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Ruby Ignace (Anishinaabe) guides her skiff along the English River in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. (Courtesy of Lawrence Ignace)

To See Caribou With Two Eyes

Among the coastal fjords of British Columbia, Canada, mountain goats are beginning to disappear.


“People have been talking about a decline in sightings,” says Tyler Jessen, a graduate student at the University of Victoria who’s investigating how big of a decline we’re talking about, and what might be causing it.

The problem is institutions founded by colonizers and settlers, such as the one that Jessen currently does his research in, don't have a whole lot of data to pull from. The good news is that they are not the only data source out there. The Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation has been watching these goats for decades, so Jessen talked to members of the community to see how often they’d been seeing goats over the years. And sure enough, they recall a very stark and gradual decline over such sightings the past 40 years.


A mountain goat tucked in against a rock complex in Kitasoo Xai'xais Territory. (Courtesy of Tyler Jessen)


Combining Indigenous Knowledge with what limited western historical data was out there, Jessen and the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation are collaboratively developing a conservation status for these coastal mountain goats to better ensure long-term survival.

Today, 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, where people and wildlife successfully coexisted for tens of thousands of years. Yet, western researchers have a long history of discounting Indigenous Knowledge and exploiting the lands they call home.

But that’s starting to change. A new report led by Jessen confirms the intuition that Indigenous Knowledge contributes greatly to our understanding and conservation of the natural world. Experts say western science needs to acknowledge these valuable contributions, reconcile with Indigenous peoples, and work together in reciprocal and respectful relationships to conserve wild places.

 

Since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, what’s commonly known as the scientific method has served as the bedrock of western scientific research. Making observations, developing hypotheses, designing experiments to test those hypotheses, and making conclusions based on the collected data are all trademark steps of the western scientific method.

Another step... is doing it all over again. Reproducing studies is essential to falsification, or trying to prove a hypothesis wrong. If study after study produces the same results, then a scientific hypothesis gains credit. If not, then a hypothesis is discredited or outright rejected.

Compared to our expedited modern world, nature usually moves at a snail’s pace. Observing change and unraveling natural mysteries takes time and many sets of eyes. But a “publish or perish” culture often leads to short funding cycles and studies lasting just a few years. Scientists are incentivized to conduct research with flashy, novel results that can be rapidly published, neglecting reproducibility and studies with less impactful results along the way.

Using a combination of western measurements and historical accounts from the Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv peoples of western Canada, researchers added over 50 years of data on rockfish size linked to rockfish fertility and population growth.

Yet boring, conflicting, or no results are just as important as exciting ones. Reproducing studies, re-testing hypotheses, and replicating results are what makes science… science. Without it, this toxic culture in western science propagates research that goes against its own foundations. Furthermore, there are so many moving and interlocking parts in nature’s ecosystems that reducing variables to create a reproducible study is in and of itself a daunting task.

Still, western science has long since become the de facto gold standard, or only standard, for answering questions about our observable world, while other ways of knowing, like Indigenous Knowledge, rarely receive such accreditation. Oftentimes, Indigenous Knowledge wasn’t held up to the same level of fact as a scientific fact until it was confirmed by western science, Jessen laments. “Ignoring the damage of that, it’s just not true.”


Courtesy of Tyler Jessen

But many a