In the rugged Sahtú Region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, a district so remote that in winter only a single treacherous ice road connects it to the outside world, life revolves around caribou. For millennia, the Dene people lived as nomads, tracking vast herds across the Sahtú and harvesting the itinerant animals for their meat, skin and bones. Although the region’s indigenous people today reside in villages, subsistence hunting remains central to diet and culture. The Dene language contains phrases for such concepts as “we grew up with caribou blood” and “we are people with caribou.”
That intimate relationship did not always coexist comfortably with empirical science. Wildlife biologists had long studied caribou by swooping down in helicopters, netting them and affixing them with radio collars, a process that some Dene saw as disrespectful to creatures they considered kin. In September 2012, the Sahtú Renewable Resource Councils passed resolutions recommending that all wildlife research involve local people and respect indigenous values. Biologists could still collar the caribou, but they now had a directive to pursue more respectful, non-invasive methods as well.
The task of developing new techniques fell to a team of scientists that included Jean Polfus, a natural resources Ph.D. student at the University of Manitoba. Polfus’ introduction to the Northwest Territories wasn’t an easy one — “it was completely dark, it was cold and a lot of the meetings happened in Dene language,” she recalls — but, over the course of many conversations with community leaders, she and her local collaborators concocted a visionary project: They would study caribou populations using DNA extracted from scat. Dene hunters and trappers, who regularly cross paths with the herds during their travels on snowmobile, would collect droppings — with each sample that Polfus received earning its finder a C$25 gasoline gift card. “It’s a lot cheaper per sample than collaring caribou,” Polfus says.
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article: Ben Goldfarb
photo: Jean Polfus