Tǫdzı (boreal caribou)  Photo:  GNWT / A.Kelly, ENR Tǫdzı (boreal caribou) Photo: GNWT / A.Kelly, ENR

Places, Tǫdzı and Forest Fires

Caribou were a key focus in the Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program (CIMP) regional workshop held in Behchokǫ̀ on January 31 – February 1, 2017.  Both Tǫdzı (boreal caribou) and ɁEkwo (barren-ground caribou) are Threatened species in Canada, and tǫdzı are also listed as Threatened in the NWT.  These caribou need large, undisturbed ranges to thrive.  Loss or fragmentation of habitat–disturbing or breaking a habitat into smaller isolated areas--is likely the greatest threat to tǫdzı.  Natural or human disturbances like forest fires or roads can break up their habitat, making it harder for them to travel and use the various landscapes they need. 

In recent years, Tłı̨chǫ elders and harvesters have been concerned about the increasing size and intensity of forest fires, and how these fires are impacting wildlife habitat that animals and fish depend on. While they understand the character of tǫdzı and small forest fires, they didn’t understand the character of large fires and wanted to learn more.  They are particularly concerned with how these fires are impacting tǫdzı (boreal caribou) and łıwe (fish).   For example, when do tǫdzı return to places after a fire?  How are tǫdzı habitats changed after a forest fire?  When does the vegetation that tǫdzı rely on for food return? How are tǫdzı’s numbers, behaviours, and distribution—where they can be found--affected by changes to their environment?  How are forest fires affecting water and fish? Is the ash from forest fires affecting the size of the fish?  Is the quality of the water affected by ash deposited into the water?

To date, research on boreal caribou in the NWT has been limited, but for the past few years, Tłı̨chǫ researchers have been collecting information on the land and documenting their knowledge and observations of tǫdzı habitat and habitat use.  And this past year, the research team added fish and water sampling to their activities.  At the CIMP workshop, Camilla Nitsiza and Dr. Allice Legat presented an update on the project with an overview of activities and findings during the 2015 and 2016 research.

They described how in 2012, the WRRB in collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ Government, began research on the relationship between tǫdzı and forest fires, first by listening to oral narratives of tǫdzı and fires, then by documenting the types of habitat tǫdzı prefer.

Over the last two years, a WRRB research project, led by Dr. Allice Legat working with Whatì community researchers and elders, has been documenting baseline information-- tǫdzı’s movements throughout the year and the state of tǫdzı habitat—as well as noting changes to places.  They documented plants, wildlife and wildlife activities in locations that had either never been burned or had burned between one and 50 years ago.  Analyses are not yet complete, but a number of observations were made.  The research team observed that much of the tǫdzı range in the area has burned and is in varying degrees of re-growth.  One of the elders noted that not all areas would burn the same way or grow back the same way.

Tǫdzı (boreal caribou) browsing. Photo:  GNWT / A. Gunn, ENR

In 2014-2015, the research team focused on gathering information to better understand the impacts of fire on tǫdzı habitat and to monitor when tǫdzı return to burn areas.  Whatı̀ elders selected places to monitor where harvesters expected to find tǫdzı. Several forest fires over the last 50 years have reached the shores of Tsotı̀ (Lac La Martre), impacting tǫdzı habitat and burning large areas that have always produced food for people and wildlife.  The research team documented evidence of tǫdzı returning to various locations.  They also documented habitat types that are important to tǫdzı. 

Elders stressed that tǫdzı require continuous access to varied habitat types where they can find food, shelter, protection and space to rest or escape from insects and predators.  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.  Dehtı or “river lake”, for example, is the place where a river or stream widens.  Tǫdzı can cool off there and forage on grasses, sedges and flowers that grow along its banks.  Other important habitat areas were described and labelled on a map that was on display.

Observing some of the burn areas, they noted places on the land with stands of black spruce that were too young for tǫdzı to use as camouflage against predators.  They also observed that in some places vegetation communities were returning more slowly because the soil conditions were extremely dry; however, in wetland areas, they were returning relatively quickly.

Last year (2015-2016) was the first year of monitoring specific sites to determine when tǫdzı return to an area after a wildfire.  Due to weather, they were able to visit 8 of the 14 sites the research team had pinpointed for monitoring tǫdzı presence and tǫdzı habitat.  Researchers looked for evidence of tǫdzı, including tracks, pellets and signs of browsing, at sites where wildfire had never occurred or where burns had occurred at least 15 years earlier.  In 2016, they documented vegetation and evidence of tǫdzı at the sites at the north end of Whatì and revisited sites visited in 2015 to look for evidence of change. 

Researchers also added fish and water sampling and took samples on the land around Whatì at 14 sites. The results came back very positive, Camilla noted.   Also new for the project—youth from the Tłı̨chǫ Įmbè Program joined the research team last summer.  The youth learned from the elders while on the land, and each student interviewed a family elder to find out important fishing places on Tsotı̀.

Their presentation also addressed the importance of community driven monitoring by elders and harvesters and establishing a Tłı̨chǫ process to monitor the land and water.  Dr. Legat spoke of how she saw people watching the land all the time, a traditional way of monitoring and “a way of knowing that’s part of everyday life.”  Reflecting a perspective that acknowledges the interaction of all beings that depend on land and water, Camilla commented on how “animals give good information and instruction about what the land produces.”

What’s Next:

The research team will continue to visit sites and consider additional places.  Researchers have observed that tǫdzı use all the land and they move around.  So far, they have documented 23 habitat types, and there are more.  The elders also want to document the importance of islands to tǫdzı when calving, explaining that tǫdzı can swim further than most animals.  Islands likely offer safety to cows and their calves.

The researchers will also meet to verify the research that has been done so far in late March 2017.  Once verified, a report will be written and made available.