Wildlife Research and Monitoring Projects in the Gwich’in Settlement Area

In addition to being the main instrument of Wildlife Management in the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA), the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB) has a strong role in research and monitoring1. Since the GRRB was established, we have been involved in various wildlife projects within the GSA and abroad in partnership with neighbouring regions. Most of the research we conduct is related to management issues or monitoring of wildlife. Our staff are trained to conduct research projects and we also actively collaborate with partner agencies and organizations (e.g., Gwich’in Tribal Council, Department of Cultural Heritage; Government of the Northwest Territories, Department of Environment and Natural Resources; Yukon Government; Parks Canada; Ducks Unlimited; the Inuvialuit; Universities; etc.). The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (GCLCA, section 12.8.38) states:
The Board may participate in harvesting studies, in data collection and in the evaluation of wildlife research. It is intended that the Board have an independent research capability, to the extent agreed by government and which does not duplicate research which is otherwise available to it.

Ongoing Projects

For a complete listing of GRRB-related wildlife publications, visit our Research & Monitoring Publications page.

Divii (Dall’s Sheep) Community-Based Monitoring Project

Between the early 2000s and 2014, the Richardson Mountains divii population underwent a rapid decline. In 2014, the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB) approved specific management actions from the draft management plan for this population. A pilot project took place in 2015 and in 2018 a community-based monitoring and research project was initiated with the goal of creating a long-term community-based monitoring program. This project is done in close collaboration with the Ehdiitat Renewable Resources Council. In addition, the GRRB teamed up with the Department of Cultural Heritage (Gwich’in Tribal Council) to create a Traditional Knowledge report. More precisely, this program monitors population changes in divii by collecting traditional knowledge and scientific information on recruitment, ratio of lamb:nursery, classification of rams, habitat changes, predation and other variables that are known to affect this population. To do so, our team installed 15 remote cameras on divii trails and areas heavily used by divii. These cameras take pictures of animals passing in front of them. Every winter, a team of community members, youth and biologists snowmobile to the camera sites to service them and recover the SD cards with the pictures on them. This allows us to gather information such as the lamb:ewe ratio that gives us an estimate on recruitment from the previous spring. We can cross-check our results with annual aerial surveys done of our study sites by helicopter. A master’s student, Sydney Goward from the University of Victoria (supervised by Jason T. Fisher and Trevor Lantz), is working on analyzing the data from this project. In addition, she will be exploring other questions related to divii and its habitat. Checking the Wildlife Camera Photo: A team changing the batteries and the SD of a camera to retrieve the pictures in March 2021. Left to right: James Blake, Jessi Pascal, and Tyler Sittichinli (Aklavik). Photo taken by Édouard Bélanger (former Wildlife Biologist, GRRB) In addition, we get information on other wildlife that roams this beautiful landscape (i.e., shih [grizzly bear], aak’ii [muskox], zhoh [wolf], etc.). Ultimately, the results of this program will assist the GRRB, Gwich’in RRCs, Environment and Climate Change (Government of Northwest Territories), Yukon Government and other partners in monitoring the population, with the direct participation of community members and youth in data collection and management.

