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Environment

Indigenous guardians sound alarm about climate change impacts in Canada

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  • VANCOUVER — Growing up in a small, remote First Nations community in northwestern British Columbia, Jarett Quock found he faced racism and stereotypes from non-Indigenous people whenever he left the reserve.

    The treatment took a toll on him, damaging his pride in his Tahltan Nation roots. It was only after he began work as an Indigenous guardian — monitoring the effects of climate change on his territory — that he recovered his confidence.

    “Being a guardian has helped me so much on a personal level,” Quock, 31, said in an interview.

    “Being able to go out there and connect to the land and connect to the people and having that sense of pride when you go home has helped me overcome a lot of obstacles in my life.”

    More than 40 Indigenous communities in Canada have launched guardian programs, which employ local members to monitor ecosystems and protect sensitive areas and species. At a national gathering in Vancouver this week, guardians raised alarm about environmental degradation and climate change in their territories.

    A massive wildfire swept through Quock’s community of Telegraph Creek last August, destroying 21 homes and damaging many others. Climate change was partly to blame for the rapid spread of the flames through tinder-dry vegetation, said Quock.

    “By the middle of July, we had our green leaves already turning brown. It was so hot with no rain,” he said, adding that the fire first broke out near a swamp that would typically have been moist enough to allow firefighters to contain the blaze. “It shouldn’t have gotten that big.”

    Quock helped design the community’s first guardian program, which involved helping conservation officers monitor licensed hunters. He also launched an education program aimed at stopping garbage dumping and unnecessary burning in camps, he said.

    The program has since grown from being focused mostly on hunting to more of a land stewardship program, monitoring water quality, protecting caribou and removing problem wildlife, he said.

    A major focus is monitoring the effects of climate change, Quock added. In addition to the rapid spread of last summer’s wildfire, he has seen caribou altering their migration routes and dwindling numbers of certain species of animals.

    Indigenous communities are often the first to experience the impacts of climate change, said Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.

    “We sustain ourselves off the land, so if there are issues such as declining populations of caribou, moose and what have you, we’re certainly the first to know and also be affected by issues of climate change,” he said.

    In northern B.C., a mountain pine beetle outbreak led to forests strewn with dead wood, which along with last summer’s hot and dry conditions helped fuel the worst wildfire season on record in the province, Teegee said.

    “It’s quite frightening,” he said. “I think it really requires action, not only by people that are watching what’s happening on the land, the guardians, but also by governmental policies and commitment to living up to the Paris climate change accord.”

    Environment and Climate Change Canada provided $25 million in the 2017 budget for a four-year Indigenous guardians pilot program to provide communities with greater opportunities to be responsible for stewardship of their traditional lands, waters and ice. The pilot program aims to inform a potential National Indigenous Guardians Network.

    “Indigenous communities are deeply connected to the land and understand the importance of acting now to protect Canada’s environment and conserve biodiversity,” said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in a statement last fall.

    “The work we do together today will ensure a healthier environment for the generations that follow.”

    So far, the ministry has funded 28 projects across Canada, including one in Iqaluit that monitors vessel traffic and its effects on Arctic waters and wildlife, and another in Dease Lake, B.C., that observes woodland caribou seasonal movements to address climate change concerns.

    Indigenous people have always been guardians of their territories, but a more formal movement has been developing over the past 30 years, said Valerie Courtois, a member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh in Quebec.

    Courtois is also director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which hosted this week’s gathering in Vancouver with the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

    She said the federal government saw an opportunity to meet some of its own goals by supporting guardianship programs.

    “They have responsibilities around species at risk. They have a duty to consult,” she said. “Those are significant challenges but also significant opportunities for the future of our country and we’ve demonstrated how an initiative like guardians is going to contribute.”

    Laura Kane, The Canadian Press


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    Environment

    Real-life tsunami threat in Port Alberni, B.C., prompts evacuation updates

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  • VICTORIA — When tsunami-alert sirens rang out in the dead of night in Port Alberni 14 months ago, most people fled for higher ground but some didn’t recognize the emergency signal, says a new study.

    A magnitude 7.9 earthquake off the coast of Alaska Jan. 23, 2018, at 1:31 a.m. prompted a tsunami alert along much of Canada’s West Coast, including Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Port Alberni, population of about 17,500, was hit by Canada’s largest tsunami in March 1964 after a 9.2 earthquake off the Alaska coast.

    The January 2018 tsunami alert was lifted at 4:30 a.m. but not before thousands of people left their homes in various states of  fear and confusion, say researchers from the University of British Columbia’s school of community and regional planning in a report released Thursday.

    Ryan Reynolds, one of the report’s authors and a risk modelling expert, said the report serves as a preparation blueprint for coastal communities that face the ever-present threat of tidal waves.

    “This was really an opportunity for us to re-evaluate our own preparedness in terms of coastal hazards,” he said in an interview. “This is really the only test we’ve had recently of a tsunami evacuation to see what impact that has on a community.”

    Port Alberni saw more than 90 per cent of households in warning zones evacuate to the safety of higher ground, but there were glitches before the alert was lifted at 4:30 a.m., said Reynolds

    Some people didn’t understand why community sirens were blaring and others were looking for confirmation of the alert on social media, but the community’s emergency response system did not immediately inform residents of the potential danger, he said.

