by Erling Friis-Baastad
In the 1970s, The Nature Conservancy decided to determine just how effective its efforts toward protecting endangered species were. They soon realized that they had been concentrating on “pretty spruce gullies,” says Bruce Bennett, the new co-ordinator of the Yukon Conservation Data Centre. Meanwhile, less-picturesque wetlands, coastal marshes and similar habitats, more essential for biodiversity, were often neglected.
The conservation-data-centre concept emerged from that epiphany, Bennett says.
As well, in days before ubiquitous digital devices, data-management systems suffered flaws. Too often “someone would do a study, get a bunch of numbers and do a report, which would go in somebody’s filing cabinet to be thrown out 20 years later,” he recalls.
Over the course of those 20 years, some species might face extinction while healthy populations of other flora and fauna, once considered rare, might be discovered. Wildlife managers, developers, First Nations and others struggled to make crucial environmental decisions with incomplete and outdated information.
Now, conservation data centres are established across the country, throughout the U.S. and in much of the rest of the world. The Northwest Territories is developing a centre and Nunavut is considering the concept. Provinces and states have them, but so do other jurisdictions like the Tennessee Valley Water Authority and the Navajo Nation.
The Yukon’s data centre entered its first stages in 1999 but only really started to evolve in 2003, says Bennett. He
took on his new co-ordinator role on Nov.17.
The widely flung data centres rank things the same way, he says. “So if I say something is ‘critically imperilled’ in Yukon I’m using the same system as somebody in Georgia.” The benefits of speaking in the same terms are obvious. “The whole idea is to be able to look across boundaries to determine conservation status for plants and animals.
“We have lists of all the plants and animals,” says Bennett. “Prior to the Yukon Conservation Data Centre, there wasn’t a complete list for the Yukon. People think, ‘What do you mean, there must have been a list!’ There was Flora of the Yukon that was published in 1996, but there wasn’t an electronic list; there was no way to add and subtract what plants were here.”
All species are ranked on a five-number system from critically imperilled at one to secure at five. The exceptions are flora and fauna that were introduced. For instance, says Bennett, the Yukon has six species of dandelions, but two of them are of European origin and introduced, probably by accident. The conservation data centre provides ranks to the four native species, but not the two European imports.
Cougars, on the other hand, are naturally drifting north in the wake of deer, a favourite food source, so the big feline newcomers are ranked here.
The data centres have no legal jurisdiction over the flora and fauna. “They are nonpartisan,” says Bennett. The centres function like libraries, with the information is accessible to those who make the decisions – for harvest levels, hunting and mining permits, power-line go-aheads and the like.
“The collared pika, that’s a good example of something that occurs in various jurisdictions…and it was recently assessed as being of ‘special concern’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, Bennett says. The committee is made up of members from all the provinces, many government agencies including Parks Canada, Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans, plus aboriginal people with traditional knowledge. Their ranking of special concern for the collared pika “doesn’t require that management actions are taken but it does say, ‘This is something we should keep and eye on,’”
Pika, an indicator species, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. “But for the moment they are still relatively widespread in the Yukon…The bulk of the population in Canada occurs in the Yukon and perhaps most of the collared pika population in the world occurs in the Yukon,” he says. The Yukon’s data centre has a particular responsibility to monitor that population.
The centres are keen to accept observations from all those who are out on the land, such as scientists and students, aboriginal resource workers, miners and developers. And the observations are treated with respect. “We do have data-sensitivity guidelines and data-sharing agreements,” says Bennett. Anyone can determine where the pika populations are from the available data, he says, but other information, such as the location of peregrine falcon nests “may not be so specific.” The falcons could be at risk from poachers.
The data centres are a natural outgrowth of the digital revolution, with all the comprehensiveness and speed that suggests. As well, the data systems are evolving. “The really interesting thing is, just over the horizon, we’re staring on a new data-management system called Biotics 5 and it’s a cloud-based system. When I enter my data, it goes directly into the server and you can change things in real time… you won’t have a lag time. I see it as the next big step in the evolution of being able to share data.”
While speed and
capacity are improving, Bennett acknowledges that “the system is only as good as the information you’ve got.”
When he began looking at rare Yukon plants he discovered that “one in three was considered rare.” Were they deemed rare because of some taxonomic problems, rare because they were not yet located, or rare because there were, in fact, very few of them here?
“For the past 17 years, I’ve been trying to establish what is truly rare and therefore may be of conservation concern in the Yukon. What we found was the best way to reduce these lists was to do more surveys.”
Thanks to the web of data centres, co-ordinated by Nature Serve International, such essential information is now readily shared among climate-change researchers and others with environmental concerns and questions around the world.
The Yukon Conservation Data Centre, a three-way partnership of Environment Yukon, Environment Canada and Parks Canada, maintains an office at #10 Burns Road. It is currently staffed by the co-ordinator, a data manager and a zoologist. For more information visit www.env.gov.yk.ca/wildlifebiodiversity/cdc.php and the NatureServe website www.natureserve.org
This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.