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Pictured: Grad student Ayicia Nabigon

“Your community is backing you”: Bringing Indigenous Knowledge into Research

Ayicia Nabigon is an Anishaabe Master’s of Science student in the McLoughlin Lab of Population Ecology at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research focuses on the declining moose populations in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan and the potential impacts of climate change, human activities, and disease on these populations. For Ayicia, the decline of the moose population in her home community was a major motivation for her to start studying the natural environment.

Ayicia Nabigon next to cow moose being collared in the boreal forest
Ayicia Nabigon next to cow moose being collared in the boreal forest

Ayicia Nabigon, a Master’s of Science student in the McLoughlin Lab of Population Ecology, was raised in the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg community in in the Lake Superior area of Ontario. “I grew up on the reserve, spending time out in the bush, and just seeing thing change over time has been the biggest motivation for me to start studying the natural environment,” explained Nabigon, “It’s really guided my perspective,”. Ayicia earned her Honours Bachelor of Science in Environmental Biology from York University in Toronto and gained experience with field work as part of the Ecology Resource Management team at Pukaskwa National Park.

While hunting in recent years, Ayicia and her community had become concerned as they noticed the moose population declining. As a biologist, seeing these trends in her own home community was particularly worrying, “Moose are such an important species for food sovereignty for northern and Indigenous communities across Canada. In the past, we’ve seen the caribou population just get decimated and we came into awareness when it was already almost too late. I think it’s important to try and figure out if we can do anything about it to avoid another catastrophic scenario.”

As Ayicia began to investigate research surrounding declining moose populations in the boreal forest, she came across the McLoughlin Lab of Population Ecology where a project focused on the effects of chronic wasting disease and meningeal worm on caribou and moose populations. She contacted Dr. Philip McLoughlin (PhD) to learn more about his work and discovered that her interests made her a perfect fit for his Boreal Plains Multi-Species Management project at the University of Saskatchewan, which solidified her decision to pursue graduate studies at USask.

Release of a freshly collared cow moose
Release of a freshly collared cow moose

The McLoughlin Lab of Population Ecology is headed up by Dr. Philip McLoughlin, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at USask. The Boreal Plains Multi-Species Management aims to study and assess risks to wildlife in northern Saskatchewan and identify solutions to mitigate those risks. One focus of the project is to investigate changes in the boreal plains landscape in response to human activities such as building roads and clear-cutting, as well as the impacts of climate change on the area and the animal populations who live there.

Climate change, for example, is associated with hotter temperatures and less predictable wind and weather patterns. These environmental changes have been linked to increased rates of wildfires that are larger and more difficult to control. Additionally, climate change has impacted precipitation levels in the boreal forest, resulting in lower-than-average snow depths throughout the region. Ayicia and other researchers in the McLoughlin Lab of Population Ecology are tasked with determining if these changes are impacting the activities of moose and white-tail deer populations in the area.

A primary focus of the project is to determine the potential impacts of chronic wasting disease and meningeal worm, two pathogens affecting caribou, moose, and other boreal species. Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease of the deer family, similar to mad cow disease, that has been spreading like wildfire in recent years, while meningeal worm is a parasite that is harmless to white-tailed deer (its primary host), but causes impaired neurological function and fatality in other members of the deer family.

A particular highlight of this project for Ayicia is the involvement of northern Indigenous communities in the research process, “We want them to have an active role in deciding, you know, what do you want to accomplish with this research that’s happening in your backyard with this animal that you’re so deeply connected to?”. Researchers have met with Indigenous communities to discuss the technology available at the University of Saskatchewan as well as to learn about their own experiences noticing trends in animal populations in their areas. Throughout the project, researchers will continue to meet with communities to provide updates and receive guidance about where to direct subsequent research projects in the area, “That’s the most important thing: Start with the people who are actually there and know what’s going on,”.

For Ayicia, the impact of research projects like this one are about increasing Indigenous sovereignty when it comes to managing resources and land. “I definitely want to go back to my community and implement our own environmental monitoring project,” she said, “It’s about building our capacity so we’re not relying on bringing people into the community that don’t have the same background that we do,”.

As a young Indigenous scientist, Ayicia wants to encourage others to get involved in the field. “People think of scientists, and they think, oh my gosh, they’re so smart, they know all of this information,” she explained, “Don’t be intimidated by science, that’s what I wish I knew. If you’re interested, if you’re passionate, you’re going to do just as well as any other scientist out there.” Throughout her time in her studies and in the field, Ayicia has been overwhelmed by the amount of support she’s received from both her community back home and the scientific community she’s found a place in, “USask has a really great Indigenous support system. With the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre, the elders on campus; I would really recommend coming here if you wanted to do any kind of research as an Indigenous person,”.

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