By Douglas Hunter

In 2010, the Wikwemikong First Nation (Band 175) of eastern Manitoulin Island concluded a multi-year audit of plant and animal species at risk, with financial assistance from Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program and the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources’ Species at Risk Stewardship Fund. As a key component of Wikwemikong’s land-use planning, the species-at-risk audit of Wikwemikong lands – at the unceded reserve 26 on eastern Manitoulin and the unceded reserve 3 at nearby Point Grondine – is helping to identify areas suitable for resource extraction, urban and rural development, and recreational use, and to protect other areas for environmental and cultural reasons. “We’ve identified 13 federally listed species, with potential for an additional three, as well as four provincially listed species,” says Wikwemikong’s land-use planner John Manitowabi of the survey, which coordinator Theodore Flamand led. Already, the discovery of common nighthawk nesting sites could affect plans for a wind farm in the southern area of reserve 26.

The audit may also prove to be instrumental in settling – in Wikwemikong’s favour – a land claim that has been in negotiation with the federal government since 1997. The Wikwemikong’s current reserves are unceded because the band refused to sign the 1862 treaty that granted indigenous holdings on the rest of the island to the federal government. The Wikwemikong have laid additional claim to at least 41 islands, ranging from Heywood Island in the North Channel to coastal islands of eastern Georgian Bay as far south as Twelve Mile Bay, that are federal Crown land today.

The Wikwemikong surveyed species at risk on the islands subject to the land claim. Manitowabi is optimistic that the claim will be settled in the band’s favour as early as this spring, and says the attention paid to the status of species at risk shows that the Wikwemikong have systematically evaluated the claimed lands. “We’ve already identified areas of islands that need protection.” The Wikwemikong species-at-risk audit thus could help preserve wild spaces and species in Georgian Bay and the North Channel, far beyond the present holdings of reserves 26 and 3.

“We’re taking the lead in First Nations in Canada” in conducting species-at-risk research, he adds. “It’s a new subject for First Nations.” He notes that the band is pursuing research on Hill’s thistle, a plant species at risk associated with Manitoulin Island’s alvar habitat, in nine test plots containing up to 40 plants. “We’re fortunate that we have a large enough area for research. We’re currently managing 220 kilometres of shoreline, and the land claim would double that amount.”

In all, he says, the current reserve lands, informally known as “Wiky,” total some 4,000 hectares, and the land claim would increase that to 6,000 hectares. The Wikwemikong have applied for a new round of funding to allow them to monitor the species at risk that their survey efforts have identified.