WSB: Integrating traditional knowledge and wildlife work

By Julia John

Researchers in southcentral Oregon attach a GPS collar on an adult female mule deer to track the deer population on the landscape in a collaborative Tribal Wildlife Grant project with the Klamath Tribes. ©Allen Cole

Wildlife professionals have for years recognized the value of indigenous perspectives on conservation, but it can be difficult to conduct wildlife research while incorporating indigenous knowledge in a culturally sensitive manner.

New research provides some pointers for how to reconcile western science with traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, and how to work with tribes respectfully to achieve wildlife goals.

It’s a topic of growing interest in wildlife circles, including ongoing discussions within TWS’ Native People’s Working Group, said Seafha Ramos, the author of the paper published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

“People are seeing two different valid ways of viewing the world working together,” she said. In the context of her own work, Ramos, a research associate at Humboldt State University’s Wildlife Department, defines TEK as “a system where people and wildlife collaboratively strive to create and maintain balance of the earth via physical and spiritual management in tandem.”

In 2010, Ramos, a TWS member who belongs to the Yurok and Karuk tribes, aimed to conduct her doctoral wildlife research with a culturally sensitive approach to TEK alongside the Yurok in California. She devised a framework she and her fellow researchers could follow to move past common obstacles in pursuing conventional wildlife approaches in indigenous contexts — including differences in perspectives on science and wildlife, a lack of understanding of contemporary indigenous community dynamics and viewing TEK as a data source instead of a way of life.

“Researchers and managers who want to conduct TEK studies can consider how indigenous communities experienced colonization through the application of federal Indian law and how practicing TEK can contribute to the resilience and cultural revitalization of those communities,” Ramos said.

She draws attention to bringing native languages into contemporary use and preservation through wildlife research, and she highlights the need to refer to TEK and its western counterpart in parallel terms to tactfully and successfully implement conservation projects.

“TEK papers often include phrases like ‘TEK and science,’” Ramos said. “Some people might interpret that as though TEK can be helpful to western science, the ‘real’ science. If you’re an indigenous person who sees TEK as science, it seems redundant to say ‘science and science.’”

Ramos suggests further dialogue regarding language that puts the two on the same footing, like western science and indigenous science, traditional ecological science and western ecological science, or TEK and western ecological knowledge, “because,” she said, “there’s not a hierarchy.”

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

Read more of Julia's articles here.


Share your thoughts on this article, and others, on our Facebook and Twitter pages.