What’s going on in our region’s forests?

University of Northern British Columbia students and professor on June 2 after a sweat to kick off aquatic plant research in partnership with Swan River First Nation. The sweat lodge is behind them. Left to right are Katie Tribe, Holly McVea, Deniz Divanli, and Dr. Lisa Wood.

Pearl Lorentzen
For South Peace News

Swan River First Nation [SRFN] is looking at “cultural ecology,” says Shannon Gavin, wildlife biologist with MSES, from Calgary.
SRFN’s reserves are by Lesser Slave Lake. The main reserve is on the Swan River Delta in the middle of the south shore of the lake. The Swan River traditional territory is larger and includes portions of the Swan Hills and land north of Lesser Slave Lake. The Swan Hills habitat is part of the foothills and north of the lake is boreal forest.
Swan River is working on a few research projects. One of the newest ones looks at animal migration, using camera traps. Another looks at culturally important aquatic plants.
Both studies look at the impact of human and non-human disturbance. The research looks at roads, forestry, oil and gas, and natural disturbances such as wildfire, and undisturbed areas.

Two knowledge systems used

Swan River land research uses two knowledge systems: traditional Cree knowledge with western science.
“We’re continuing on that theme in all of our projects,” says Todd Bailey, who works for SRFN.
People in Indigenous communities have “great knowledge from being on the land,” adds Gavin.
The research “braids these two knowledges together,” she adds. With a goal to make better land-use decisions.

Camera traps used to study wildlife

Bailey says a camera trap research project goal is “to assess the impact of industrial disturbance on wildlife movement and some population estimates.”
The camera project started with community concerns, says Gavin. She designed the study and trained community members to collect data.
“We work together to analyze and interpret the data,” she adds. “It’s really led by the community, and I‘m just there to support them.”
The cameras are put up on trees, usually along wildlife corridors. They have motion sensors and take pictures both day and night. They take pictures of multiple species such as moose, bears, wolves, and medium sized mammals.
The cameras in place for three years and will be checked every six months.
“They [Swan River community members] have an opportunity to see what the cameras are gathering,” says Bailey.
“Cameras are a great resource,” adds Gavin. “It gives you a lot of information.”
Researchers use the pictures to learn what species are in an area, their behaviour, habitat density, species abundance, distribution, community structure, and health.
“I use statistical models to kind of look at what is going on,” says Gavin.
Gavin expects to have some preliminary analysis done after the first year, but no final results until after the third year of the study.
Among other things, the research looks at “how are animals responding to changes,” says Gavin.
This is the reason the study covers multiple years.
Whitefish First Nation did a similar camera study a few years ago, says Bailey. People on that team came out to help set up the camera traps in April 2022.

Aquatic plants

Along with a camera trap study, Swan River First Nation is looking at aquatic plants. Bailey says this is “a parallel study because the study area is the same.”
The western science part of this research is led by Dr. Lisa Wood, Assistant Professor of Ecosystems Science and Management with the University of Northern British Columbia. The team has three UNBC students and one community member.
The study looks at “culturally important plants,” says Wood. These are used regularly as food, medicine or in ceremony.
The study looks at plant density, health, and for contaminants.
The study looks for contaminates to see if these have any impact on the medicinal value of the plants,
says Bailey.
The first phase is assessing riparian areas. This will take three months this summer.
“We’ve got a variety of wetland types, and streams, and the four types of disturbance,” says Wood.
“Disturbance is going to impact any plant community,” she adds.
Human made disturbances include roads, forestry cut-blocks, oil and gas pipelines and well-sites, and
The researchers identify the disturbance, says Wood. They walk 100 metres downstream [as
contaminants would flow downstream], identifying and counting plants. They also take soil, plant, and water samples.
When it comes to culturally important aquatic plants, both their presence and absence will be noted, she adds.
Also, whether or not it is the right habitat for these plants.
Rat root, wild mint, Labrador tea, and horse tail are “all considered to be aquatic plants,” says Wood. An aquatic plant doesn’t have to be in the water all the time, explains Wood. It just has to tolerate some level of moisture saturation. For example, rat root is partially submerged with a shoot.
A lot of aquatic plants are “found along the water’s edge,” she adds.
The second phase is guided reclamation. In this phase, Swan River members and researchers will be “reintroducing traditional plants,” says Bailey, with work expected 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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