Yesterday, a tiny First Nation community called Lutsel K’e Dene, nestled along the shore of one of the world’s largest lakes, Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada, gave the world a massive gift: The permanent final establishment of a new Indigenous Protected Area that encompasses a landscape of astonishing size—more than six million acres.
That’s an area more than twice as large as Yellowstone National Park or the Adirondack Forest Preserve. In fact, it is one of the largest land protection actions in recent history.
More than 10 million birds rely on this area. And now, because of the leadership of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, they will never face the prospect of returning north in the spring to find their habitats destroyed or degraded by industrial activities like mining and its spider web of supporting infrastructure.
The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation has been working for many years with both the Government of the Northwest Territories and the federal government to enshrine Thaidene Nene as an interconnected protected area consisting of a national park reserve, a territorial park, and a specially managed wildlife conservation area. The announcement and signing ceremony on August 21 now make those designations official, along with the First Nation’s designation under Indigenous law of the area as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. In an exciting new model, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation will be managing Thaidene Nene in equal partnership with both crown governments.
Within Thaidene Nene—in the Indigenous language means, “land of the ancestors”—the shores and cliffs overlooking the "east arm" of Great Slave Lake hold the nests of Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons. Small islands scattered throughout the area are home to nesting Common and Red-throated Loons, California, Mew, and Herring Gulls, Arctic Terns, and the occasional Parasitic Jaegers. The vast landscape of forests, wetlands, shrublands, and peatlands across the millions of acres of Thaidene Nene ring each summer with the songs of breeding Olive-sided Flycatchers, Hermit Thrushes, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Harris’s Sparrows, Smith’s Longspurs, Blackpoll Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Palm Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, Yellow Warblers, Common Redpolls, Rusty Blackbirds and many more. Thousands of loons, grebes, sandpipers, ducks, geese, and swans flock here each spring and fall, making it an important region for waterbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl.
Water is the dominant theme throughout much of Thaidene Nene. To the northeast of Great Slave Lake—the world’s 9th largest lake—Thaidene Nene encircles a vast region speckled with wetlands, streams, rivers, and thousands of lakes and ponds. This landscape holds an estimated 146 million tons of carbon in its soils, peat, and trees.
Thaidene Nene is one of the only protected areas in Canada that contain portions on both sides of the tree line, where northern trees and greenery of the Boreal Forest slowly fade into vast expanses of vibrant yellow and red Arctic tundra. The variability of this area provides a critical buffer for northern plants and animals struggling to cope with climate change, acting as a transitional bridge for species in pursuit of better habitat should their current one become unsuitable.
Thaidene Nene is also at the heart of barren-ground caribou country, providing safe migratory routes and wintering habitat for not one but three distinct major herds: the Bathurst, Beverly, and Ahiak herds.
We all should be thanking the people of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation for showing us a creative positive path forward as the world wrestles with problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, and social justice. It is possible to find solutions and the Indigenous leaders of places like the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation have proven it again with today’s announcement.
Jeff Wells is Audubon's vice president of boreal conservation. He leads the organization's effort to protect the more than one billion acres of northern forests, wetlands, lakes, and rivers that comprise North America's boreal forest, from the interior of Alaska across Canada to Newfoundland.