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At Old Crow Flats, an ancient landscape sees abrupt changes

Just north of the community of Old Crow lies an expanse of wetland unlike anything else on the planet. The Old Crow Flats cover 6,000 square kilometres of an ancient lake bed, pockmarked with thousands of small lakes.

Just north of the community of Old Crow lies an expanse of wetland unlike anything else on the planet.

The Old Crow Flats cover 6,000 square kilometres of an ancient lake bed, pockmarked with thousands of small lakes.

Despite being more than 100 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, the Old Crow Flats are one of the most productive wetlands in the world.

“It’s a very interesting place for that reason alone, that it’s so productive and yet so far north,” said Dave Mossop, a biologist with the Yukon Research Centre who began studying bird populations in the flats in the 1970s. “It makes you wonder, ‘What is going on here?’”

He estimates that close to a million birds migrate to the flats for the summer.

The days are long, there is little rain and the flats offer protection to nesting birds, he said.

But the times they are a changin’, and that is particularly true of the Far North.

The people of Old Crow have noticed dramatic changes to the landscape over the past half century.

It was the community that called on Mossop to recreate his experiments from the 1970s and track how the flats had changed in that short time, he said.

And so, twice a summer for the past two years, Mossop has taken a couple young adults from Old Crow and a Yukon College student out into the flats to camp, paddle, portage, dodge grizzlies, endure mosquitos and count birds.

He’s using the same research cabin and even the same canoes as he did in the ‘70s.

“I found the old canoes, 40-year-old canoes, and we repaired them, dragged them out there.

“We went back to the old cabin, found it, found that the roof needed repair, so we’ve been repairing the roof. Had a grizzly go through the cabin, it did a lot of damage.

“So it’s really a nice, like I call it, old-school research project.”

With a couple years of data, Mossop is already coming to some startling conclusions.

The most obvious change is just how much the vegetation in the area has exploded.

Photos from the ‘70s of the research cabin show that it is surrounding by the low shrubbery of barren tundra.

Today, that same cabin is nestled in a grove of spruce trees that stand higher than a tall person’s head.

“This is startling, because this is very ancient habitat. It was probably very similar in the ‘70s when I was there to the way it was… who knows? A hundred, two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago. And then all of a sudden it’s changed violently.”

This dramatic change has shifted things for both the people and the birds who spend time in the flats.

The families of Old Crow used to communicate with each other between camps several kilometres apart by banging pots together, said Mossop.

“One of the things that they’ve noticed, the few people that get out on the land, is that they can’t do that anymore.”

The sound is muffled by all the tall vegetation, he explained.

Mossop’s scientific investigation of the change focuses on birds, because they are a good indicator species for what is happening in an environment, he said.

He is looking for birds to track changes both in population numbers and timing of hatchings.

The long-tailed duck, which was very common in the 1970s, has declined significantly, said Mossop.

And he didn’t see a single red-throated loon or greater scaup, which both used to be common.

But the results are never predictable. The white-winged scoter, highly prized by local hunters, has actually increased in population.

“That’s a bit of a paradox. We often blame hunting for decreases. Well, in this case, that bird is hunted and its numbers are increasing.”

It’s hard to say exactly what is causing the declines, especially for birds that migrate thousands of kilometres between very different ecosystems.

Some of the species in decline spend their winters at sea, and Mossop suspects that might not be as safe as it once was.

“The ocean used to be the safe place. Man what a great place to go, eh? Because the ecosystem is endless. But I don’t think it’s as safe as it used to be. Particularly the Gulf of Mexico has had some pretty nasty things happen to it in the last couple years.”

Timing of hatching is a great indicator in the North, where the days of summer are long but few, said Mossop.

“King Winter drives everything, and everything has to be timed down to the minute, almost, in the Far North.”

He found that some species of birds are hatching chicks close to 20 days early, an “astounding” change, said Mossop.

But even more surprising is that the smaller shore birds, like sandpipers, appear to be breeding even later than they were in the ‘70s, he said.

There’s no obvious answer for why early summers would cause birds to hatch later, he said.

The “elephant in the room” is, of course, climate change, said Mossop.

When the environment is changing in unpredictable ways, so too will the behaviour of its inhabitants.

Species have strategies for breeding and strategies for survival, said Mossop.

“If you can predict the way things are going to happen, you can build a strategy for your life around them. So as things change, those strategies fall apart. That’s the basic thing that we’re seeing. Sometimes they fall apart, sometimes they don’t. We’re living in pretty scary times right now, in particular in the Far North like what the people of Old Crow are experiencing.

Mossop hopes to continue to collect data for as long as he can, and as long as the people of Old Crow want him to, he said.

“The elders of Old Crow really appreciate this project mostly because it reminds them, they love to go out and see these photos, but they’re also really happy to see young people from Old Crow actually getting out on the land like that and learning things about that piece of property that is so important to them.

“That’s one of my biggest thrills, is basically to be pleasing these people, and of course learning at the same time.”

The changes we are seeing to the environment are scary for humans, but could be disastrous for other species, he said.

“Humans are probably going to be able to adapt. Humans are amazing. A lot of those people may lose their cultures, but they will survive.

“But these lovely other creatures that are part of the natural community are in jeopardy.

“We’re dealing with birds, and many of those species have been on this planet many, many, many times as long as human beings. Birds have been here for a hundred million years. We’ve been here for thousands, and yet we’re exterminating them. That’s what really bothers me.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at