Yukon College professor emeritus and biologist David Mossop poses with a Great horned owl stuffed by one of his students. Mossop has been given a lifetime achievement award by the Canadian Museum of Nature. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)

Canadian Museum of Nature gives Yukon biologist lifetime achievement award

David Mossop has worked as a biologist in the Yukon for nearly 50 years

David Mossop says he’s more embarrassed than anything.

The Yukon biologist and naturalist, whose career at this point spans nearly 50 years, says his work, for the most part, has never quite felt like work, which is why he’s still wrapping his head around his latest accolade — a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Museum of Nature.

“I’m not dead yet, and I guess that’s the thing that bothers me about a lifetime achievement award,” Mossop joked during an interview Oct. 1. “I think you’re supposed to be dead, aren’t you? Or at least almost, and I’ve got things to do.”

The museum announced Mossop’s award, as well as the finalists in six other categories for its 2018 Nature Inspiration Awards, in a press release Sept. 20. The annual ceremony, now in its fifth year, celebrates “individuals, groups and organizations whose leadership and innovation connect Canadians with the natural world,” according to the release, and winners are selected by a jury.

Mossop is the first Yukoner to receive the lifetime achievement award.

Even though he’s been “retired” for a number of years now, Mossop still teaches a course in natural history at Yukon College’s Whitehorse campus, where he’s been a professor for 20 years. He also sits on a subcommittee at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, of which he’s a co-founder and where he still runs research projects, and is a director for the Yukon Conservation Society. In all his roles, Mossop is well-known for his passion to get people, especially students, out of buildings, away from screens and into the field.

“People spend their professional careers staring into computer screens and those stupid little screens they carry around in their pockets, you know? It’s been an evolution of professionals away from natural history and natural history has to be done in the field,” he said.

“I spend a ton of time getting students out looking down ground squirrel holes and wondering what’s going on in woodpecker holes and that’s the kind of stuff that makes a person that really contributes conservation-wise and others. Once you get to know, in a personal way, the critters out there on the land, empathy is really what we need. We’ve isolated ourselves so badly from the natural world that we can lose things and people don’t even notice.”

Prior to teaching, Mossop served as a Yukon government biologist for 25 years, during which he, among other things, kickstarted the interpretive programs that continue to run to this day and created or contributed to invaluable datasets on keystone species found in the Yukon.

“He’s very passionate about the work he does and committed. I mean, this is a person that uses his own resources to go out and do the things he does, and a lot of his personal time as well,” said Clint Sawicki, the associate vice president of research operations at the Yukon Research Centre.

“Keeping databases and keeping information, I mean, the biodiversity database that (Mossop’s) got … He’s worked with people in Old Crow for years and has gone back and is now working with some of the children of the people he worked with 30, 40 years ago … The wealth of knowledge he’s gained over those years is amazing.”

Perhaps what Mossop is most well-known for though, is the critical role he played in the recovery of the once-endangered peregrine falcon, dedicating thousands of hours to monitoring the population as it suddenly dwindled in the ‘70s and ‘80s, finding remnant populations that were still breeding and taking them into captivity, and then releasing young falcons back into the wild.

Throughout it all, Mossop also worked to raise awareness about the issue, and he continues to monitor the peregrine falcon population to this day. As of 2017, they’re no longer considered a threatened species.

That dedication is something that the Canadian Museum of Nature’s head of marketing Kasia Majewski said made Mossop a clear choice for this year’s lifetime achievement award.

“When the jury looked at their pool of applications, I think that was one that really stood out for them, showcasing, as the award is called, a real lifetime commitment to conservation,” Majewski said in an interview Oct. 2. “…The jury really looked at that lifetime career commitment and really what they saw was a record of achievement at the broader community level.”

For Mossop though, stepping up for peregrine falcons was just something he said that a conservation biologist was to do. It also didn’t hurt that he’s had a particular fondness for birds since he was a child — in fact, it was a bird that brought him up to the Yukon in the first place.

“Oh gosh, my first love, if you like, are … the ptarmigan,” he said. “And little ptarmigan, I can tell you that as a small boy, I grew up in the Prairies, I was a bit of a bird freak and I heard about these things called ptarmigan and I said to myself, I bet I was nine years old, I said, ‘Some day, some day I want to go to the Arctic and study those things.’ And I’m one of those guys that made his nine-year-old dream come true.”

And although the idea of a lifetime achievement award makes Mossop feel a little abashed, he said he’s willing to put up with it if it means bringing a little more attention to a project he’s been putting his own time into for years — creating the Yukon’s own natural history museum.

At the moment, it’s a volunteer effort driven by him and a botanist who have started an “embryonic” collection of salvaged bird and plant specimens at the college, but Mossop said he hopes for it to become a valuable, extensive educational and research tool.

“The diversity of life in the Yukon is under siege, probably worse than anywhere else in the planet, because in the North, we’re seeing changes that are really affecting life that we share this planet and this place with,” he said.

“… Any cash or any recognition that comes from this (award) has got to be focused on putting Yukon students into the field doing natural history work and developing a good scientific collection of specimens. That’s my dream … and as I said, it’s a bit of an embarrassment but I’m prepared to put up with the embarrassment if we can focus this attention back on the creatures that we share the place with.”

The Canadian Museum of Nature will be hosting its 2018 Nature Inspiration Awards gala in Ottawa Nov. 7.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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