of the Northwest Territories, it’s just freckled with lakes.
Iris Catholique: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of wetlands in our area. There’s an abundance of wildlife and fish and birds.
Shonto Catholique: I really enjoy the spring time because it’s like everything migrates. So you’ll have the geese flying. White-crown sparrows chirping in the mornings. Once you walk into a patch of willows, you’ll start seeing yellow warblers. You go by the river, you’ll see two osprey nests. Eagles soaring. I saw a merlin the other day, it was pretty cool.
Once you just really start looking and listening, it’s just so diverse. To be honest, they’re like Pokémon. You gotta identify them all.
Ari Daniel: Łutsël K’é, the Great Slave Lake, this whole area is part of a biome called the boreal forest, stretching from interior Alaska eastwards across Canada through the Northwest Territories…
Jeff Wells: Kind of sandwiched in between the Arctic and the prairies.
Ari Daniel: … all the way to Newfoundland and Labrador on the Atlantic coast, says Jeff Wells — vice president of boreal conservation for the National Audubon Society.
Jeff Wells: So, you know, a very vast area, it’s about 1.5 billion acres in size. And it is one of the most intact forest landscapes left on earth, about 80% intact — virtually no footprint of industrial development. So because of that, it’s been able to support an incredible number of birds and diversity of birds. There’s over 300 species that nest in the boreal. And we estimate that there’s 1–3 billion with a “B” that nest there every year. And then in the fall, at the end of the nesting season, when you add in the young of the year, there’s 3–5 billion that go spilling out across the Canada-US border, moving South, starting even in July and extending through November. On average, that means there’s something like 30 to 50 million birds that have to pass over that border every night. So this sea of birds come spilling out of the boreal night after night as these birds come to become the familiar birds for the backyards and gardens and parks and forests and wetlands of the US and in points south all the way down into southern South America, for some of them.
Ari Daniel: That’s such a beautiful image. I kind of imagine this giant river of birds just sort of pouring southwards.
Jeff Wells: Yeah. You can name all the great places for birding around the country. What makes those places so special is the abundance of birds passing through. And so much of that abundance is actually coming from an intact forest to their north that produces all these birds and sends them down to the US each fall. It’s the key place that allows birds to make more of themselves and be resilient enough to survive all the perturbations and threats and issues that they’re going to be dealing with on migration and in winter and increasingly with climate change, which will cause many of them to die. You know, that’s the truth of it. And so, maintaining places where they can successfully nest and breed and raise young without all of these other impacts is key to not only their survival, but the health of our entire world.
Ari Daniel: And by that, Jeff means these birds play a variety of important ecological roles across the hemisphere — like dispersing seeds and pollinating plants. Indeed, some of these birds, like the Cape May Warbler or the Bay-breasted Warbler, can be found well south of the boreal with their faces just dusted in pollen. And when you think about the sheer number of birds performing these tasks, the benefits are enormous to forests and habitats throughout the Americas. Iris Catholique says the birds are like messengers.
Iris Catholique: They tell us things. For instance, like the snowbirds, we know for sure, as soon as the snowbirds get here, the snow is coming! Like if you’re out fishing, and you have a couple eagles in the area and they’re swooping down and they’re catching fish, that’s where you want to go fishing because the eagles are there.
Shonto Catholique: Once springtime comes, means that geese are coming, ducks are coming. They’re coming up to nest. They’re really the first indicators — season’s changing, weather’s warming up.
Jeff Wells: One of the last places on Earth where there are still great mammal migrations is within the boreal forest of Canada with caribou, they make these massive migrations. And then the herds of caribou have wolves that follow them, certain lineages of wolves that move with the caribou herds. There’s also the migration of fish to go a thousand kilometers up a river to spawn, as they always did for millennia. The boreal has one of the largest overall stores of carbon of any land-based part of the earth. It’s been pulled out of the air, sequestered by the trees and other plants and peatlands. And then because of the very cold environment, it stays there kind of locked in storage for thousands and thousands of years. So vitally important in the whole climate change equation.
Ari Daniel: Jeff says the only long undammed rivers left in North America course through the boreal — think Mississippi River in scale, but nothing to get in their way. That water influences ocean nutrients and food webs, ice formation in the Arctic, ocean circulation patterns, and planetwide weather systems.
Jeff Wells: There’s a global reach to everything in the boreal and maintaining that intactness is so crucial.
Iris Catholique: To keep this little section protected is so important. And our elders have always said, “In order to keep our land and water pristine, we need to protect it by establishing a park for all of our future generations, for young people so they can enjoy it. And the rest of the world can enjoy it.” When the elders say you need to do this type of work, you listen.
Ari Daniel: But it was going to be a tough road. Creating some type of protected area meant coordinating with the Canadian government — an undertaking that would require a reckoning with the past.
