by Erling Friis-Baastad
On Feb. 25, the Yukon Conservation Data Centre loaded a layer of information from its Biotics database of rare and endangered species onto the Energy, Mines and Resources Lands Viewer.
That’s much more exciting news than it may at first appear. By mapping occurrences of rare plants and animals in the territory, conservationists and others can use the new layer to help prevent accidental destruction of vulnerable flora and fauna. Meanwhile, the data will save serious time, money and frustration for miners, road builders and others who are developing projects in Yukon. They won’t have to fill out stacks of paperwork, only to discover that a small but very rare plant has chosen to sprout up in the path of their bulldozers.
Bruce Bennett has been the co-ordinator of the Yukon Conservation Data Centre since November 2011, but he served as a botanist for the centre nearly a decade before taking on that position (see Your Yukon, Jan. 6, 2012). The centre has been hard at work mining conservation data and storing it, much like a library would, says Bennett. And just as with a library, all the information in the world is useless unless it is easily accessible to the people most in need of it, he adds.
The centre’s Biotics database contains the results of decades of research here and elsewhere in the world on endangered species, but the information is not readily accessible, the system being somewhat difficult to access for the average computer user. “It doesn’t interface well with other databases; it’s very complex,” says Bennett.
By 2007, data storage technology developed to a point where Energy, Mines and Resources was able to put its Lands Viewer on the Internet. “When I heard of the Lands Viewer, I thought, that’s just what we’ve been looking for,” says Bennett. It appeared to be the ideal vehicle for widely disseminating CDC data.
Bennett first realized how desperately needed such a service was back in the early 2000s when a hydro-line extension was constructed through Minto Flats. Those responsible contacted the CDC, which reported a small meadow containing rare Beringian flora near the highway. The power line was set back from the meadow and all seemed fine until Bennett visited the scene and discovered that an access road to the power line had been constructed through that fragile area.
“There was no ill intent; they did everything they could do and it wasn’t their intention to do any harm,” says Bennett. There was simply a lack of specific, accurate data available. “It was at that point I realized we had to make this data more readily available. We had to make it so people can see it to make decisions.”
Bennett stresses that “the vast majority of impacts to biodiversity happen inadvertently.” However, there is a special protective “mask” built into the layer on the Lands Viewer. Endangered species are assigned identifying numbers instead of their names. The potential developer must contact the data centre to find out just what species a particular number represents. The reason for the precaution is simple: no scientist wants to pinpoint the location of a rare orchid or butterfly for someone who might want to harvest it simply for a private collection or personal profit.
Meanwhile, data on the CDC database ‘layer’ can be readily modified to keep up with advances in knowledge about endangered species. Unlike in a hard-copy report, which would be completed, filed, and then have to be replaced whenever new data was discovered, the Lands Viewer layer can be updated handily with a few strokes on a keyboard. A new population of endangered species could be added in moments. And it works the other way too. As Bennett says, “a lot of people don’t understand that most things come off the list, not because things are getting better, but that we are getting better reporting.”
The general public can make a contribution to this reporting process. Consider Yukon goldenweed, an ancient species endemic (found nowhere else) to the territory. There were only about 19 places it was known to exist. One year, in early May, when the plant is bright yellow and easy to spot against the lingering grey and brown of spring, a birder discovered a dozen brand new populations of the plant. These were easily pinpointed by GPS and confirmed. “So now we’re not nearly as concerned about the goldenweed as previously,” says Bennett.
As for contributions by other laypersons, Bennett chuckles and says, “Have you ever seen a pika? Well, if you do, tell us about it and we’ll put a dot on the map.” The same goes for any other rare life forms we may come across in Yukon. The CDC concentrates on rare species because keeping up with their population fluctuations is a huge undertaking, if not for the machines, definitely for the humans who must attend to them.
It’s one thing to be concerned for rare plants and animals, but “concern” is a bit of an understatement. In fact, says Bennett, “we have global responsibility” for some species. Five species of plants, some subspecies, some insects and the Ogilvie Mountain collared lemming are all found only in Yukon, at least so far. “We don’t want someone putting his or her blade down in the wrong spot,” says Bennett. The world is counting on us to help curtail species diminishment and destruction in our jurisdiction, even as we work the land.
In this age of cutbacks to environmental science, this is very good news indeed.
To see the Yukon Lands Viewer go to mapservices.gov.yk.ca/Lands.
The Yukon Conservation Data Centre can be reached at www.env.gov.yk.ca/animals-habitat/cdc.php.
This column is coordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research