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Wildlife Management and Conservation in the Canadian North

December 3, 2019

Genomic approaches to Northern wildlife management hinges on strong community participation

SNP analysis, eDNA, deep sequencing – the tools of genomics hold great promise for wildlife management and conservation in the North, but Northerner knowledge is crucial to success.

First will be to spread the word on what genomics is, and how its tools are useful and relevant to Northerners. Aimee Guile, conservation biologist at Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board in Yellowknife, said in general the sentiment is “the less invasive, the better,” when it comes to public acceptance.

“First we’ve got to educate, get people on the same page, then we can talk about genomics tools,” she said.

Guile was one of about a dozen researchers from the Northwest Territories and the Prairies participating in a roundtable to explore the potential of genomics to address wildlife management conservation challenges in the North. It was part of a larger two-day event in Yellowknife on November 28 and 29 organized by Genome Prairie to brainstorm ideas and make connections in the run up to the Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP) competition, a major Genome Canada funding opportunity.

Doug Clark, from the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, has conducted research in the North for more than 25 years, living there for about a third of this time (he is also an adjunct professor with Yukon College and Queen’s University). Clark emphasized that by working closely with communities to get input and guidance, researchers also get help and cooperation.

“BearWatch has very good support, with hunter-harvested carcasses,” he said. BearWatch, awarded a Genome Canada LSARP in 2015, monitored the impact of climate change in the Arctic using polar bears, genomics, and traditional ecological knowledge.

Glen MacKay, archaeologist and manager of the Northwest Territories Cultural Places Program (CPP), explained that carcasses and bones left over from hunting and trapping are a rich resource for potential genomics research, since Arctic permafrost has preserved some of these remains for hundreds or even thousands of years.

It’s an intriguing thought for University of Saskatchewan veterinary researcher Gregg Adams, one of whose projects is seeking to create pure lines of Plains and Wood Bison. Both bison species were nearly wiped out and many of those that remain carry domestic cattle genes from ill-considered breeding programs decades ago. A few well-preserved bison bones – say from 500 years ago – from the southern Northwest Territories would be invaluable to establish what the pure genome for the species looks like.

Further north, genomics tools can be used to help manage both woodland and barren-ground caribou, threatened species that are critical both in terms of culture and food security in the North.

Harnessing the potential of genomics for Northern priorities will mean building capacity, both in terms of facilities and talent so research for the North can be conducted in the North. University of Saskatchewan parasitologist and zoonotic disease expert Emily Jenkins suggested expanding national networks such as the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC), as one way to help build research capacity while lowering costs. “We need a Northern node of the CWHC,” she said. “You don’t have to ship things south that way.”

Another model is to develop capacity at Aurora College in Yellowknife and link it to existing resources both in the North such as those run by the Environment and Natural Resources department of the Northwest Territories government.

“There’s a lab here in town and a new lab in Fort Simpson,” Guile said. Another challenge the group identified is telecommunications infrastructure. Many genomic tools and techniques generate enormous amounts of data which must be somehow transmitted and analyzed quickly.

While it’s now possible to do DNA sequencing in the field – for example, examining hair, scat or bones samples for population studies – these data make for some large file sizes. eDNA studies, for example, involve taking samples such as water from the environment (the “e” in eDNA) and screening them for multiple species, such as fish and amphibians. It’s an extremely powerful technique, allowing researchers to detect cryptic animals, that is, those that have evolved to avoid being seen by predators – or curious researchers.

March 2020 is the deadline for proposals for the latest Genome LSARP competition, themed “Genomic Solutions for Natural Resources and the Environment.” $25 million is available to be distributed in grants of $1 million to $3 million, which must be matched by partners.