Iris Catholique: We don’t trust the government! There’s a lot of promises that are made by the federal government to our people 120 years ago that are still not being honored. So that always sticks in the back of your mind. And if anybody knows anything is you don’t make decisions overnight.
Florence Catholique: I don’t think that anyone in their right mind…
Ari Daniel: Florence Catholique again.
Florence Catholique: …especially indigenous people, would put their trust in the government.
Ari Daniel: Iris and Florence have good reason to distrust the government. For instance, you know how Iris was told she couldn’t hunt and fish?
Iris Catholique: In my generation, there’s not too many women like that, probably just a couple of us that can navigate and travel on the land and harvest and hunt and, you know, survive on our own if we had to. So there’s a lot of taboos that we’re still trying to get over.
Ari Daniel: Taboos introduced by the West, the Canadian crown government.
Iris Catholique: That colonialistic mentality that, like, “You have to do it this way, or you have to do it that way.”
Ari Daniel: One of the most painful ways that indigenous communities across Canada, including the Łutsël K’é Dene, have felt that colonial influence has been through residential schools.
Iris Catholique: Well, you’re uprooted from your family. You’re moved to a different place. Yeah, it was great to get an education. However, you don’t have your mother, your father, your brother, and your sister around, you don’t have that family support.
Ari Daniel: Residential schools operated from the early 1830s to the mid–1990s. And their goal was nothing short of the wholesale assimilation of First Nations people.
Steven Nitah: Their full intent was to kill the Indian in them — a cultural genocide.
Ari Daniel: This is Steven Nitah. He says that in Canada’s early days, there was a dependence of western settlers on indigenous peoples for their survival, a recognition of indigenous sovereignty, and a relatively peaceful coexistence. But that changed, starting in the early 1900s.
Steven Nitah: Canada focused on indigenous peoples with the sole purpose of eradicating them. Kids were totally indoctrinated to hate themselves, hate their parents, hate who they are. That was the assimilation policy. It took a while for Canada to come around to our community mainly because of our isolation. But eventually, when they did get to us, they certainly got to us. My mother, who’s 80 now — every one of her generation were scooped up and placed in residential schools. The relationship my mother has with me and my grandparents was altered forever. The relationship she had with the land was altered forever. It was a systematic erasure of that relationship that Canada used right across the country.
Ari Daniel: Roughly 150,000 children were relocated away from their families, including Iris…
Iris Catholique: For me, it was grade 10 to 12.
Ari Daniel: Iris’s grandmother, and her mother.
Ari Daniel: Can you tell me about your experience with them, Florence?
Florence Catholique: That’s too close to the heart to speak of.
Ari Daniel: Mmm. I just want to make sure I have a sense. It sounds like you feel like maybe they robbed you of something, that they took something from you?
Florence Catholique: Yes, of course they did. You know, the way to get rid of a society is to take you away from it. And to take you away from where you’re from. And from all the teachings and the teachers, which are usually your parents or your grandparents or your relatives that have all the knowledge of how they traveled and survive on the land, the history that links to our community, the connection to the spiritual, those are all lost. We were prohibited from doing a lot of things. Sometimes we seem to be like in an ocean, just a little grain of salt, trying to regroup and find each other and get our way of living back. It’s a really hard subject for me to speak of.
Ari Daniel: Hmm.
Ari Daniel: So it was in the wake of this painful history that Iris resisted, and learned the ways of her people. But any sort of protected area would have to wrestle with this past, all while trying to imagine a different kind of future. The first attempt was made in the late ‘60s. Shanna MacDonald is the Senior Negotiator for Parks Canada’s Protected Areas Establishment Branch.
Shanna MacDonald: These very well-positioned politicians that are fairly storied in Canadian history came into the community and said, “Hey, we’re gonna make a national park here. Just sign on the line.” And the response from the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation was, “Oh no! Oh no, you’re not.”
Steven Nitah: At that time, my grandparents, great grandparents, the elders were dead set against a national park. National parks has a dark history. The national parks were used as a tool of assimilation. So they wanted nothing to do with that.
Shanna MacDonald: The government of Canada did go away and didn’t create a national park. So I do want to give those older white guys some credit on that one!
Ari Daniel: But a few decades later, in the early 1990s, a force had arisen that placed this area in real jeopardy.
Larry Innes: At the time, the Northwest Territories was the center of one of the largest prospecting rushes in history.
Ari Daniel: Larry Innes is a lawyer with a firm that represents First Nations communities across Canada.
Larry Innes: Diamond miners from around the world were flying across the tundra, staking claims and looking for the next big diamond discovery in the North. People were seeing helicopters, you know, literally landing in their backyards.