Dzan-Kivgaluk Muskrat Monitoring Project

Since at least the early 2000s, concerns have been expressed by community members over dzan (muskrats) and tsee’ (beaver). It was suggested that tsee’ may interfere with dzan populations by deteriorating dzan habitat quality. The Dzan-Kivgaluk Muskrat Monitoring Project began in 2015 in response to these concerns and to concerns expressed by Delta harvesters that dzan populations had declined in the region and that, more recently, tsee’ populations had increased. This project started as a partnership between the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB), McGill University and the University of Victoria, with support from various organizations and funders, but rapidly expanded. It is now a partnership between the GRRB and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC, Dr. Jeremy Brammer) with the support of the Inuvialuit Game Council. The project has also partnered with Dr. Helen Wheeler from the University of Anglia Ruskin to begin a tsee’ project in 2019 (see the Tsee’ [Beaver] Project). The goal of this project is to respond to the concerns of Delta residents regarding the decline in local dzan populations and increases in tsee’ numbers. A number of potential causes of this decline have been suggested, including:
  • changes in the predator populations (e.g. fox, mink, otter) and their predation rates on dzan
  • changes in competitor (e.g. tsee’) populations, reducing habitat quality for dzan
  • heavy metal (e.g. cadmium, lead, etc.) contamination, reducing dzan health
  • increased parasite loads, reducing dzan health
  • natural fluctuations of dzan populations
  • changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, reducing habitat quality
  • changes in water flow patterns reducing habitat quality
  • changes in shoreline characteristics, reducing habitat quality
  • changes in watershed characteristics, reducing habitat quality
  • changes in harvesting patterns, allowing dzan and predator populations to increase more rapidly
To evaluate these different drivers of dzan populations and health, our monitoring project is structured around the following activities:
  1. aerial surveys of dzan kun (rat houses or pushups) to estimate population trends across the Delta
  2. a community-based carcass collection program to examine the health of dzan and the diets of dzan predators
  3. field habitat and dzan capture surveys to identify habitats where dzan have high survival and good body condition
All of these monitoring activities aim to be conducted with community members and to involve educational opportunities with local youth and school groups. As of March 2021, results show that:
  • dzan densities in much of the Delta appear to have declined over the past 50 years (although recent reports suggest some increases have occurred)
  • these declines have been more pronounced in the upper Delta
  • dzan are not the principal prey item in the trapper-donated foxes, mink, and otters that we examined
  • Delta dzan parasite loads are mostly similar to what has been found in the past
  • Delta dzan heavy metal contamination is similar to dzan from across Canada
  • dzan recruitment (i.e. number of young per adult) and juvenile growth rates (i.e. weight of muskrat young) that we measured were similar to those found in the 1960s
  • the percentage of dzan kun that were open between 2015-2019 was less than in the 1960s
As of 2022, this program is on hold and no activities are occurring. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented most fieldwork activities and travel from outside the territory. In addition, the principal lead, Dr. Jeremy Brammer, is on a temporary assignment as Fish and Wildlife Manager of the Vuntut Gwitchin Government in Old Crow.

Tsee’ (Beaver) Community-Based Monitoring Project

In the past century, tsee’ populations in the Delta have been fluctuating. At least twice (1940s and 1960s), the population got close to extirpation in the Delta. In recent years, concerns were raised about having more beavers in the Delta, that beavers are moving north and about the impacts of beavers on other animals, such as dzan (see Dzan-Kivgaluk Muskrat Monitoring Project) and fishes, on rivers and lakes and on hunting, fishing and life on the land. In 2019, Helen Wheeler, a professor from Anglia Ruskin University, in collaboration with Jeremy Brammer from Environment Climate Change Canada (running the Dzan-Kivgaluk Muskrat Monitoring Project) and the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB) started the Tsee’ (beaver) community-based monitoring project to better understand this species. The objectives of this program are to:
  1. monitor beaver population changes across space in the Jackfish Creek area
  2. assess long-term change in beaver populations by comparing current distributions of beavers to surveys conducted by the Canadian Wildlife Service in the 1960s
  3. test novel methods to estimate historical beaver population change using shrub rings (dendrochronology)
  4. create models of population change in beaver sites to identify permanent and short-term beaver activity
To do so, a team of community members, trappers, youth and elders from Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic have been going to Jackfish creek camp on East branch to map beaver lodges (active lodges vs abandoned), gather shrub rings and record local observations and knowledge. In 2019, mapping showed that the number of beaver lodges was double that of the 1960s, but the number of lodges that are active has varied quite a lot since then. Very few lodges had beavers present in all three years studied (2019, 2020, 2021), while most lodges were only temporarily active with beavers. This highlights that there may be many temporary populations, or that beavers may shift from site to site according to how habitat changes over time. Community researchers highlighted that loss of lodges was associated with bank erosion and hypothesized that some of the changes in locations where beaver populations are active might be due to water levels. Ongoing research aims to address this further. In 2022, building on feedback from Renewable Resource Councils (RRCs), the project focused on intergenerational knowledge sharing of environmental change related to beavers through a series of On the Land trips. Teams of community members and youth traveled the local rivers and lakes which are key hunting, fishing and trapping areas where beavers are present. They shared their Traditional Knowledge and discussed the changes they observed where beavers are present and how this affects on the land activities. In addition, youth participants were trained and given cameras to record experiences and to document the trip. They used GPS to track where they visited and record where beaver lodges and dams were. The goal was to create a mapping and video project of the changes experienced in their community.

