“Our Land”: A Spotlight on Indigenous-led Conservation of Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Park

October 6, 2020
By: admin

“Our Land”: A Spotlight on Indigenous-led Conservation of Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Park

Published [post_published]
Gillian Chow-Fraser

The ground is soft and spongy under your feet as you work your way along the springy sphagnum moss. The waterways winding through the boreal forest around you are flush with recent rainfall. Everything feels damp and green and alive. Coming around the corner of a stand of spindly black spruce trees, you see a bright green clearing spotted with brown beasts.

One of the beasts flicks its ear briefly in your direction, the only sign it has become aware of your presence as it continues to chew lazily. It shakes its giant head to ward off pressing mosquitoes. With the heft of this motion, the animal’s massive size is hard to ignore.

You suddenly realize the rarity of this sight. This is a wood bison of the Ronald Lake herd – one of the last wild herds of an Endangered species, and an indisputable Canadian icon.

But in Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Park, it’s just another Tuesday.

The Athabasca River flows through Kitaskino Nuwenëné, eventually meeting with the Peace River in Wood Buffalo National Park. The area where the two rivers converge is known as the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The Athabasca River flows through Kitaskino Nuwenëné, eventually meeting with the Peace River in Wood Buffalo National Park. The area where the two rivers converge is known as the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Photo by Garth Lenz.

A new name for an ancient territory

Kitaskino Nuwenëné means “our land” in Cree and Dene, acknowledging the long history and continued presence of Indigenous peoples in the region. An idea championed by Mikisew Cree First Nation, the park only exists today because of their hard work and leadership. 

Officially recognized as a park by the Alberta government in 2019, the area was previously called the “Biodiversity Stewardship Area” before being given its new Cree and Dene name. Though the final boundaries differ slightly from the larger area initially proposed by the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the final Wildland Park will be managed to conserve nature and associated cultural features in a relatively undisturbed state. 

The park’s lands, waters, and wildlife have been integral to the Mikisew way of life for generations. The area encompassed by Kitaskino Nuwenëné was identified by Elders and land users as a priority area for protection. 

It’s about going back to being part of mother earth, not us living on the land. It is us actually being a part of nature.

– Mikisew Cree First Nation (Kitaskino Nuwenëné press release)

Larger than the sum of its parts

The area covered by the park encompasses culturally and ecologically important lands and waters that make a big impact. Kitaskino Nuwenëné borders the southern side of Wood Buffalo National Park and protects the waters of the mighty Athabasca River that empties into the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The Delta is the “heart” of Wood Buffalo, nourishing the plants, animals, and communities that depend on it.

Kitaskino Nuwenëné (bright green) may seem somewhat small compared to Wood Buffalo National Park (grey), but don’t be fooled: this park is an essential part of the strategy to help restore the ecological health of Wood Buffalo. Image from Alberta Environment and Parks.
Kitaskino Nuwenëné (bright green) may seem somewhat small compared to Wood Buffalo National Park (grey), but don’t be fooled: this park is an essential part of the strategy to help restore the ecological health of Wood Buffalo. Image from Alberta Environment and Parks.

Kitaskino Nuwenëné effectively provides protection beyond its own borders: it makes a critical contribution to help slow the ecological degradation of Wood Buffalo National Park. Many of the issues affecting the National Park come from beyond its boundaries. Far-off industrial developments in the oil sands and upstream hydroelectric mega-dams affect both the quantity and quality of water that flows into Wood Buffalo via the Peace and Athabasca Rivers.

Kitaskino Nuwenëné helps Wood Buffalo National Park become more resilient to its stressors and improves habitat connectivity for important species like woodland caribou and wood bison. The value of adding protected areas outside Wood Buffalo was recognized by the federal government when they released an Action Plan for Wood Buffalo. The Action Plan calls for a series of actions to establish “buffer zones” using adjacent protected and conserved areas. The current buffer zone includes five other wildland provincial parks in addition to Kitaskino Nuwenëné, each of which play an important role in recovering the Delta. 

