By Sarah Locke
Special to the News
The Vuntut Gwitch’in are used to living in a dynamic environment—a northern homeland where Arctic fronts can blow in unannounced and weather can be extreme.
But in recent times, the Gwitch’in have become more concerned about the changes to the long-term climate than day-to-day weather.
In Old Crow Flats, the heart of their traditional territory, they have watched as lakes have drained, riverbanks have crumbled, ice has thinned, temperatures have risen and weather patterns have become wildly unpredictable.
Climate change is affecting everything from the shrubs growing on the shores of the lakes to the patterns of the wildlife on which they depend.
“Gwitch’in elders had predicted that these changes would be coming,” said Shel Graupe, the director of natural resources for the Vuntut Gwitchin government. “Even generations before they had predicted that rough times would be coming and we are seeing that now.”
But rather than just watch and worry, several years ago the First Nation took advantage of research funding available through the International Polar Year, and invited a team of prominent scientists to work in the Flats, applying both traditional and ecological knowledge in an effort to understand the scope of the changes and ways in which the Gwitch’in might need to adapt.
During the summers of 2007 and 2008, field teams gathered data on permafrost, hydrology, vegetation and a host of other factors, trying to put together a picture of what the Flats looked like in the past, and what any changes might mean for the future.
“What would the changes mean for traditional use; that was a central organizing question,” explained Murray Humphries, a McGill University professor who is also a northern chair of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Humphries is contributing to research on moose and muskrats, trying to determine how changes brought on by a warming climate could affect them.
While Old Crow Flats is home to many species of wildlife, it is a mecca for moose and muskrats. Both species thrive on the bounty of aquatic vegetation growing in the vast maze of shallow lakes and ponds in the Flats, while drained lakes support thick growths of willows—another favourite food for moose.
And moose love the Flats in summer. The Gwitch’in tell stories of people seeing as many as 70 moose at a time around a single lake. But in winter, they leave—an unusual behaviour as moose typically do not migrate long distances.
An Alaskan study in the 1990s showed that some of the moose are big travellers. Radio collars were placed on 57 moose wintering in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and three-quarters of these animals returned to Old Crow Flats the next summer, a distance of about 200 kilometres.
In this study, biologists are reversing the process, collaring moose in the Flats in summer to see where they head in winter. In July, 2007, Dorothy Cooley, the Dawson City-based regional biologist for Environment Yukon, put satellite collars on 19 moose in the Flats.
Data from the satellite collars has shown that moose start returning to the Flats in mid-May, as soon as ice starts to break up on the lakes. But they don’t all come from one direction. While many winter in Alaska, others head north to the Firth River, and another group winters southeast of the Flats.
Cooley says summer locations don’t seem to predict where the moose will head in winter. “Even two moose collared side by side went in different directions,” she said.
But more importantly, the biologists want to know why they return to the Flats. “What is drawing them back?” asked Humphries. “Is it mainly the aquatic or the terrestrial vegetation?” To help answer this question, university and community researchers spent two summers cataloguing plant growth in the Flats; they also collected samples of moose scat and hair, which will be analyzed to see which foods moose favour.
The effect of changing lake levels poses another major question. “As lakes drain, does the habitat potential become better or worse?” asked Cooley, explaining that drained lakes offer better habitat for willows, but not for aquatic vegetation.
The satellite collars show that moose leave the Flats in the last week of August or first week of September, before the rut, meaning that they are reproducing elsewhere. “That makes us wonder what is happening in the lakes at that time. What is chasing moose out of the Flats?” said Humphries.
While drained lakes might well be a plus for moose habitat that is not likely to be the case for muskrats, which thrive in wetlands. The Gwitch’in prize muskrats for their thick furs, and trapping them is a spring ritual. They often place their traps in the dome-shaped pushups which muskrats build every winter.
In fall the small rodents push vegetation and mud up into the ice as it forms, creating winter sanctuaries where they can feed and rest under the ice. The pushups also make work easier for scientists who can survey them from the air, and use them to estimate how many muskrats are using different areas.
“We know that multiple rats will use the same pushup, and we know that one muskrat can build multiple pushups, but overall it is an indicator of abundance,” said Humphries.
They are comparing their estimates with survey work done on muskrats several decades ago in the Flats, trying to deduce if the same areas are still being used. “We are trying to tease out what makes some lakes better than others for ‘rats,” he said.
Gwitch’in trappers are helping by collecting muskrat carcasses which can then be analyzed chemically to see what vegetation they eat the most, and what correlations can be made between food quality and muskrat abundance.
“Muskrats are quite cyclic, and a key issue is that they can spike in abundance and overshoot the carrying capacity of the environment if they are not trapped, so it is not uncommon for local muskrat populations to collapse.”
While field work for the International Polar Year project is slowly wrapping up, the next three years will be spent analyzing the data to find ways that the community can continue monitoring environmental changes. “Part of the legacy is to establish a record of the environment both through the lifetime of this project and beyond,” explained Shel Graupe with the Vuntut Gwitchin.
For more information on the International Polar Year research in Old Crow Flats, contact the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon.
This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with financial support from Environment Yukon and