When Jean Polfus set out to do a genetic study of the caribou living in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories, she consulted with the region’s elders.
Polfus, a Ph.D. student at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, wanted to understand whether there were genetic differences between the types of caribou living in the region. But she was also curious about how Dene knowledge of the types, including their origin, behavior, interactions and spatial structure, would relate to the genetic data.
Caribou are members of a circumpolar species that has adapted to live in many different kinds of habitat, from mountains to boreal forest to the open tundra to the high Arctic. No matter where the caribou live – or whether they are called reindeer – they are the same species. But different types of caribou have different markings, antler shapes and color patterns, as well as different behaviors that help them survive.
In the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories (NWT), there are three different kinds of caribou: barren-ground caribou, boreal woodland caribou and mountain caribou. The structure of these caribou types – and whether they interact – has legal implications, because boreal woodland caribou are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the NWT Species at Risk Act, meaning that they are protected and there is a call for efforts to promote their recovery.
“If we don’t know where the boundary is or how much they interact or overlap with the other types, then it will be more difficult to implement policies for their protection or the protection of habitat that is essential for them,” said Polfus.
When the results were in, Polfus and her collaborators found that the caribou could be divided into three distinct groups according to their DNA – but also in the ways that the Dene described them. In fact, in some cases, the traditional knowledge was able to explain the DNA results.The research was published recently in Ecology and Society.
Arctic Deeply caught up with Polfus to ask about the collaborative nature of her work and the challenges of integrating traditional knowledge with genetic research.
Arctic Deeply: How did you involve the local communities in your research?
Jean Polfus: The renewable resource councils, which are in charge of wildlife management at the local level, had gotten together in September 2012 and wrote a caribou research resolution that called for a renewed commitment to include traditional knowledge in caribou research and management. My work was originally going to study caribou variation and types in northern Manitoba. But when the resolution came through, it was the perfect opportunity.
We held meetings and told the community groups we wanted to help them and that we had this approach in which we can do non-invasive genetics, which doesn’t harm caribou or have us touch them. We developed MOUs with each community about the research process, distribution of money for the research and how it would work.
Arctic Deeply: How did you do the genetics work?
Jean Polfus: We had to teach people how to pick up caribou scat. All you have to do is put a pile of caribou poop in a plastic bag, a Ziplock bag, and keep it frozen – and they had to tell us the location. Over two winters we collected more than 1,000 samples. We paid people C$25 ($19) gift cards for gas money for each sample they brought in. That was developed in collaboration with the communities, what they thought was appropriate.
Arctic Deeply: How did you integrate the traditional knowledge?
Jean Polfus: We presented the preliminary results with focus groups in each of the communities, so we could help interpret the genetic results in the context of the traditional knowledge. We wanted to know how people understood the history of the caribou, how people talked and described the different types, so that we could see if any of the genetic patterns we saw would make more sense if we really understood the ecology of the caribou in the region.
Arctic Deeply: Do the genetics correlate with the traditional knowledge?
Jean Polfus: Yes. The language people use to describe the caribou is connected to the genetics. We found that the boreal woodland caribou could be distinguished from both the mountain and the barren-ground caribou, which was kind of surprising because we don’t see that kind of genetic variation in caribou in other places in Canada where there is overlap between different kinds of caribou.
But we also had differences. In one instance, we had an elder tell us a story about caribou crossing the river, and we realized that this explained why the samples we had collected in the area were more related to barren-ground caribou than they were to mountain caribou. I would never have known that if I hadn’t talked to the elder. That is the kind of potential you get when you do this kind of collaborative research.
Arctic Deeply: What were some of the challenges you faced in taking this approach?
Jean Polfus: Language has been a challenge. We work with interpreters and we work with elders who speak Dene as their first language and need to speak in Dene language to discuss the complex traditional knowledge that we’re talking about when we’re talking about different types and hunting techniques for different types, and the behaviors of the caribou. Sometimes interpretations of concepts can be overly simplified just because that is how language works. It can take a surprising amount of effort to really come to an understanding.
Arctic Deeply: Can the integration be done for other conservation questions?
Jean Polfus: This type of research can be used to answer all kinds of questions. It could be used to try to understand climate change in the context of what people have experienced on the land, or any other wildlife species. Defining the research question in collaboration with the community also really helps and can help answer the question in a much deeper way.