The main goal of the caribou research project is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the identities and relationships among caribou populations and Dene people in the Sahtú region in order to inform and prioritize management efforts. The project will bring together traditional knowledge and non-invasive population genetics to organize and understand the biological diversity of caribou and to develop an approach to caribou research that balances and accommodates aboriginal and scientific ways of knowing.
Caribou occupy a central place in the livelihoods and identities of Aboriginal people. Some caribou groups are more closely related to each other than others. Understanding the differences between caribou herds and populations is a question of interest to managers, ecologists, and First Nation hunters. For example, because caribou populations are often identified for management purposes it is important to understand if caribou from one area ever travel to different places and mate with other groups of caribou. In the Sahtú Region, caribou are given different names if they live in the mountains, or the boreal forests, or in the tundra. We are interested in understanding how groups of caribou are related to other groups of caribou in the Sahtú Region.
In the fall of 2012, the Sahtú Dene and Métis of the Northwest Territories passed a resolution detailing their resolve to conduct respectful caribou research and management. The caribou genetics study has developed collaborations with the Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę Gots’ę́ Nákedı and the Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę of Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, Tulı́t’a, Délı̨nę, and Colville Lake to research and monitor caribou populations. It is critically important to develop a collaborative approach to wildlife management that uses multiple sources of data and knowledge systems to help define the boundaries of different groups of caribou. We hope to increase our understanding of caribou in the Sahtú Region with information from hunters and trappers as well as population genetics.
Population genetics allows scientists to understand how different groups of caribou are related to each other in much the same way humans are related to their extended families. A strong partnership with the communities of the Sahtú Region is essential to the project because the research is dependent on the voluntary collection of caribou fecal pellet (scat or poop) samples by local community members. We are able to take DNA from the outside mucus layer on caribou scat (poop) that is found frozen on the snow. Each caribou has its own individual DNA that is found in the mucus. Once the scat is brought to the lab, technicians take the mucus off a piece of scat from each individual caribou. By running the mucus through machines, we are able to identify each individual caribou and to see how that caribou is related to other caribou. This would be the same thing we could do with a piece of hair from a person to see if a sibling or parent was related to that person.
Preliminary results from the samples collected during the winter of 2013 can be found on the project website here: http://jeanpolfus.com/
Sahtu Renewable Resources Board, Environment and Natural Resources - Northwest Territories, Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program - Northwest Territories, University of Manitoba, Environmental Studies Research Fund, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Polar Continental Shelf Program of Natural Resources Canada