Sarah Rinkevich, Ph.D., University of Arizona

Headshot of Sarah Rinkevich Ph.D.
Sarah Rinkevich, Ph.D.

Sarah Rinkevich

How Traditional Ecological Knowledge Can Inform The Field of Conservation Biology

By: Sarah E. Rinkevich, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Scientist, School Natural Resources and the Environment
University of Arizona

September 23, 2021

Indigenous knowledge, also known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), is increasingly being applied in the field of wildlife conservation. According to Huntington (1998), TEK offers ecological information and insights relevant to ecological management and research that cannot be obtained from other sources. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have used biological knowledge of their local environment to sustain themselves and to maintain their cultural identity. Indigenous peoples from around the world possess a broad knowledge base of complex ecological systems in their own localities (Gadgil et al. 1993). This information functions within time-tested resource management systems of long-resident peoples. Yet, the involvement of Indigenous people remains rare and Western science often overlooks and disparages these Indigenous systems and associated TEK (Westley and Miller 2003). According to many scholars, TEK parallels the scientific discipline of Ecology because both TEK and Western science share observation and description of the empirical world. Here, I present examples of how TEK has been used to inform the field of Conservation Biology, and use the terms TEK and Indigenous interchangeably.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, in response to the severe decline of several high-profile species such as the bald eagle, American alligator, and others, to protect threatened and endangered plant and wildlife species and the habitats on which they depend. The field of conservation biology emerged in the 1980s as a response by the scientific community to the biodiversity crisis throughout the world, and is often referred to as a “mission-oriented discipline” (Soulé and Wilcox 1980). Conservation biology is a heterogeneous discipline in that it combines the principles of ecology, population biology, genetics, natural resource management, social sciences, and philosophy (Soulé 1995). Wilson (1998) highlighted the need to find integration between social and biological sciences to address the magnitude and complexity of world’s environmental problems.

A model that could be considered a convergence of biological and social sciences is the use of TEK by conservation biologists. Contemporary naturalists and biologist also acknowledged the importance of TEK as it relates to western science. C. Hart Merriam was an amateur anthropologist who spent five-to-six months each year for decades traversing the U.S., interviewing Indigenous elders and writing voluminous records of what they were able to tell him. He recorded subtleties of language as a means for ascertaining the distribution of dialects, tribes, families, and their beliefs and customs, similar to the way he recorded the distribution of song sparrows, grizzly bears, and wolves in order to delimit life zones (Kroeber 1955). Jared Diamond documented the extensive knowledge of the natural world by the New Guinean people as reflected in the local names for plant and animal species. Diamond (1966) found that the Foré people of the Eastern Highland Providence of New Guinea apply 110 different Foré names to the 120 different bird species. Of these 110 names, 93 correspond to bird species recognized by western taxonomists (Diamond 1993).

The Comcáac associate an ephemeral legume to the Endangered Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis), calling the plant “pronghorn--its wild bean.” The Comcáac have a name for a wild onion translated as “desert bighorn eats it” in reference to a plant that desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicanus) were observed eating. These are tangible examples of how Indigenous ecological knowledge can be used to guide empirical or experimental studies to learn more about plant-animal interactions. Many experts believe this type of TEK could inform Endangered species recovery efforts and habitat restoration planning (Nabhan 2000).

