What is happening in the forests of our region? –

Students and faculty at the University of Northern British Columbia on June 2 after sweating it out to launch aquatic plant research in partnership with Swan River First Nation. The sweat lodge is behind them. Left to right, Katie Tribe, Holly McVea, Deniz Divanli and Dr. Lisa Wood.

Pearl Lorentzen
For Southern Peace News

Swan River First Nation [SRFN] looks at “cultural ecology,” says Shannon Gavin, a wildlife biologist with MSES in Calgary.
The SRFN reserves are near Lesser Slave Lake. The main reserve is on the Swan River delta in the middle of the southern shore of the lake. Swan River’s traditional territory is larger and includes parts of the Swan Hills and lands north of Lesser Slave Lake. The Swan Hills habitat is part of the foothills and to the north of the lake is boreal forest.
Swan River is working on a few research projects. One of the most recent examines animal migration using camera traps. Another looks at culturally significant aquatic plants.
Both studies examine the impact of human and non-human disturbances. Research focuses on roads, forestry, oil and gas, and natural disturbances such as wildfires and undisturbed areas.

Two knowledge systems used

Research on the Swan River Lands uses two systems of knowledge: traditional Cree knowledge and western science.
“We continue this theme in all of our projects,” says Todd Bailey, who works for SRFN.
Indigenous community members have “a great knowledge of the land,” adds Gavin.
The research “braids these two pieces of knowledge together,” she adds. With the goal of making better land use decisions.

Camera traps used to study wildlife

Bailey says the goal of a camera trap research project is “to assess the impact of industrial disturbance on wildlife movement and some population estimates.”
The camera project started with community concerns, Gavin says. She designed the study and trained community members in data collection.
“We work together to analyze and interpret the data,” she adds. “It’s really community driven, and I’m just here to support them.”
Cameras are mounted on trees, usually along wildlife corridors. They are equipped with motion sensors and take photos day and night. They take photos of several species such as moose, bears, wolves and medium-sized mammals.
The cameras have been in place for three years and will be checked every six months.
“They [Swan River community members] have the opportunity to see what the cameras pick up,” says Bailey.
“Cameras are a great resource,” adds Gavin. “It gives you a lot of information.”
Researchers use the images to learn what species are in an area, their behavior, habitat density, species abundance, distribution, community structure, and health.
“I use statistical models to kind of see what’s going on,” says Gavin.
Gavin expects preliminary analyzes to be done after the first year, but no final results until the third year of the study.
Among other things, the research examines “how animals respond to change,” says Gavin.
This is the reason why the study covers several years.
The Whitefish First Nation did a similar camera survey a few years ago, Bailey says. Members of this team came to help set up the camera traps in April 2022.

Aquatic plants

Along with a camera trap survey, Swan River First Nation is examining aquatic plants. Bailey says it’s “a parallel study because the study area is the same.”
The western science portion of this research is led by Dr. Lisa Wood, assistant professor of ecosystem science and management at the University of Northern British Columbia. The team includes three UNBC students and one community member.
The study focuses on “culturally significant plants,” says Wood. These are used regularly as food, medicine or in ceremonies.
The study focuses on plant density, health and contaminants.
The study looks for contaminants to see if these impact the medicinal value of plants,
Bailey said.
The first phase is to assess the riparian areas. It will take three months this summer.
“We have a variety of wetland and stream types, and all four disturbance types,” Wood explains.
“The disturbances are going to impact any plant community,” she adds.
Human-induced disturbances include roads, forest cutblocks, oil and gas pipelines and well sites, and
Researchers identify the disturbance, Wood says. They walk 100 meters downstream [as
contaminants would flow downstream], identify and count plants. They also take soil, plant and water samples.
When it comes to culturally significant aquatic plants, their presence and absence will be noted, she adds.
Also, whether or not this is the right habitat for these plants.
Rat root, wild mint, Labrador tea, and horsetail are “all considered aquatic plants,” says Wood. An aquatic plant doesn’t need to be in water all the time, Wood explains. It just has to tolerate a certain level of moisture saturation. For example, the rat root is partially submerged by a shoot.
Many aquatic plants are found “at the water’s edge,” she adds.
The second phase is guided recovery. During this phase, Swan River members and researchers will “reintroduce traditional plants,” says Bailey, with work to begin in 2023.

Kris Willier sets up a camera trap as part of a Swan River First Nation research project. Photo courtesy of Swan River First Nation.

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