    “The first thing people do is they try to verify the information,” Reynolds said. “They’re not sure if the siren is a warning or if perhaps the siren’s broke and it’s just going off.”

    Elderly people try to verify the alert on television or radio while younger people look to social media, he said. Confusion arose in Port Alberni because as emergency response teams were being activated, the city’s social media sites stayed blank for much of the alert period, said Reynolds.

    The research involved interviews with about 450 local residents and numerous city officials, he said.

    Reynolds recalled meeting a family that had moved to the community three days before the alert and were roused by neighbours who urged them to flee.

    “They didn’t know what the siren meant and they had young kids,” he said. “Suddenly, they’re faced with a sound they don’t know. They look out their door and all they see is neighbours getting in their vehicles. For them this was kind of like the Apocalypse.”

    But Reynolds said the research found more than 60 per cent of residents have updated their tsunami evacuation plans since the alert, and community and regional officials have better co-ordinated social media services and response tactics.

    “Our community is very tsunami aware,” said Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions. “The tsunami definitely caught people’s attention to make sure they definitely have a plan.”

    She said the threat of a tsunami in Port Alberni is something that’s never far from the minds of those in the community.

    Reynolds said Port Alberni is better prepared today for a tsunami than it was last year.

    “If this were to happen tonight at 2 a.m. the events would be much smoother, much quicker and we would have much better communication with people,” he said. “They’re kind of battle-tested.”

    Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press


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    Environment

    The hard life of a wild Sable Island horse:’Eking out a living on this sandbar’

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  • HALIFAX — Researchers studying the carcasses of Sable Island’s fabled wild horses have discovered many had unusual levels of parasites and sand, suggesting they are tougher than most horses, even as many died of starvation.

    A team from the University of Saskatchewan and Parks Canada performed necropsies on more than 30 dead animals during trips to the isolated sandbar about 160 kilometres off Nova Scotia in 2017 and 2018.

    “We showed up in 2017 not knowing whether there would be any dead horses to find,” said researcher Emily Jenkins.

    “Scientifically we really didn’t know anything about the causes of mortality in this population because the last work that was done was in the 1970s.”

    The horses have roamed there since the 18th century and become synonymous with the island’s romantic and untamed image.

    Jenkins said conditions on the wind-swept, 42-kilometre long island were particularly harsh in the early spring of 2017, and that had an effect on the horse population.

    “It was very hard on the horses,” she said. “When we got there they were taking shelter behind anything they could find.”

    With the help of Parks Canada, Jenkins said she and other University of Saskatchewan researchers were able to find 30 carcasses that were suitable for examination during their initial foray to the island.

    Jenkins said they estimated there were another 20 carcasses that were either unsuitable for examination or that were just too inaccessible to get to.

    She said the overall findings were “very similar” to a previous study carried out by graduate student Daniel Welsh in 1972.

    “The main finding was emaciation or starvation and hypothermia, especially for the young horses,” said Jenkins, who noted vegetation is sparse on Sable during that time of the year.

    The researchers found the yearlings in particular, had little or no reserves of body fat to rely on.

    “All of the young horses we looked at were just basically out of reserves,” Jenkins said. “They had nothing left, they were emaciated.”

    However, the adult animals, who would have higher social status and better access to the best grazing, were generally in better body condition and died of a combination of other causes.

    Jenkins said Sable Island’s omnipresent sand tends to grind down teeth, affecting nutrient intake, and also ends up in the horses’ system, blocking their gastrointestinal tract.

    “In several horses that we looked at there was quite a lot of sand. We were picking up the intestines and the stomach and saying ‘these weigh a tonne,’ because there was in many cases more sand than plant content.”

    Jenkins also noted that some pregnant mares had died while giving birth.

    The 2018 trip, meanwhile, focused more on looking for pathogens and diseases, and that’s where Jenkins said the researchers were able to find things such as respiratory and reproductive diseases including a parasite lungworm.

    She said, in fact, research over the last 10 years has turned up astounding levels of parasitic worms in these small horses, many of whom are no bigger than 14 hands long.  The average fecal egg count from the live horse study was 1,500 per gram.

    “I just about fell over because we call a high fecal egg count in a domestic horse 500 eggs per gram,” said Jenkins. “So the average Sable horse is walking around shedding three times more parasites than our domestic horses.”

    Jenkins said the horses’ genetic resistance to the parasites could render clues for horses in the domestic world, where veterinarians are “fighting a losing battle” to worms with a growing resistance to various treatments.

    The scientist said she believes domestic horses are dewormed too much to begin with, and the Sable research could help bear that out.

    “Look at what those guys are surviving with — massive levels of parasitism and no treatment. So we are probably overdoing it for most horses that are just companion animals.”

    Jenkins said the overall mortality rate in 2017 was about 10 per cent of the population, while the 2018 figure represented about one per cent, which is more the norm.

    She said the current population sits at around 500 horses, up from the 300 or so recorded in the 1970s.

    From a scientific perspective, Jenkins said it’s fascinating to see a system of untreated and unmanaged horses living in what amounts to their ancestral conditions.

    “But there’s the little girl in me who has always loved horses who can’t believe these horses are eking out a living on this little sandbar,” she said.

    Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press



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