Researchers in the Northwest Territories are examining caribou excrement to help determine how the animals are affected by mining.

The study, in its second year, is one of 14 Arctic conservation projects receiving money from World Wildlife Fund Canada.

How does prodding around in poo help? It tells scientists how caribou were feeling at the time of the deposit.

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“The project [examines] the potential responses of caribou to interacting with mines, woods, and features on the landscape,” said Karin Clark, a biologist working for the territorial government.

Researcher Angus Smith will look at three different sources with the aim of determining how caribou react to mining infrastructure.

The first is collar data, which helps to establish location. The second is observing the caribou to see how they act.

The third?

“We will be going out into the field to collect caribou poop,” said Smith, “so we can get some stress hormones.”

Once triggered inside an animal, those hormones end up deposited in caribou dung, providing an insight into how stressed the animal was feeling.

The examination of animal waste for stress hormones is a fairly common scientific technique for studying the wellbeing of a certain population. However, don’t try this at home with family pets as your dog will look stressed enough without the need for further tests.

Natural cycle?

Despite the messy task ahead for Smith, the research could be vital to the welfare of the Bathurst caribou herd.

In the 1980s, the herd – which wanders southern and central areas of the NWT, up to the Bathurst Inlet in Nunavut – numbered almost half a million animals. That has since dropped to fewer than 20,000.

Why the slump in numbers? There is no definitive answer, though mining and other factors have contributed to changes in the Bathurst herd’s natural environment.

Clark suggests the answer may be simpler than that.

“We think that, for the most part, it’s part of a natural cycle,” she told Cabin Radio. “Other herds are also declining, so it’s a pattern that we’re seeing across many herds.

“There’s concern with possible climate change, more frequent fires, more intense fires on the winter range might be impacting the herd. There are also mines, roads, and exploration camps on the range of the Bathurst herd, and these might be also having an impact.”

‘Fascinating findings’

This research, said Clark, “is helping us understand one piece of the puzzle” by exploring factors that could be stressing the animals.

“When they are close to the mines – when they come within that boundary – are there some impacts to them?” Clark wondered. “Are they experiencing stress? Are they changing their behaviour? Are they more active and feeding less?

“This is one piece of the cumulative effects story. We’re trying to understand the many factors that might be impacting caribou population, health, and fitness.

“If we do see that stress hormones may be changing when caribou are close to these features – if we see behavioural changes – it then allows us to think about what, then, is causing those changes in behaviour or those changes in stress hormones. And then what do we do about it?”

Brandon Laforest, a senior specialist for World Wildlife Fund Canada, hopes this work will feed directly into future industrial planning across the Arctic.

“Last year they went out and did a great job proving the method and establishing the field protocol,” said Laforest.

“I think they are really poised to come up with some fascinating findings about caribou and industrial development that will lead to better planning for caribou, but also better planning for industrial development as well, which is obviously much-needed across the Canadian Arctic.”