A new traditional knowledge study suggests that Tlicho living in Wekweeti, N.W.T., are not just worried about disappearing caribou — they're also worried about the health of those that remain.

At 62 years old, elder Joseph Judas remembers a time when large herds of Bathurst caribou would arrive in Wekweeti each fall, and when the meat was always delicious.

"The caribou before, they were good because they were wild and people like to be eating that kind of stuff."

Caribou front leg

Many of the elders interviewed had seen caribou with unusual bone marrow. (submitted by Petter Jacobsen)

Now Judas and many others have seen caribou with unusual bone marrow, cysts in odd places, a strange smell as soon as the animal is cut, and lungs that sometimes stick to ribs.

The stories are documented in a new report that gathers traditional knowledge of the herd. It heard from 16 elders in all and was published by the Tlicho Research and Training Institute and funded by the N.W.T. Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program.

"This January I went hunting," hunter Bobbie Pea told the study's authors in 2015. "Past Gahchodii Island there is a lake where Joe shot two caribou. He signaled to me so I drove up to him.

"He was cutting up one caribou, the fat on the caribou was thick. In the stomach and lungs blister-like substances were showing. He didn't know what to do so he asked me what to do. I told him a caribou that fat should not be wasted, you should just take it home as is."

"Fifty years ago when we went hunting and cut the meat, there was nothing wrong with it," Jimmy Kodzin is quoted as saying. "Now it's not the same at all. It's not fresh and juicy. It's different than before."

'The larger picture'

Petter Jacobsen, a social scientist originally from Norway and the study's lead author, began interviewing elders in Wekweeti in 2013.

"They were seeing tainted meat and strange colours in the bone marrow. People were talking about ribs which had the lungs attached to them and the lungs were covered in a kind of green mucous."

Harry Rabesca cuts caribou

Harry Rabesca cuts out the ribcage of a caribou near Courageous Lake in August, 2012. (submitted by Petter Jacobsen)

Along with the abnormalities, Jacobsen's report also documents changes to the migration pattern — as caribou no longer travel to Wekweeti.

The report proposes several reasons for the changes to caribou health, behavior and migration — including the mining industry, commercial outfitting camps (at least until 2010, when the sport hunt was banned) and disrespectful harvesting — but makes no attempt to scientifically link the changes to the current decline.

"We really find the larger picture and that's what we wanted to emphasize," Jacobsen said.

"Until now, most of the information that's available is coming from scientists who fly out there and do a lot of good scientific research, but from a traditional knowledge perspective, there hasn't been very much knowledge that's been available to decision makers and the public."

Research for the study was cut short when the Tlicho Government announced its members wouldn't hunt the animals in 2015-2016, as an investment in the future. 

But Jacobsen is hopeful that scientists and other researchers will use the study to do their own research and help answer some of the troubling questions it raised. 

The study available on the website of the Tlicho Research and Training Institute.