Honoured ecologist shares his passion and wonder

Three weeks ago in Toronto, zoologist Dr. Charles Krebs received the Weston Family prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

Three weeks ago in Toronto, zoologist Dr. Charles Krebs received the Weston Family prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. The next day, Oct. 25, the renowned northern ecologist was named this year’s winner of the Biodiversity Awareness Award at the Yukon Biodiversity Forum at Yukon College.

Not even protean Krebs could be in both cities at the same time, but the enthusiasm of his Yukon colleagues and former students gathered in Whitehorse that Saturday at the Ayamdigut campus helped fill the gap left by his absence. His many admirers know that the many honours bestowed on Krebs over the years are well-deserved.

“The honouring of Dr. Krebs embodies what northern research was designed to do – recognizing a researcher for an outstanding body of work,” said Geordie Dalglish, chair of the W. Garfield Weston Foundation’s Northern Committee in a news release. “His contributions to ecology research and his commitment to knowledge sharing are among many reasons we are pleased to recognize him.”

“I adore the man. He’s my hero. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him,” wrote recently semi-retired Yukon biologist Jean Carey in an email.

“I can’t say enough good about him – as a person and a scientist,” said territorial wildlife biologist Mark O’Donoghue by phone from his home in Mayo.

The gratitude extends from today’s kindled, hard-working young graduate students like Jeff Werner and Meagan Grabowski, to veterans of Krebs’s field camps of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Their memories of working with Krebs, now professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia, remain vivid and motivational.

Yukon zoologist Don Reid of the Wildlife Conservation Society recalls the day in a UBC classroom when Krebs suddenly released a lemming onto a table. “He watched how all his students reacted individually to this very interesting and cute animal. He just wanted to gauge our levels of engagement and passion for the critter.”

Krebs’s engagement with and passion for the biota of the North is at once intellectual, philosophical and spiritual. He and his students express that multi-faceted vision in a myriad of ways.

Reid, for instance, says that modern technology has been a blessing and a shortcoming for the scientific method over the past decades. Thanks to satellites and radio collars researchers can sit in an office while dealing with remote data, says Reid. “That’s not good enough for Charley.” The senior zoologist believes that scientists must also get into the field and be on hand as creatures respond to such events as changes in wind speed and direction, showers or flurries, or even a raptor attack.

Without first-hand observations and experience, researchers can become fierce advocates for their own not-yet-substantiated theories.

“Charley has a passion for experiments in ecology – that’s one of his hallmarks,” says Reid. Krebs knows that anyone can put forward hypotheses based on observations and correlations, but determining whether or not these correlations are themselves based on cause and effect requires an experiment, Reid adds.

Though the word “rigour” pops up frequently when colleagues discuss his research methods, working with Krebs is not all about cerebral puzzles and protocols. For instance, Krebs happily recalls studying lemmings in the Northwest Territories. At some point, many hundreds of caribou approached him and his wife Alice Kenney. Caribou have poor eyesight and may have mistaken them for trees, says Krebs. At any rate, the animals calmly flowed around the unmoving scientists. “There you are standing in a whole herd of caribou and you think, ‘My goodness gracious!’”

Krebs also recalls watching a huge grizzly picnicking on soapberries near where he was live-trapping rodents. “This big animal eats some meat but mostly vegetables. How does it survive? That’s one of the wonders of nature.”

Among a great many other honours, Krebs was given the titles of Thinker in Residence at the University of Canberra and of Honorary Professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. However, what comes across from chatting with Krebs and his students is that he is unburdened by ego. “Every summer, when the big boreal study was going on at Kluane Lake … we would sit there clipping willow twigs and measuring them for days on end,” recalls O’Donoghue. “It is an incredibly tedious job but Charley would be right in there with everyone talking and turning what could otherwise be a quite tedious job into something fun.”

“He never asked us (I was a research assistant 1974-‘84) to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself,” writes Carey.

As we all know, today’s ecosystems are facing huge changes, even destruction, in the face of irresponsible exploitation. And this is where philosophy infuses the scientist’s method. He calmly but firmly explains that this grab for profit can’t continue unchecked – we must be reminded again and again that those refuges we “set aside’ for wild creatures, big as the refuges may appear to us, are actually quite small. “Grizzly bears, moose and caribou operate on a scale we can’t think of,” he says. For them Kluane National Park is “just a postage stamp.”

