Study aims to trace genes of Sahtu caribou

Study aims to trace genes of Sahtu caribou

Researchers from the University of Manitoba in collaboration with local renewable resource boards and Sahtu residents are hoping to nail down the family tree of caribou in the region with a new genetic study starting this week.

The study will determine what gene flow – if any – is taking place between the varying herds, how they are related historically and whether or not there are distinct population boundaries between the different types.

According to the lead on the study, University of Manitoba PhD candidate Jean Polfus, the study could have important implications for herd management and caribou health monitoring in the region.

“This is a great way to monitor populations before large scale development takes place,” Polfus said. “In the Sahtu, we have a lot of shale oil development and they’re starting fracking, and if you look at how caribou are related and how much gene flow there is right now, then we can check again in 10 years or over time and see if the gene flow is changing, if caribou aren’t able to move as efficiently and spread their genes over the landscape anymore after development takes place.”

Determining population boundaries will be helpful to management practices because some caribou are considered more threatened than others and have their own legislated recovery strategies, Polfus added. Local management boards want to know if some herds are traveling to different areas to mate with others.

While Sahtu caribou are typically broken down scientifically into three known “ecotypes” – barren ground, boreal woodland and mountain woodland – Polfus said local Aboriginal people have many more ways of categorizing types of caribou, including by behaviour. For example, different words are used to describe the caribou that lead migrations.

“I’ll be working closely with traditional knowledge to find the different names for different caribou, how people understand how populations are split, how people even understand the concept of a species and how that relates to the genetics, and how those together can provide a more robust, complete picture of wildlife populations,” Polfus said.

Simultaneous research on the health of caribou and moose in the region is also being done by scientists from the University of Calgary, spurred by community concerns around climate change and the spread of disease and parasites.

“There’s a fear that as things warm, you’re going to get different parasites that come into play or that spread between species,” Polfus said. “I think, in general, the hunters and trappers and communities are always very concerned about the health of animals and if there are any diseases or anything else they need to worry about, as well as contamination.”

Scientists began their health research in the Sahtu in 2003, looking specifically at barren ground caribou in Deline and the effects of ticks on moose in Fort Good Hope. Now the research is expanding to encompass the entire region, as well as woodland caribou. Though dependent on funding, the project will likely continue over the next three years.

Beginning last Thursday in Fort Good Hope, scientists and representatives from the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board (SRRB) and local renewable resource councils (RRCs) have been holding public meetings to engage hunters, trappers and others out on the land to collect samples for the project over the winter. Because samples need to be frozen, they’re expecting field work to continue until around April.

“They get $25 gift cards for gas for collecting a scat (poop) sample and $175 (gift card) for collecting the full sample kit when they harvest an animal, which includes a jaw, liver, kidney, back leg, blood and scat,” Polfus said.

People doing the collecting are asked to bring samples to their RRC or Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) offices.

For more information on how to get involved in the study, visit http://nricaribou.cc.umanitoba.ca/sahturesearch/ or contact the SRRB or local RRC office.

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