By Wendy Gillis
In her study of Saskatchewan’s woodland caribou, University of Saskatchewan biology master’s student Naomi Carriere is not only working towards the preservation of a species at risk, she’s challenging the way it has traditionally been done.
Originally from the Cumberland House Métis community, Carriere combines her scientific education with her aboriginal heritage to create a unique approach to the study of woodland caribou, a species currently threatened in Saskatchewan.
“We’re looking at a species at risk, but not just with biology,” says Carriere. Carriere is acquiring basic knowledge about the species, such as the animal’s population in certain locations, in order to determine factors harming woodland caribou survival.
But instead of heading to the southern limit of the woodland caribou’s habitat, where their numbers and environment are most threatened, Carriere conducts her research in Saskatchewan’s far north where First Nations people have interacted with the species for years.
She is interviewing trappers from the area to acquire what she calls ‘local knowledge,’ region-specific information on what user groups such as hunters, trappers or fishers observe, where they observe it, and how they use that information.
The Lac La Ronge Indian Band trappers have observed woodland caribou activity on their traplines, over time becoming intimately attuned to the species. By integrating their first-hand knowledge and experience, Carriere hopes to supplement her studies through a different kind of science.
“It’s a different way of collecting data,” says Carriere. “We’re using their knowledge of where the caribou are to understand their numbers in these remote areas.”
Since families don’t cross each other’s traplines, observations that trappers make are restricted to specific areas of land, something Carriere would not get from roaming groups such as hunters. The trappers keep an active participant list and hold regular meetings, which provide Carriere with access to knowledgeable, local people who trap on a regular basis.
Carriere hopes her new approach to information gathering catches on with other scientists. She says the use of First Nations knowledge for information is not always taken seriously due to its oral nature.
“If you look at traditional and local knowledge, there’s a huge debate in the scientific literature. It goes back and forth to do with the validity of the information,” she says.
Carriere says her research can be used by other scientists to demonstrate the usefulness of these types of knowledge. Through a process called “ground-truthing”, observations made in traditionally more “scientific” ways -- such as population facts gathered from helicopter observation -- can be compared to the numbers given by the trappers. She is optimistic there will be a direct correlation in the numbers, proving the worth of different types of knowledge.
Last month, Carriere was part of a delegation of six Aboriginal student leaders from the Prince Albert Model Forest Program who visited Sweden as part of an exchange program with the indigenous Sami people.
“There’s a huge parallel with what we’re doing in Saskatchewan,” says Carriere, noting that both indigenous groups depend on forests for their livelihoods and are keenly interested in how forest and wildlife management impact on their way of life.
“The Sami have a close relationship with the reindeer – animals that we know of as caribou – and have an international reputation for their husbandry practices as they move the reindeer between their wintering and summering grounds.”
She says her work to combine scientific and traditional knowledge is making a difference in several ways.
“It’s really exciting for me because I see a positive from almost every angle -- from a resource management issue to the aboriginal treaty rights issue,” she says.
“In the end, the community benefits, but also science,” she says. “It’s a positive thing all the way around.”
Wendy Gillis is a student intern with the U of S Research Communications office. To watch a video about Carriere’s research, visit: http://www.usask.ca/research/100yrsinnovation/videos.php