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Managing BC’s Thinhorns together: the new Thinhorn Sheep Stewardship Framework

Today I am thrilled to finally be sharing some of the work I've been participating in with the First Nations-BC Wildlife and Habitat Conservation Forum, and the BC Provincial Government. You can read this full article, along with other great content, originally published by the Wild Sheep Society of BC in their magazine here.


Tile photo credit: Bill Jex

 

It's easy to think of the term “science-based management” as the catch-all way to steward wildlife. However, sound science forms just one block of concrete in the foundation of wildlife stewardship. Other forms of knowledge & experiences, as well as relationships and societal values are a part of building a proper foundation. The new BC Thinhorn Sheep Stewardship Framework (the Framework) is an exciting example of wildlife policy that aims to do exactly that.




Background

In 2019, the Province restarted the drafting of a management plan for BC’s Thinhorn sheep [Dall’s sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) and Stone's sheep (Ovis dalli stonei)]. BC's species plans have historically focused on biological and western science in developing management actions. However, with implementation of the Together for Wildlife (T4W) strategy and the signing of the BC Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), the Province has committed to more inclusive pathways toward wildlife management. The drafting of the Thinhorn Framework was the first of its kind, incorporating these new commitments, by including a dedicated Indigenous Perspectives chapter and broader plan content.


Stone's sheep (Ovis dalli stonei) in Northern BC. Credit: Dan Kriss


Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) in the Northern Richardson Mountains of the NWT. Credit: Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board.


This reflects an important shift in BC’s approach to wildlife stewardship planning. By braiding management objectives, biological science, Local Ecological and Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, language, and cultural history, the Framework provides strategic guidance and direction for the stewardship of Thinhorn sheep in BC. In a meaningful way, the Framework enables greater collaboration between Indigenous communities, Nations, Conservation Stakeholders, and the Province that will also inform regional management planning initiatives.


The Philosophy

Sound wildlife management today should never be equated to a calculator exercise. There are always underlying challenges and emerging realities that really need a broad-minded, interpretative approach when we are prescribing recommended best management for a species of wildlife and their habitats; there is an art to interpreting your science. At the end of the day, it’s as much about interpreting the observed trends and identifying emerging challenges that have the potential for positive or negative impacts to populations.


This was the type of approach taken with the Thinhorn Stewardship Framework (the Framework) where the authors merged cultural knowledge (i.e., both Traditional Indigenous Knowledge & Local Ecological Knowledge) with biological and scientific data, with a goal of reflecting on what is working (in terms of current management) and what could be done better.


To honour this approach & begin the drafting process, we established two working groups:

1. A conventional working group of Provincial species experts that assimilated existing data, identified existing and emerging threats, sought out new published literature to support recommendations, and solicited input and incorporated advice from those who have had a longstanding relationship with Thinhorn sheep (i.e., Local Ecological Knowledge holders)

2. An Indigenous Perspectives working group comprised of First Nations members and representatives who shared personal and community wisdom and knowledge (i.e., Traditional Indigenous Knowledge holders) to enable a more complete understanding of past cultural practice and evolving relationships with wild sheep. The goal was developing a Framework that meaningfully and respectfully engages and communicates Indigenous science and perspectives.


The Indigenous Perspectives Working Group

Following outreach, an invitation to support the development of the Framework was made to all First Nations whose territories overlap Thinhorn sheep range. Several First Nations agreed to join the Indigenous Perspectives working group. The working group was co-chaired by Bill Jex, Provincial Wild Sheep & Mountain Goat Specialist and Hunter Lampreau, of the First Nations-BC Wildlife & Habitat Conservation Forum, and supported by myself. Through regular meetings, an open-ended space was created to discuss the development of the Framework, including everything from structure to content to relationships with Thinhorn sheep. The working group also provided comment and discussion on the biological content and management objectives being developed by the Province’s conventional working group. Concurrent to all the document review and meetings, Nations were supported to conduct engagement in their respective communities, and to provide any local knowledge content they wished for inclusion in the Framework.


The Drafting Process

What does the drafting process actually look like for a plan this large and comprehensive? To sum it up: lots (and lots) of drafts and revisions. The structure of the two working groups enabled a series of draft versions of the document (16 versions actually), and eventually a solid draft was sent out to an external subject matter expert for review and comment. After incorporating those recommendations and edits, version 18 was provided to a sub-committee of stakeholders through the Provincial Hunting and Trapping Advisory Team (i.e., Guide Outfitters Association of BC, BC Wildlife Federation, Wild Sheep Society of BC, and BC Backcountry Hunters & Anglers). This round of preliminary engagement helped us understand if the Framework was speaking effectively to our Conservation Stakeholders, and they told us what they liked and what perhaps needed more content.

Continued engagement with both working groups generated versions 19-21, with a final review by provincial leadership and communications teams in Victoria, resulting in draft version 22: the one posted online for full public engagement (engagement was open February 19th through March 27th, 2023).


Broad Management Goals & Objective Statements

Significant effort was put into defining the short, medium, and long-term goals for populations. As science progresses and collaboration increases, management goals & objectives change. As a specific example of changing objectives, 75 individuals used to be considered the minimum population size that could support a sustainable harvest. However, advances in population science and the desire for a lower risk management strategy has set the minimum to 100 sheep.


You will find far more detailed information in the Framework itself, but here is a brief overview of the goals & objectives, at the broadest level:

1. Viable and ecologically sustainable populations of Thinhorn sheep throughout historical and suitable native range for ecological, cultural, economic and social benefits using science-based management, and locally relevant sources of ecological knowledge

2. Populations that provide for cultural, consumptive, and non-consumptive opportunities

3. Protection of Thinhorn sheep habitat throughout the current range, considering landscape permeability/access, fragmentation and development of linear corridors and anthropogenic disturbances (commercial, recreational and industrial developments)


Management Recommendations

With careful consideration of the holistic body of knowledge available, management recommendations come together quite organically, in similar ways as outcomes from the BC Sheep Summit (hosted by WSSBC in November 2022). These recommendations are meant to inform and support on-the-ground processes and regional plan development by the Regional Wildlife Advisory Councils.


The management recommendations provided in the Framework are designed to support to both provincial and regional management goals and objectives, and are divided into seven categories:

1. Population Inventory and Monitoring

2. Harvest Management

3. Health and Disease

4. Habitat

5. Anthropogenic Disturbance

6. Predation and Mortality

7. Climate


Each section offers a concise yet comprehensive summary of related science and history, with Indigenous perspectives braided throughout, followed by a list of recommendations to meet the broad management goals. Complete with art, graphs, charts & maps, footnotes, pictures, and about 11 pages of references, the Framework is the product of a lot of collective effort & passion.


Reflecting on the Future of Thinhorn Sheep

In taking an appropriate amount of time to develop content from the two working groups and complete this process, the Framework becomes a more meaningful product that can be used to support better management outcomes for Thinhorn sheep, across both time and geographic scales, and improve public understanding of Thinhorns and their habitat. The Framework identifies some current and emerging challenges for Thinhorn sheep and their habitats, that will require some changed perspectives on the way we’ve managed Thinhorns in past, if we want to protect them into the future.


Strengthened relationships between government, Nations, wildlife professionals, land-users, Stakeholders, and the public, will be required in order to achieve the desired outcomes – the success of wildlife stewardship depends on a foundation of trust, respect, and relationships. Without speaking for others, it really has been such an honour to respectfully participate in this kind of species planning. Through this type of shared strategic development, decision making and species planning, we are making great strides for all wildlife, including Thinhorn sheep.


The final Framework is anticipated to be released in 2023 – stay tuned!



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