Dachan Tat Aak’ii – Muskox Project (Yukon North Slope and Northern Richardson Mountains)

After disappearing from the region in the late 1860s, dachan tat aak’ii (muskox, omingmak in Inuvialuktun) were reintroduced in northeast Alaska in 1969-70. First observations of dachan tat aak’ii on the Yukon North Slope were recorded in the early 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1985 that groups became permanent. The population slowly expanded east across the Yukon North Slope, establishing groups in the Northern Richardson Mountains of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and Gwich’in Settlement Area in the early 1990s. As of summer 2021, a total of 359 were found. A full population survey will be completed in March 2022. In recent years, a research and monitoring program was put in place in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, led by the Yukon Government and the Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope). This program was started in part due to concerns by local communities on the effect dachan tat aak’ii can have on the Porcupine caribou (vadzaih) and to ensure needed information was available for stewarding the population. The program involves aerial surveys, GPS collars, ground based monitoring, sample collections, harvest information and Traditional Knowledge. It brings together harvesters, knowledge holders, scientists, youth and managers from various organizations in two territories, including the GRRB. As part of this program, one Master’s thesis was completed that looked at the relationship between dachan tat aak’ii and vadzaih, through space and habitat use, one of the main concerns around this population of dachan tat aak’ii. Using GPS collars on these two species from 2015 to 2019, results of this research show that their range overlaps most in spring and summer, but that these two species rarely encounter one another directly. This is in part because they use different types of habitats. This work also visited more than 50 locations on the North Slope and in the Northern Richardson Mountains used by dachan tat aak’ii to determine if they were causing long-term impacts to vegetation due to their eating habits and other behaviours, but found that habitats hadn’t changed because of dachan tat aak’ii. Further work is now underway to better understand what the future holds for the population size of dachan tat aak’ii, to identify best approaches for monitoring including community-based initiatives and to better understand the perspectives of Gwich’in and Inuvialuit when it comes to dachan tat aak’ii.

Dachan Tat Aak’ii (Muskox) monitoring (East of the Mackenzie River)

In western NWT, dachan tat aak’ii are common in part of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) and Sahtú Settlement Area (SSA). As you move west of these regions, however, dachan tat aak’ii sightings are less common. In the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA), east of the Mackenzie Delta, dachan tat aak’ii sightings are rare and it is believed that they have recently dispersed from the ISR or SSA. At least one group of dachan tat aak’ii seems to have settled near Tsiigehtchic, on the east side of the Mackenzie River. In the last decade, people from Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik have observed several dachan tat aak’ii in this region and recently, some dachan tat aak’ii have been harvested. The recent arrival of these dachan tat aak’ii has raised concerns from local communities on their potential impacts on the landscape and on vadzaih (caribou). Similar concerns were raised from communities elsewhere in the NWT, mainly in the northern communities of the SSA. Due to the rise of concerns and the lack of knowledge of this species in some part of the GSA, ISR and SSA, the department of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC) GNWT recently started a monitoring program in collaboration with communities, management Boards and researchers. As part of this program, aerial surveys were conducted in winter 2021 in these regions. In the Beaufort Delta region, the survey took place in the northeastern part of the GSA and in the mainland part of the ISR. The GRRB provided financial support and our Wildlife Biologist and some community members participated in the survey. This information will allow us to monitor the evolution of dachan tat aak’ii population dynamics and space use of this region and will serve as baseline information for future research and monitoring programs. ECCC will soon release a technical report providing the methodology, results and discussion on this survey.

Cape-Bathurst, Bluenose-West and Bluenose-East Caribou monitoring

Previously known as the Bluenose caribou population, these three migratory barren-ground vadzaih herds are found in the northern mainland regions of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut between the Mackenzie and Coppermine Rivers. In the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA), they are found in the northeast part of the region. These herds’ distribution, movement, sizes and demographics have been monitored by the GNWT since the 1960s, using scientific methodology. In the last two decades, the arrival of GPS, satellite radio-collars, GIS software and better integration of Traditional Knowledge in management has allowed for a better understanding of these herds. Based on post-calving and calving ground photo surveys, these three herds have declined substantially since the mid-1990s. The bluenose-West herd went from an estimated high of 112,360 ± 25,566 vadzaih in 1992 to 18,000-21,000 since 2006. The Cape-Bathurst herd went from an estimated high of 19,278 ± 5,397 vadzaih in 1992 to an estimated low of 1,821 ± 149 in 2006. This population seems to be on a slow upward trend since 2006, with the latest estimate in 2021 at 4,913. The Bluenose-East herd went from an estimated 119,584 ± 25,419 vadzaih in 2000 to around 23,200 in 2021. Productivity, recruitment, adult composition, body composition and health and range and movement patterns are monitored by ECCC and by co-management partners through community and harvesters’ knowledge and observations. The GRRB often supports ECCC in the photo surveys either financially or by participating in the surveys. The GNWT produced interesting videos explaining post-calving and calving ground photo surveys:
In addition, other information is collected as part of the Advisory Committee for Cooperation on Wildlife Management (ACCWM) monitoring program. More information can be found in our Wildlife Management section or on the ACCWM website.

