July 30, 2020

Aboriginal-led wildlife monitoring project empowers Whitefish Lake First Nation - Alberta Innovates

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

The traditional knowledge of Canada’s First Nations can sometimes be cast in opposition to modern Western science. Aboriginal knowledge practices are based on a deep familiarity of the land, with observations passed down over generations through storytelling, in contrast to the structured approach of the modern scientific method. However, scientists are increasingly beginning to understand that Indigenous knowledge can be key to scientific research, particularly in environmental and ecological studies.

Increasingly, scientists are seeking to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into their research in fields ranging from ecology to climatology, on topics such as seasonal changes and animal migration to deepen our understanding of the natural world. Similarly, Indigenous Nations are seeking to use modern science and technology to increase employment opportunities and have a voice in decisions that impact their communities.

In 2015, Fabian Grey, the Consultation Manager for Whitefish Lake (Atikameg) First Nation participated in the Environmental Monitoring Training Technician Program hosted by InnoTech Alberta’s Aboriginal Environmental Services Network. The five-week program aimed to equip First Nations and Métis individuals with the knowledge and skills to work in the environmental services sector and participate in research development decisions. It was also the spark of a new idea: that his Nation could undertake its own wildlife monitoring program, deploying cameras and sensors to survey wildlife populations in its territory and track the impact of local oil sands development.

The Whitefish Lake Camera Crew. Top row (L-R): Nelson Anderson, Josiah Sawan, Elder Henry Grey. Second row (L-R): Nick Anderson, Fabian Grey and Joey Anderson (Supplied by Aboriginal Environmental Services Network)

“We hoped to ease the minds of our membership that the wildlife was out there, and that we were maintaining the population and density of moose,” says Grey. “I believe when we combine traditional knowledge with government and industry’s planned use of the land, we can come up with a way to safely and responsibly extract resources.”

Grey was able to secure funding from the Government of Canada’s Community Based Oil Sands Monitoring Fund (administered by Environment & Climate Change Canada), which allowed his nation to install nearly 100 cameras throughout the area’s wilderness. The program is a partnership between the Whitefish First Nation, InnoTech Alberta and the University of Victoria. Atikameg elders provide advice on camera placement, while community members place and monitor the remote cameras, and identify the species found in photographs. Scientists from InnoTech and UVIC contribute research methodology expertise, training, data analysis and the preparation of scientific manuscripts.

Flowchart depicting First Nation-led research aspects and Western science-led research aspects.

Dr. Shauna-Lee Chai, a scientist at InnoTech Alberta and manager of the Aboriginal Environmental Services Network who assists with the wildlife monitoring project, says that listening to Indigenous voices has had a positive impact on the quality of the data collected. Unlike some wildlife monitoring programs, the cameras in Atikameg are far from roadways, hidden in the deep bush where humans rarely travel. It was an approach that elders from Whitefish First Nation pushed for, despite reticence from InnoTech Alberta’s staff.

“As scientists, we’ll often make it more convenient for ourselves by putting cameras up along a trail or the side of a road, so there’s less toiling in the deep woods,” says Dr Chai says. “That was the part that the community pushed back on. They were really adamant that they wanted a sample design that was close to random, and they went for it.”  

While many deep woods monitoring programs depend on helicopters to place monitors in backcountry location, Grey’s six-person team successfully placed 75 cameras in just 13 days, either by foot or on ATV. That decision resulted in better, more accurate data, since animal populations may avoid areas with human activity and are less likely to appear on trail-side cameras.

Scientists are working with Grey and his team to publish a peer-reviewed study of their study results, but the study also has a positive impact on Whitefish First Nations’ ability to be a full participant in decisions about resource development on or near their territory.

By doing their own wildlife monitoring, members of the community are able to support their traditions with an understanding of scientific data, and make informed decisions about when, where and how to allow oil and gas or forestry companies to work in the area while reducing the impact on local plant and animal life.

Photos depicting a variety of wildlife, including moose, black bears, wolves and a bobcat
Photographs captured by remote cameras in Whitefish Lake First Nation

“We know the history of the land, its ups and down, its seasonal changes, because we’re on the land every day. But then we have somebody come and tell us, we can’t do this or we have to do that, and they don’t tell us why,” says Grey. “It’s better to engage the people that are in the area, because you don’t understand it the way we do. We say that the people that hunt, the people that pick berries, the people that pick medicine, they all have a certain chapter to a book. We all contribute to that book.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of Innovate Alberta’s digital newsletter, The Loop. Subscribe now.