Boreal researchers tap into local knowledge

The old adage "the only constant is change" is especially true of the boreal forest. So constant is change there, in fact, that environmental scientists have gratefully turned to "local knowledge," the experiences of those who live off the land, in an attempt to keep up.

By Erling Friis-Baastad

The old adage “the only constant is change” is especially true of the boreal forest. So constant is change there, in fact, that environmental scientists have gratefully turned to “local knowledge,” the experiences of those who live off the land, in an attempt to keep up.

The Yukon’s Community Ecological Monitoring Program, which combines technical research with that local knowledge, is rooted in work that began in the early 1970s at the Kluane Lake Research Station. “There were a number of research projects there looking at some of the basic drivers of the vertebrate food web in the boreal forest,” says territorial wildlife biologist Mark O’Donoghue.

The scientists came to realize that for the monitoring program to be truly effective at assessing the health of the boreal region it should be expanded. In 2004, they were able to access federal funding through the Northern Ecosystems Initiative to help them with that growth.

“And we expanded it in a couple of ways,” the Mayo-based biologist says. “First, we expanded it spatially.”

Scattered monitoring sites help address the problem that changes in boreal ecology aren’t necessarily duplicated in the same way across a broad region. “Starting in 2004, the program expanded into Mayo, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, and then to Faro,” he adds.

But just as important, it soon expanded in scope, adding many more perspectives. “Living in the communities and working with local people, we realized that there is a huge amount of local and traditional knowledge out there as well.”

“We started a project, with the pilot project being in Mayo, to formally collect local knowledge: what people are seeing on the land,” he says.

He uses his own community of Mayo to illustrate how he and his colleagues tap into that knowledge. “We have a team of students who go out and interview 20 or so people who have been most active on the land over the last year – at anything from hunting and trapping and fishing, to berry picking and farming,” O’Donoghue says.

Berry pickers, for instance, can provide a good overall picture of how ground berries are faring, those they pick and those they simply encounter while in the bush. Low-bush cranberries, kinnikinick, bear berries, soap berries … all can support the essential prey of carnivores like coyotes and foxes.

Reports from different communities can provide startling evidence of synchrony, or changes happening simultaneously across the northern boreal region. For example, there can be many reports of a sudden rise in tree-cone density.

On the other hand, all communities might not report a uniform population explosion of food-chain stalwarts, like mice, who feed on cones. More pairs of eyes make it possible to catch more anomalies.

“Stability isn’t really a feature of the boreal forest,” O’Donoghue stresses. There are seasonal cycles, population cycles, like those of the snowshoe hare and porcupine, forest fire cycles … the list goes ever on. There are even cycles of cycles, like those of the hare, with peak peaks and low lows, O’Donoghue says.

To further complicate the picture, cycles can be affected by such variables as the weather and industrial development, so they cannot always be counted on. And, it’s impossible to know just how seriously cycles are being affected by those variables without extensive baseline data. Consider those relatively short, 10-year hare cycles. To draw meaningful conclusions from them, one needs data spanning many decades.

Climate change, not surprisingly, is a major driver behind the research, says O’Donoghue. “Given that climate change is occurring, some of the most extreme effects will be in this part of the world,” he adds.

Then he returns to the snowshoe hare cycles to illustrate what one of the effects might be. “It has always been the case that in the southern part of the boreal forest, you don’t see these extreme 10-year cycles of snowshoe hares.” Further north, however, big hare cycles are a central feature of the forest, helping to drive population cycles of predators and even other prey.

As the northern boreal forest is increasingly broken up by human development, and forest fires and other aspects of climate change, will the hare cycles level out to resemble the less-drastic cycles to the south?

That’s a serious possibility.

“Were something like that to change here in the North, it would be a very, very fundamental change for our ecosystem,” says O’Donoghue.

Currently the northern boreal forest provides a special opportunity to observe ecological mutability and establish baseline data, he says. Compared with so much of the southern forest, the northern boreal is relatively undeveloped. Monitors can glean some good data before many more settlements and industrial projects affect the ecology. They can establish a foundation of historical information to compare with future observations.

The project at Kluane began with a variety of different university professionals, says O’Donoghue. As the expansion got underway, “a number of other partners were brought in,” he says. These included Parks Canada, the Yukon Department of Environment, First Nations, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Yukon College.

The program is now supported primarily by the Yukon Department of Environment and University of B.C. Overall co-ordination is provided from within Yukon Environment’s biodiversity section.

The program is, however, becoming increasingly sustainable on a community level, says O’Donoghue. And the scientists take pleasure in working with individuals from many other walks of life, and sharing their knowledge, their enthusiasm and hopes and fears for the land.

“Just getting people involved has its own value,” he says.

More information about the Community Ecological Monitoring Program, including the last annual report, CEMP monitoring sites, and monitoring methods can be found at:

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at