On top of providing these amplified benefits to surrounding waters and protected areas, Kitaskino Nuwenëné provides a safe harbour for the Ronald Lake wood bison herd by protecting a large portion of their range. This herd of bison is especially important for two reasons: the herd is important to the Mikisew Cree First Nation and their culture, and it is one of the last free-roaming wood bison herds free of diseases that have hammered most other wild wood bison populations. The Ronald Lake herd is unique because it is remarkably disease-free and genetically distinct from the herds in Wood Buffalo National Park, which are unfortunately considered diseased.

Wood bison (Ansgar Walk, CC BY-SA 2.5). Kitaskino-Nuwëné provides a safe harbour for the Ronald Lake wood bison herd - one of the last wild herds free of disease.
Wood bison (Ansgar Walk, CC BY-SA 2.5). Kitaskino-Nuwëné provides a safe harbour for the Ronald Lake wood bison herd – one of the last wild herds free of disease.

As only one of two disease-free wild wood bison herds in Canada, the Ronald Lake herd is very important to the potential recovery of the species. The herd’s persistence depends on limiting disease spread from the infected bison, which means providing them with intact and undisturbed habitat where they live right now. Kitaskino Nuwenëné protects 37% of their herd range, providing them this safeguard for their future.

Diseased and disease-free wood bison herds within and surrounding Wood Buffalo National Park. The Ronald Lake herd is just south of the park and has roughly 200 individuals in its herd. Image from Parks Canada.
Diseased and disease-free wood bison herds within and surrounding Wood Buffalo National Park. The Ronald Lake herd is just south of the park and has roughly 200 individuals in its herd. Image from Parks Canada.

A hallmark of successful collaboration between government, industry and Indigenous communities

Meaningful collaboration and engagement with stakeholders was critical to realize the goals of Kitaskino Nuwenëné. It stands as an example of effective and inspiring collaboration, as several industry champions voluntarily abandoned their mineral  leases within the park, providing effective protection from intensive industrial land disturbances. The success of the park creation, and the near-future benefits of these coordinated efforts, were achieved through discussions led by Mikisew Cree First Nation and government.

The Alberta government has also committed to a vision of cooperative management for the Kitaskino-Nuwenëné, where Indigenous communities and organizations will play an active role in stewarding and managing the park. Cooperative management could include a wide variety of activities, including co-development of a park management plan and coordinated protection of specific traditional use sites and cultural resources. An Indigenous Guardians program, where Indigenous peoples actively steward areas through monitoring and land use planning,  is also proposed in the park to support Indigenous stewardship.

Of such partnerships with government and industry, the Mikisew Cree First Nation website states: “It’s only going to benefit the whole entire world, because we are all part of the land, and we are going to go back to it one day.”

The landscapes protected by Kitaskino Nuwenëné are diverse, consisting of waterways, wetlands and forests. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The landscapes protected by Kitaskino Nuwenëné are diverse, consisting of waterways, wetlands and forests. Photo by Garth Lenz.

This is just the beginning

The current boundaries of Kitaskino Nuwenëné represent the first approved phase of the protected area. The Mikisew Cree First Nation plans to continue expanding the park to protect further habitat for the Ronald Lake wood bison herd and to provide more protection for Wood Buffalo National Park.

Now is time to build on this momentum and protect the rest of the habitat of the Ronald Lake Bison Herd, more watersheds that flow into Wood Buffalo National Park and other areas that support the Peace Athabasca Delta and our Treaty rights.

– Chief Archie Waquan, Mikisew First Nation

The expansion of Kitaskino Nuwenëné will contribute to an overarching strategy entitled Nikechinahonan, aimed to ensure the cultural survival of the Mikisew Cree. Ultimately, the survival of Indigenous cultures is intimately linked to the survival of the planet’s most crucial natural ecosystems. These are the lands and waters that have nourished Indigenous peoples for time immemorial, and that Indigenous peoples understand how to nourish in return.

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