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A First Nation in Saskatchewan will receive federal funding to help conserve a dwindling population of free roaming plains bison from Prince Albert National Park.

Officials with Environment and Climate Change Canada say the Mistawasis Nehiyawak Guardians Program is one of 22 First Nations-led projects to receive a total of $6.4 million through the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program.

Research published in May shows that the Sturgeon River herd’s population has decreased to about 120 animals from 500 in 2005.

It showed overhunting by First Nations on private lands outside the national park was contributing to the decline.

Anthony Blair Dreaver Johnston of Mistawasis Nehiyawak has said they will work with landowners, municipalities, wildlife groups and other Indigenous groups to better protect the herd.

Ottawa officials say the program gives Indigenous people the opportunity to show stewardship on their traditional lands, waters and ice.

“The federal government is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna said in a statement.

“First Nations Peoples have long been stewards of the lands and waters … and their wisdom and knowledge are crucial if we are to protect and conserve the plants and animals we love.”

Some of the other programs to receive funding in the latest announcement include:

– St’at’imc Guardians Project near Lillooet, B.C., which informs local organizations and tourists about responsibilities to the land;

– Mikisew Cree First Nation Guardian project near Fort McMurray, which provides opportunities for youth and Elders to come together in stewarding the land; and,

– Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site Guardians Network in Manitoba, which includes the recovery of cultural traditions in caring for the land and compliance with laws for moose hunting, fishing, cabin construction, litter control, wild rice growing and harvesting, and protection of sacred sites.

Loretta Bayer of Norway House Cree Nation, who was co-chair of the First Nations-federal pilot joint working group on guardians, said the programs are important.

“This Nation-based model of self-determination and reconciliation is premised on a shared understanding of responsibility, decision-making, connection, and respect for Mother Earth,” she said in the news release.

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative also welcomed the announcement.

“Indigenous Guardians programs are proven to be good for the land, good for the people and good for local economies,” director Valerie Courtois said in a statement.

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