As for the Peel watershed, it is, so far, operating at a scale that ecologists see the world operating, says Krebs. “Ecologists think this is a golden opportunity, of which there are few left in the world, to protect a whole watershed … or the largest part of it.”

Then, of course, there’s climate change. Krebs mentions CO2, methane and other greenhouse gasses being pumped into the atmosphere. It’s like some “grand experiment” to see how much of this rapid pumping the planet can take. But, he adds, it’s not truly an experiment because there’s no control set up, no place where these gasses aren’t allowed to accumulate.

“Some people think Mother Nature will take care of it,” he says. “Not so.”

When asked what he would say to a secondary school student contemplating a career, Krebs said: “If you are concerned about what sort of world our children and grandchildren will experience, you head into biology – learn what you can.

“My advice is just follow your nose, learn a lot and don’t give up on school. There are jobs that provide some sort of satisfaction. You can’t save the world but you can help a little bit, helping to push the world in the right direction.”

The Your Yukon column for Aug. 22 featured the research of Krebs’s student Jeff Werner, who is studying the fate of ground squirrels in the changing North (Tiny, Tasty ‘Ecosystem Engineers’ Hit Tough Times). Krebs’s own work on snowshoe hare cycles is addressed by the Your Yukon column of Oct. 3, (Snowshoe Hares Flee Through ‘A Landscape of Fear.’)

Thanks to Meagan Grabowski for alerting me to Charley Krebs’s seriously fun and richly opinionated blog at www.zoology.ubc.ca/~krebs/ecological_rants

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your_yukon

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wyatt's World for Oct. 28, 2020.

Wyatt’s World for Oct. 28.… Continue reading

Yukon Child Care Board chair Amy Ryder says the board could be playing a bigger role in childcare policy making if they had more financial support from the Yukon government. (Submitted)
Yukon Child Care Board asks for larger role in annual report

The board is asking for a larger budget to increase outreach and advice

Yukon’s clocks will no longer change in March and November but will remain permanently on Pacific Daylight Saving Time. (Courtesy Yukon government)
Off the clock: Yukon prepares to end seasonal time changes

Starting on Nov. 1 Yukon will be one hour ahead of Vancouver and two hours ahead of Alaska

Dawson City as scene from West Dawson. Art Webster, the vice-chair of the Dawson Regional Planning Commission resigned last month over the Yukon governments unwillingness to pause speculative staking. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Vice-chair resigns from Dawson land-use planning commission

NDP warns that not pausing mining activity is the road to a second Peel decision

The opening ceremonies of the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg on July 28, 2017. The 2021 Canada Summer Games have officially been rescheduled for Aug. 6 to 21, 2022, exactly one year from the date the national competition was originally set to take place in the Niagara region of Ontario. (Canada Summer Games/Flickr)
Canada Summer Games dates set for 2022 but uncertainty remains for Yukon athletes

Yukon athletes continue waiting to get back into schools

A proposed Official Community Plan amendment would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. Whitehorse city council passed first reading on a bylaw for the designation change at its Oct. 26 meeting, prompting an upcoming public hearing on Nov. 23 ahead of second reading on Dec. 7. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
Local contractors will be given an advantage on a contract for the design and construction services that will see a new reception building at Robert Service Campground decided city councillors during the Oct. 26 council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local firms will get advantage on contract for new Robert Service Campground building

Yukon-based companies competing for contract for new reception building will receive 20 extra points

Fallen trees due to strong winds are seen leaning on to power lines which caused some power outages around the territory on Oct. 26. (Courtesy of ATCO)
Wind knocks out power around the Yukon

High winds on Oct. 26 knocked out power to Faro, parts of Whitehorse and beyond

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over the Takhini elk herd be struck by the court. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Yukon government asks for Takhini elk lawsuit to be struck

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over… Continue reading

The Yukon government has filed a reply to an outfitter’s petition challenging the reduction of its caribou quota to zero. (Yukon News file)
YG replies to outfitter’s legal challenge over caribou quota

The Yukon government has filed a reply to an outfitter’s petition challenging… Continue reading

The Yukon government is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine this year, saying that with COVID-19, it’s “more important than ever.” (Black Press file)
Get flu vaccine, Yukon government urges

The Yukon government is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine this… Continue reading

Benjamin Munn, 12, watches the HPV vaccine in 2013. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available to all Yukoners up to, and including, age 26. Currently the program is only available to girls ages nine to 18 and boys ages nine to 14. (Dan Bates/Black Press file)
HPV vaccine will be available to Yukoners up to, including, age 26

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Most Read