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