Shanna MacDonald: Throwing darts out of planes to mark territories. What happened was a real concern about the loss of the Łutsël K’é Dene way of life, impacts on caribou migration, preserving access to lands for future settlements, all of those things.
Steven Nitah: Our people, they decided that we needed to protect the heart of our homeland—a huge, huge homeland. The most important lesson is that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. We have a relationship with and a responsibility to nature in all its forms.
Ari Daniel: By this point, it was the late ’90s, and the Canadian government had changed some of its policies around national parks, making them more appealing to First Nations communities like the Łutsël K’é. Such as allowing traditional practices, like hunting and fishing and wood cutting, within the boundaries of a park. Or granting indigenous access to the lands and waterways that had always been theirs, even after they became protected.
Shanna MacDonald: And so it was the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation that came back to the government of Canada and said, “We want this area protected for future generations. Let’s sit down and talk about how we can do this together.”
Larry Innes: And the government agreed. And the role of indigenous governments as self-governments would be respected.
Ari Daniel: So in 2005, the Łutsël K’é Dene people and the government of Canada sat down to begin talking in earnest. Among the folks involved were Steven Nitah, Larry Innes, Shanna MacDonald, from Parks Canada, even Iris Catholique to an extent.
Iris Catholique: I wasn’t a negotiator per se, but it’s very important for me to be involved with anything that has to do with our territory—attending all of the public meetings, doing interviews with the negotiators, talking to elders and the community as a whole.
Ari Daniel: The talks began. But right out of the gate, complications arose.
Iris Catholique: Well, there was a lot of concern.
Larry Innes: We were close. And then we weren’t.
Shanna MacDonald: There are a number of things that delayed the process.
Ari Daniel: Some procedural, some foundational.
Iris Catholique: Probably the biggest hurdle was making sure that those traditional hunting and harvesting rights were still protected.
Ari Daniel: It took years of hammering out elements big and small and sending drafts back and forth. But by early 2019, at last an end was in sight.
Iris Catholique: Probably took a good ten years for me to finally say, “Okay, I agree!”
Ari Daniel: Wow, wow. What convinced you that your interests were going to be respected?
Iris Catholique: It came to a point where there was everything in that agreement. Our treaty rights are going to be honored, our harvesting rights are going to be honored, we are still going to be able to live and practice our Dene way of life. So it just ended up to be something that was a living record of exactly how we felt. Yeah, it took a while, but we got there.
Shanna MacDonald: We were able to then move forward on a cooperative management model…
Larry Innes: …where we share jurisdictions and where we respect each other’s rights and each other’s responsibilities.
Shanna MacDonald: It was a real breakthrough to say, “We all have come into this with our own authorities. Some of it is invested in us by the government of Canada through legislation and some of it is invested in people and through the creator.” And we have to respect both of those lines of authorities.
Ari Daniel: In mid-August 2019, it became official.
Iris Catholique: So now we have a park!
Ari Daniel: The creation of the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. Shonto Catholique.
Shonto Catholique: So Thaidene Nëné means the “Land of the Ancestors.” Elders, like old timers, that’s what they always called this land was Thaidene Nëné. Like my grandfather traveled all over this land, my great-grandfather traveled over this land, my great, great grandfather traveled all over this land. My family ties are to this land — the “Land of the Ancestors.”
Ari Daniel: Over 10,000 square miles of land and water is now protected by a trilateral agreement between the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, Parks Canada, and the Government of Northwest Territories.
Larry Innes: It’s a jointly designated national park, territorial park, and indigenous protected area where each government makes decisions and seeks consensus with the others before those decisions are actually made on the ground.
Steven Nitah: We didn’t give our rights to it away, we didn’t give our responsibilities to the lands away. What we agreed was to share.
Shanna MacDonald: There are pictures of me walking around with a signed agreement clutched to my chest, like a little baby bird, and I was never going to let it go. To see the joy in the community, the celebration, it was really powerful.
Shonto Catholique: I mean, it’s a big thing, right? It’s scary to sign on and to be in partnership, but you have to go into these kinds of things with an open heart, and we have to all work together to protect the land. Healing takes time.
Steven Nitah: There was a mixed bags of emotions. Sad emotions for the fact that the elders that put us on this road and guided us… 80% were not alive to witness it. There’s excitement. Knowing that our relationship with the lands and waters and the animals will continue, which gives us a real good chance of continuing to be Dene and contributing to the mosaic of the human family. And a little bit of fear — we’re committing our people to a lifelong relationship with Parks Canada and the government of Northwest Territories. We’ve provided the conditions for success, but only time will tell.
Ari Daniel: Iris now runs Thaidene Nëné on the Łutsël K’é Dene side of things. She has a small staff and her responsibilities include managing the Ni Hat’ni Dene Guardian program, which means “Watchers of the Land.”