Monitoring dinjik (moose) using aerial surveys

Dinjik (Moose) is a year-round resident of the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA) and an important food species for the Gwich’in people and other northerners. Dinjik densities in the GSA are among the lowest recorded in North America. Since 2006, every 5 to 6 years, the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB) collaborates with the department of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC GNWT), the Renewable Resource Councils (RRCs) and other partners such as the Inuvialuit to conduct dinjik aerial surveys in the GSA and part of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR). Prior to the surveys, workshops are held in the communities with knowledgeable members selected by the local RRCs and Hunters and Trappers Committee (HTC). This allows for inputs and modifications on survey area based on their knowledge of dinjik distribution and their council or committee’s directions. Prior to 2006, several surveys were conducted but they were restricted to smaller portions of the GSA and ISR. These surveys allow us to monitor dinjik densities and provide us with important population dynamic metrics such bull:cow and calf:cow ratios. The latest survey was conducted in 2017. Results suggested an increase in dinjik density in five out of seven survey blocks, compared to 2011. Two blocks showed a decrease. Because there have been changes in the block size and location, some caution is warranted when comparing these surveys. Most of the region surveyed, however, showed an increase. We can draw a general conclusion that the population has been doing well during these years. Results and methodology of these surveys can be found in our Wildlife Publications section under Dinjik (Moose).

Divii (Dall’s Sheep) surveys in the Northern Richardson Mountains

Divii in the Northern Richardson mountains have been monitored using aerial surveys since the early 1980s. This population distribution spans over the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Several organizations collaborate to do the aerial surveys (i.e., Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board, Environment and Climate Change [Government of the Northwest Territories], Yukon Government, Renewable Resource Councils and various Inuvialuit organizations). The survey area has been consistent since the 1980s except for two added survey blocks in the northwest and southeast of the Northern Richardson Mountains. A team usually consisting of biologists, technicians, community members and a pilot follows cliffs, ridgelines, mountain tops and valleys by helicopter to count and classify divii and other wildlife. This provides us with a minimal count of divii, ram:ewe ratio, lamb:ewe ratio and an age structure of rams. By comparing these surveys, we can determine if the population is increasing, decreasing, or stable. Based on these surveys, the Northern Richardson Mountains Divii population was low in the 1980s. It increased substantially in the 1990s and decreased in the 2000s, with the lowest count in 2014. In 2017, we counted 647 divii compared to the 497 counted in 2014. This suggests an increase in the population. Figure taken from Davison et al. 2018 showing the minimal count results of divii from the aerial surveys in the Northern Richardson mountains between 1984 and 2017. In 1997, not all survey blocks were surveyed and an estimated population count accounting for area missed is shown in red.

Small Mammal and Geh (Hare) Research

Geh is harvested for both food and clothing. When out on the land hunting geh, the hunter looks for tracks, dropping and chewed willows. Besides the human hunter, geh must also beware of the niinjii (lynx), neegoo (fox), zhoh (wolf), vihsaivee (snowly owl), dhivii (weasel), chihthee (mink) hawks, klaii (dog) and ezhin (eagle). It is believed that where there are many niinjii (lynx), there will be many geh as well. Some people believe that when geh are plentiful, there will also be lots of vadzaih (caribou).
More Gwich’in Words About the Land, Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board, 2001 Small mammals and hares play key roles in both arctic and boreal ecosystems. Their rise and fall reflect similar patterns in their predators’ numbers and ecosystems. Some of these predators are trapped by community members in the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA), such as neegoo (fox), niinjii (lynx), chihthee (marten) and more. Since 1990, the department of Environment and Climate Change (ECC) from the Government of the Northwest Territories is monitoring small mammals across the territory and is conducting a study on geh population changes. As part of these programs, the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB) has been collecting population trend information on geh, based on pellet count along transects and has been conducting trap transects of small mammals to estimate densities around the Inuvik area. Fieldwork is completed in early summer for geh and late summer for small mammals. Usually, GRRB’s Wildlife Biologist, Summer Technician and Summer Student carry out fieldwork activities. It is a nice opportunity to get youth involved in field work, trapping and small mammal identification. Species are gathered and the data is sent back to ECC for analysis. Results allow us to better understand fluctuation in these species, their distribution and their relationship with predators, as well as monitor wildlife diseases.