The depth of Indigenous knowledge rooted in long inhabitation of a particular place offers lessons that can benefit scientists (Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005). Ferguson et al. (1998) reported that detailed observations of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) had been preserved in Inuit oral traditions and were corroborated by scientific written records (Ferguson et al. 1998, Ferguson and Messier 1997). Written records from the 1800s, though limited spatially and temporally, support Inuit knowledge that South Baffin caribou populations follow a regular abundance and movement cycle over periods of 60-80 years. Huntington (1998) interviewed Inupiaq peoples in Point Lay, Buckland, and Norton Bay, gathering ecological information about beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), including overall description of migratory patterns, local movement, feeding behavior and prey patterns, predator avoidance, calving, bathymetry, ecological interactions, human influences, and other information. Fraser et al. (2006) reported that TEK revealed long-term trends on the viability of divergent brook char (Salvelinus fantinalis) populations in the region that were not achievable with scientific data. Gilchrist et al. (2005) reported that Inuit correctly identified aspects of harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) biology, including preferred habitats and seasonal movements. Krupnik and Ray (2007) report detailed information about Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) migration patterns by Yupik hunters in Alaska. Walrus hunters had knowledge of walrus biology and ecology, including seasonal differences in distribution and abundance, separation of different groupings, and two seasonal peaks of abundance around St. Lawrence Island (Krupnik and Ray 2007:7). Convergence of TEK and western science suggests that there may be areas in which TEK can contribute insights, possibly new concepts and/or connections between species unknown to, or unrecognized by Western ecologists (Pierroti and Wildcat 2000). During a study of beluga whales, for example, researchers confused over why belugas no longer entered certain rivers were told by Indigenous people that it was because of beavers (Castor canadensis), which build dams in certain streams, inhibiting salmon movements, making them less attractive to the belugas, which feed on salmon (Huntington and Myrmin 1996). Huntington (2000) reported Inupiaq whalers’ knowledge of bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) populations proved more accurate than scientists’ census estimates during his study. Combining the data from scientific census and Inupiaq whaler’s TEK of bowhead whales provided a more accurate population estimate.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service referenced TEK in several proposed and final rules about threatened and endangered species in Alaska. Alaska Indigenous knowledge, for example, was cited with regard to polar bear (Ursus maritimus) population trends (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008), spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri) habitat for describing the legal designation of critical habitat (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2001), and subsistence harvest regulations for migratory birds. The National Marine Fisheries Service worked extensively with Native hunters to use traditional knowledge with regard to proposing the Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) as a distinct population segment (National Marine Fisheries Service 2007a). The Indigenous knowledge of Alaska Native peoples along with systematic aerial survey data documented a contraction of the summer range of Cook Inlet belugas over the last two decades (National Marine Fisheries Service 2009a). The National Marine Fisheries Service used Alaska Native TEK in developing the Eastern Pacific Northern Fur Seal Stock Conservation Plan (National Marine Fisheries Service 2007b). Further, numerous ethnographic studies regarding the First Nations’ TEK of eulachon (Taleichthys pacificus), a small, anadromous ocean fish, were used to describe the species’ historical distribution and abundance in the proposed rule to list the fish (National Marine Fisheries Service 2009b). In addition, Federal and State biologists and managers in Alaska collect and use TEK for research and monitoring fish populations under the Federal Subsistence Management Program (see U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2010a). Another example of the federal government referencing TEK in the lower 48-states occurred in the 12-month petition finding for the Sonoran Desert population of bald eagle (Haliateetus leucocephalus). The White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Tribes and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community provided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with their knowledge about bald eagle populations and habitat information in Arizona (see U.S. Fish and Wildlife 2010b). More than two hundred years Indigenous knowledge of bald eagles in Arizona was provided to the Service to supplement 30 years of Service and state monitoring data.

I believe TEK is underutilized in natural resource management in the lower 48 states, and some professionals in applied ecology and resource management have been slow to embrace it. Recognition of the scientific importance of TEK should lead to more cooperative relations between researchers and local communities in which local people who are repositories of knowledge and skills become an integral part of a research program as consultants or collaborators rather than merely guides or assistants (Healey 1993). An obvious benefit of using local knowledge is that involvement provides a sense of work and pride, which may be instrumental in fostering great responsibility to the recourse (Hobbs 2003). As scientists (both Native and non-native peoples), we do our best to communicate, but non-native scientists would greatly benefit from seeing the world from Native peoples’ lens.

Literature Cited
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Last updated: July 10, 2023