Iris Catholique: Okay, so the Ni Hat’ni Dene are our go-to guardians for monitoring and helping folks that come into Thaidene Nëné understand what our rules and regulations are. These are our Dene laws, and this is what you need to know.
Ari Daniel: Like making sure that people entering the protected area know where the sacred areas are, and that there’s a moratorium on hunting caribou, since the population’s in decline. They monitor the water, the ice and snow, the fish, and… the birds.
Iris Catholique: The health of the birds is quite important. With climate change and things of that nature, are the seasons coming or going faster or slower?
Ari Daniel: The Guardians have installed automated song recorders to inventory which birds appear where throughout the year, filling in gaps in our understanding of home ranges. And while not everyone’s fully convinced that this experiment in co-management between indigenous and crown governments will be successful, many are excited by what this new model represents.
Iris Catholique: We’re showing the rest of the world that yes, if you want to protect your lands, your water, your wildlife, your birds, your ducks, like essentially where you come from, that is achievable.
Larry Innes: And it’s through that process that we’re starting to see the shift from what was previously a colonial approach in which rights were denied to a postcolonial approach in which indigenous rights are recognized as the foundation for conservation. And that’s a huge change.
Jeff Wells: One of these best kept secrets of bird conservation is that these indigenous governments and communities and leaders are protecting more birds than just about anywhere else in the world.
Ari Daniel: This is Jeff Wells again, from the National Audubon Society.
Jeff Wells: We can thank those indigenous leaders and their visions for a positive future for all those birds that are part of the fabric of our backyards and parks and gardens. It’s really going to be the future of making sure we have safe, healthy places for birds and people and wildlife and plants and everything.
Steven Nitah: The exciting thing here is that we can show how indigenous knowledge systems, understanding of the environment and indigenous laws can influence and impact an area of this size. That I think is a knowledge system that’s greatly needed globally.
Ari Daniel: Is there a part of you that feels kind of frustrated that after so many years of mistreatment that now it’s like, we don’t have our act together, so we have to rely on groups like the Łutsël K’é and others to help get us out, or do you have a more charitable view of all of this?
Steven Nitah: Well, it depends on the day. And the challenges of that day. But it’s all about relationships. I think indigenous people have demonstrated they’re willing to forgive, but not forget and move forward. I think the goodwill that indigenous people are demonstrating has to be reciprocated and non-indigenous people have to understand, learn the history, the real history of the Americas.
Ari Daniel: As for Iris Catholique, her personal history has become intertwined with Thaidene Nëné. Back when the idea for such a place was first being imagined, she was a girl, falling in love with the land.
Iris Catholique: Just being out on the land for me, it’s a big part of my life.
Ari Daniel: Once the negotiations for a protected area began in earnest, she got involved — out of a deep affection for this vast home of hers. And then, as those deliberations neared their final stretch, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Iris Catholique: It was a very hard time in my life. You don’t feel the greatest after having to go through certain treatments. But yeah, just being able to know that I can walk out my door and within five minutes I can be in the wilderness… it’s like a healing thing for me ‘cause you always feel stronger and you always feel rejuvenated after being out on the land. It’s just a part of who I am.
Ari Daniel: Fortunately, Iris’s cancer is now in remission.
Ari Daniel: And what an amazing thing on the other end of your recovery to come out and have this enormous area protected… something that’s so dear to you.
Iris Catholique: Yep. We’re going to teach our young people to be strong and to be able to walk in both worlds, to be able to have an academic background, but yet to also have the ability to know what it is to be a Dene person: to be able to harvest, to take care of your family, to have all of those Dene values. So I think our future generations, I think they’re going to be benefiting from a lot of the work that their parents and our grandparents have done trying to protect our people.
Ari Daniel: Iris sees herself as one link in a long chain extending ahead of her and behind her. A chain passing through the heart of a special place in Canada. A place called Thaidene Nëné.
Thanks for joining us for this season of Threatened. If you want to learn more about the boreal forest and the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area, visit BirdNote dot org and check out our show notes.
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This episode was produced by me, Ari Daniel, with editorial help from Allison Wilson. The rest of the BirdNote team is Sallie Bodie, Mark Bramhill, John Kessler, Ellen Blackstone, Sam Johnson, Shelly Ellison, Jason McCue, Katie Meyer, Jessica Rugh Frantz, and Roderick Campbell. Our science advisors on Threatened are Megan Friesen, Nils Warnock, and Trina Bayard. The artwork for this season was created by Clint McMillen of Braincloud Design. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
Thanks again for listening and I’ll be back next season, with more stories about the enduring connections between birds, people, and landscapes.
Artwork by Clint McMillen at Braincloud Design