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Arctic Borderlands Lessons Learned By Heather Ashthorn


Arctic Borderlands Ecological Knowledge Society (ABEKS) is funded by multiple funders, including Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board, Government of Canada, Government of Northwest Territories, Parks Canada and the Renewable Resource Surplus Fund.



Ongoing since 1994.



To monitor and assess ecological changes within the range of the Porcupine Caribou herd and adjacent coastal and marine ecosystems and to share local, traditional and scientific knowledge for co-management.


Information documented by community monitors during interviews with local experts is used by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, as well as Environment Canada when making species risk assessments and by researchers in and outside of Canada to answer questions that involved communities identify as important to their community. In these ways, the objectives are met. There is still so much potential for the database to be used for the benefit of participating communities.



The data from ABEKS are used by local and non-local researchers, by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB) and by the Government of Canada for co-management and decision making, particularly concerning harvest quotas for caribou by Gwich’in and Inuvialuit harvesters. Responsibility for management of the Porcupine Caribou Herd is shared between the US and Canadian federal, Territorial and First Nations governments and councils.  ABEKS caribou and weather data is presented to the PCMB annually and they consider the information alongside conventional scientific indicators when establishing harvest quotas. However, the PCMB does not have a specific framework for decision making including local knowledge. Nevertheless, harvest of the Porcupine Caribou Herd has not had to be limited to date. To what extent the ABEKS data and other sources of local knowledge is to used in decision-making has still not been defined. This gap presents one of the biggest challenges to the future of the monitoring program.

For example, we are aware that the PCMB considered the ABEKS data in 2017. In February 2017, PCMB discussed the use of ABEKS data at their annual harvest meeting after we presented the caribou and weather data to them in graphic form. As of May 2018, however, we have not yet heard from PCMB how ABEKS data were considered but we are hoping to be informed soon. Without well-documented frameworks for decision making it is unclear how exactly the ABEKS data are being considered in the decision making process. 



The most important achievement was the collaboration between governments, communities and researchers and the compilation of over 20 years’ worth of local ecological knowledge shared by local experts, as well as the material needed to include local knowledge and traditional knowledge (TK) in decision making frameworks. 


The program uses fairly simple protocols which have been designed to be easily administered in each community. Since the guidelines are not complicated, they are used consistently from year to year. The guidelines provide an in depth overview of the monitoring process, remuneration, expectations and history of ABEKS. Click the button to see the 2017 survey interview questions.




We encountered five challenges. First, it was a challenge to make survey questions both relevant, understandable and usable. This was achieved by careful evaluation and review of the program throughout its lifetime and through consultation with the participants. An example of a survey question that was useful is “Did you hunt caribou this year?” In contrast, it was not useful to ask “How many hunters hunted caribou this year?” Second, it was a challenge that data management should be neutral and accessible to the communities involved. This was achieved by hiring an arms’ length data manager with a background in data collection and compilation and developing protocol for gaining access to the data. Third, it was a challenge for the collaboration to make the program relevant to everyone involved. This was achieved through excellent communication, including yearly visits by the program coordinator to each community and organization of gatherings involving all participants to allow for information exchange. Fourth, it was a challenge to maintain funding that represented all parties. This is achieved by careful management by a Board of Directors and presentation of program results to all funders annually or semi-annually, as well as attendance at the Annual Harvest Gathering to explain the results of the program. ABEKS strives to respond to concerns raised by funders by demonstrating utility of the data through regular analysis and collaboration with technical committees. Relationship building is key to the success of the program. Fifth, it was a challenge to ensure shared ownership of the program. This involves ensuring that all communities are involved in running the program and is achieved by collaborating with Renewable Resource Councils and Hunter and Trapper Associations in each community. One option for increasing involvement in communities was to shift administration of the monitoring program to these councils (i.e. to decentralize the administration).


THE FUTURE: The expectation is that the program will continue indefinitely and that, as the database grows, the information given by local experts will contribute to a greater understanding of caribou, berries, mammals, birds, fish and weather in the study area, as well as make a significant contribution to co-management of local resources to enhance food security and protect ecological integrity. In order to meet these expectations, all communities will have to take ownership and lead the program in their area, monitors will have to be well supported with quality training and financial and technical support throughout their contracts and co-management authorities will have to create decision making frameworks that make appropriate use of the data so that funders are satisfied that there is an ultimate purpose.



In the study area, there is unlimited potential for ABEKS data to be used to the benefit of people and communities. The ABEKS protocols may also be useful in other parts of the Arctic with wild caribou populations. In the past, researchers working on graduate degrees have partnered with communities involved to develop studies that are mutually beneficial. Governments have requested access to the data to enhance their assessments of various ecological conditions. ABEKS documents local experiences of ecological change, which is different from Traditional Knowledge, however, many community members have pointed out over the years that most of the experts who are interviewed are TK holders and so the information they give is informed by TK. It is, therefore important that the data remains the property of the people who contribute to it and also important that the process for gaining access is to the satisfaction of the communities involved. Currently, anyone wanting access to ABEKS data is required to apply to the communities they are requesting data from. This process works to preserve and protect intellectual property but can be seen, incorrectly, to limit access. We cannot emphasize enough that the data represents and is a part of the people involved in the project and should be approached with respect for their experience and contribution. Other monitoring programs may find the ABEKS process helpful in developing locally appropriate programs. 

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