Cyst-like abnormalities have been spotted in moose. Now Calgary scientists and Indigenous hunters pair up

For hunters in a northern Indigenous community, not every moose caught by hunters is useful.

"Once they skin them, once they start to prepare them, they notice abnormalities underneath the skin, in the fat, in the meat, in the liver," said Troy Stuart, a hunter and lands manager with Bigstone Cree Nation.

He says the abnormalities appear to be cysts, and it's raising red flags for community members.

Stuart says the hunters don't bother eating those moose.

"They tell us, they tell people, they tell the community members but … nobody has gone to the extent to study what that is."

The nation is comprised of three communities, Calling Lake, Chipewyan Lake and Wabasca, located north of Edmonton. 

The First Nation recently paired with scientists from the University of Calgary to investigate. Using kits supplied by the researchers, the hunters will take samples of the moose and send them to the lab for processing.

Janelle Baker, an assistant professor at Athabasca University in the department of anthropology, helped connect the nation to the U of C.

Baker says it's part of the research grant to implement environmental monitors within the Bigstone Cree Nation.

"The fact that land users, hunters, people on the land who know the habits and health of the animals … they're able to bring so much more insight," Baker said.

She notes that hunters can still take the moose home for consumption since the samples are fairly small.

The samples will be tested for possible illnesses, parasites and contaminants from the environment.

Not the first scientific pairing

Back in 2015, the nation started a joint initiative for a food sampling study, funded by the First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program.

Bigstone Cree Nation environmental monitors sampled 150 animals and plants. The partnership included McGill University's Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment.

Supplied by Janelle Baker

Stuart says the community has also been helping the province monitor the water in the region as the nation has noticed changes like declining water flows.

He says the community is especially worried given the industrial development in the area like oil and gas and logging, along with other factors like the increased beaver population.

The community doesn't bother hunting or trapping them as much as they used to, he said, meaning the rodents are rampant and are plugging up the rivers with dams.

Building trust

Stuart says he hopes the program will help establish trust between the community and researchers. He also hopes it will increase his community's confidence in the results by being involved in the sample collection.

"These kits that we're being provided … they don't need a scientist around to do (the sampling)," he said.

Some of the hunters were invited to the U of C to see how the samples are tested in the lab. It gave them the chance to meet with some members of the Arctic communities where a similar sampling project is being done on caribou.

Supplied by Troy Stuart

Stuart says he hopes the project will help spread awareness of environmental issues within the nation.

"The reason we wanted to look at moose was because … we think of it more as a key indicator species for us," he said.

"People will be more concerned … when their food source is being threatened."

The top priority, he adds, is to find out what's happening in their environment.

"I don't want it to be too late," he said.

The samples will be collected over the coming months.