Beaver, mink and muskrat subject of new river study

Beaver, mink and muskrat subject of new river study
Sholto Douglas (left) and Stefan Goodman head off from Fort Smith to Fort Resolution to talk to trappers about helping out with the mink, beaver and muskrat survey.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

Local trappers in the Slave River area are being called upon to contribute to a new study on beaver, mink and muskrat launched last week by the Slave River and Delta Partnership (SRDP) in Fort Resolution.

A team from the NWT department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) working with local Aboriginal governments and trappers from Fitzgerald, Alberta to north of Fort Resolution began fieldwork last week, examining the condition of beaver lodges and muskrat pushups along the Slave River.

“It will be kind of a survey of the river to see observations of any damage from fluctuating water levels and that sort of thing,” Stefan Goodman, a watershed science consultant with ENR helping with the study, told The Journal. “Just to see if there’s any damage from flooding or if beaver lodges are left high and dry or if they’re flooded over, and same thing with pushups.”

The team will also be looking at historical trapping records to see if there are any trends in population levels, for example, before and after hydro development took place on the Peace River, which feeds into the Slave.

“In the past, you used to get high water levels in the spring, and that would flood into the Slave River lowlands and the Athabasca-Peace delta and stuff like that, but…water’s being released at different times of the year now,” Sholto Douglas, a former wildlife officer who is assisting in facilitation and community coordination for the study, observed.

Douglas said water fluctuations have had negative impacts on muskrats in the region.

“If (pushups) flood out like that (when water is released from the dams)…and then they refreeze, they can’t come to the surface. A lot of these muskrats have a difficult time and a lot of them end up as fatalities,” he said.

The other half of the study will involve carcass analysis. Trappers will be compensated for providing whole, intact carcasses of beavers, mink, muskrats and snowshoe hares to the study to be analyzed for levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and metal contaminants.

Goodman said the study emerged from growing, repeated concerns by community members about the state of semi-aquatic fur-bearing animals along the river.

“People eat muskrat and beaver, and the mink’s a higher trophic level – it’s higher up (in the food chain), and the contaminants will kind of accumulate in mink – so that’s why it’s good to look at them. But we’re also looking at the beaver and muskrat.”

Goodman said hares are also included because they’re a main food source for mink.

“Hare and muskrat are a big part of the mink’s diet,” he said. “We’ll just see if there’s any correlation between the two for levels of contaminants.”

The team plans to send carcasses to Environment Canada researchers in the south and a toxicologist from the University of Calgary. Data uncovered from the following lab work will be compared to existing South Slave data on contaminants in mink taken during the 1990s.

Douglas is hoping to get about 30 trappers from four zones contributing to the study: five from the Alberta section of the Slave on the eastern edge of Wood Buffalo National Park, five from the Fort Smith north area, 10 or 15 from the Fort Res area and another five trapping in the area between Pointe Brulée and Jean River, a tributary that is part of the Slave River Delta.

They are hoping for 30 samples of each species by the spring, when the fieldwork – at least for this season – will end.

“We’re probably looking at from now until April sometime because usually you get into the open water season, and then you start getting other beavers that are pushed out of their residence, and when that happens they start migrating,” Douglas said. “So you may be getting beavers that are in-land beavers coming to the river and they’re not residents. What we’re after is the resident beaver of the Slave River.”

The project is being funded through the NWT Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program. (CIMP).

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