Elder Joe Champlain doing research fieldwork near Whatì  (Photo: Camilla Nitsiza) Elder Joe Champlain doing research fieldwork near Whatì (Photo: Camilla Nitsiza)

When Do Caribou Return? Impacts of Wildfire on Tǫdzı (Boreal caribou)

When forest fires burn in the boreal forest, what happens to the “places where Tǫdzı (Boreal caribou) belong”?  A WRRB research project, led by Dr. Allice Legat working with Whatì community researchers Camilla Nitsiza and Therese Nitsiza, and Whatì elders, is gathering information to better understand the impacts of fire on tǫdzı habitat and to monitor when tǫdzı return to burn areas. Whatì elders Dora Nitsiza, Mary Adele and Jimmy B. Rabesca, Sophie Williah, Joe and Mary Margaret Champlain, Jimmy and Margaret Nitsiza, Francis Simpson, and Charlie Nitsiza are providing valuable Tłįchǫ knowledge on tǫdzı character and behaviour in relation to their habitat areas-- information that will help researchers understand when caribou return to habitat that has been disturbed by wildfire. 

The three-year project is focusing on the area around Whatì, which experienced extreme wildfire last summer in 2014.  It builds on earlier studies undertaken by the WRRB in collaboration with the Tłįchǫ Department of Culture and Lands Protection in 2011/12 -2012/13.  Researchers documented elders’ knowledge on tǫdzı habitat and habitat use in 2011, and the following year, conducted field research at ɂedèezhìi (Horn Plateau) to document the state of tǫdzı habitat and to find out when these caribou moved back to that area after severe burning from wildfire in 1995.   The current research grew from elders’ discussions at field camp about the importance of tǫdzı habitat around the Whatì area as the frequency, intensity, and extent of wildfires continue to grow. 

  Camilla Nitsiza

Vegetation regrowth after the 2014 forest fire.  (Photo: Camilla Nitsiza)

Research activities got underway in March when Allice, Camilla and Therese met with elders in Whatì to understand and document their perspective and knowledge of tǫdzı and their habitats.   Elders talked about where they had observed tǫdzı or evidence of tǫdzı and pointed out locations on maps.  The research team selected sampling sites in places where harvesters and others expected to see tǫdzı.  They identified which of these habitats were burned by wildfires and when, and selected wildfire sites that were especially important to Tłı̨chǫ knowledge holders in Whatì. 

“With the increase of wildfire," Allice explains, “we want to understand the land where tǫdzı are most often observed so we can track their return to areas that have burned in the last 50 years versus areas that have not burned.” 

In developing their research approach, the team stressed the importance of considering not only the vegetation on which tǫdzı feed, but “how they live”.  By documenting the relationship between tǫdzı and its preferred habitats, this project will complement and add to the scientific sampling that a team from Wilfrid Laurier University is conducting on wildfire’s effects on caribou habitat (Read story here).

The elders shared their knowledge of tǫdzı character and behaviour, and identified various habitats that tǫdzı need and use within their range in the boreal forest at different times of the year and to meet various needs.  This detailed knowledge of specific kinds of habitat comes from close observation and an intimate knowledge of the land and tǫdzı:  it is information that will help wildlife managers and others understand the habitat that tǫdzı need to maintain a healthy population. 

The Tłı̨chǫ elders say that habitats are all the places or environments where tǫdzı live to find the food, shelter, protection, and space they need.  When considering habitat, all its features have to be taken into account:  geography, temperature range, soil, moisture, thickness of bush, available food and water, presence of predators, and others.  Habitats provide the abundance and variety of plants tǫdzı need, suitable birthing areas with nutritious vegetation and protection for calves, areas to rest safely away from predators and insects, and places that provide shelter from severe weather.

Researchers documented elders’ knowledge of various habitats and the vegetation tǫdzı typically forage on at each habitat.  One habitat that the elders described, for example, is Behts’a, a cliff whose bottom edge is close to the water.  Tǫdzı frequent these locations to browse on leaves of various plants. This kind of landscape also allows these caribou to spend time in the water to get away from insects, and higher up the cliff, there are larger trees where tǫdzı can find shade. 

The research team compiled a general list of vegetation that tǫdzı prefer, as well as specific preferred vegetation found at each habitat area, such as Go’h (Fireweed) and K’ıa (small Birch tree), which are associated with behts’a habitat.   The elders emphasized that each type of habitat is important to tǫdzı. These caribou need a large range with continuous tracts of undisturbed habitat, allowing them to travel and use these various landscapes.  Knowing what makes up a healthy habitat for tǫdzı –including its landscape characteristics and its availability of the kinds of plants tǫdzı favour—can help answer the question of when tǫdzı return to and stay in an area that has burned, and how much habitat they require to maintain a healthy population.  “Tłı̨chǫ knowledge can provide long-term information on the necessary state of tǫdzı habitat for them to return, and remain fit," says Allice.  

  Allice Legat

Lichens, mosses and other vegetation in tǫdzı habitat.  (Photo: Allice Legat)

On-the-Land Field Camp

The next phase of this year’s research involved on-the-land field work during July 11-16, 2015.  The team set up a base camp on a site that had had a fire in 1968.  Given weather conditions, they were able to spend approximately two solid days on the land documenting the habitat and vegetation communities at 14 sites, some of which had been disturbed by forest fires and others that had never been burned.   At each site, the elders directed the researchers to signs of change through time–the kinds of plants growing there, their different stages of growth and abundance, as well as evidence of tǫdzı and other wildlife. 

Joe and Mary Madeline Champlain setting up camp.  (Photo: Allice Legat)

They also collected and dried plants for identification, recording both the Tłı̨chǫ and scientific names for each species so that the information is transferable within the larger academic community.  The Photo Gallery at the end of the article has more photos of the on-the-land research and plant collection that took place.  The photos also show vegetation re-growth at burn sites. 

Collecting plants for drying and identification  (Photo: Allice Legat)

What Happens Next?

The research team will meet again to verify the information collected to date, and to discuss next steps towards monitoring tǫdzı habitat, returning to sites visited this year to observe changes in vegetation and other changes.  Because the team were unable to get to the north end of the lake due to weather conditions, travelling there and documenting information on that area will be important.  It will also be important to do more on-the-land fieldwork to monitor tǫdzı habitats at selected sites for vegetation and other changes over the next several years, and to determine use and changes in use of burn areas by tǫdzı.  How do tǫdzı deal with the loss of particular types of habitat versus the loss of habitat in general?  How does re-vegetation influence the return of these caribou to specific landscapes? 

There are gaps in information that future research efforts can focus on, such as observing and documenting tǫdzı’s seasonal interactions at habitats throughout the year.  These kinds of observations can build a more complete picture of tǫdzı and its habitat—and what these caribou need to thrive throughout their range in the boreal forest. 

Fact Box:

  • Tǫdzı feed mostly on grass, shrubs and lichen during the summer and lichen in winter.  Caribou lichens can form mats on the forest floor in older mature coniferous forests.  Caribou also use tree lichens found on the branches or trunks of older trees. 

Tree lichen, one of todzi's preferred foods in the boreal forest

Adziidaghoo - tree lichen.  (Photo: Allice Legat)