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Lose the conifers, lose the caribou

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the forests of central Alaska.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the forests of central Alaska.

Drier, hotter summers and a five- to 10-fold increase in wild fires is changing the forest from a coniferous to a deciduous environment, said Mike Spindler, refuge manager of the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.

“We’re seeing a change from spruce forests in our area, that have a lot of lichen and moss in between the trees, to something that’s more like aspen birch, willow and lots of scrub,” he said.

That’s good news for moose, but bad news for caribou.

It’s also bad news for the people that depend on the caribou for subsistence.

In Alaska, the state government has started fighting wildfires to protect caribou habitat.

“If a fire starts here,” Spindler said pointing to a map of the refuge, “We hit it just as if it was near the village.”

And it’s working.

In areas where fire has been suppressed, caribou numbers are up significantly.

Spindler joined a small group of scientists, government representatives and non-profit workers at Yukon College last week. It was the fourth meeting of the Northwestern Interior Forest Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

The mandate of the co-operative is almost as unwieldy as it’s name.

Established by the US Department of Interior and funded by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the co-operative works to bring together land managers, scientists, conservation groups and regional and First Nations governments to identify ways in which climate change is affecting the regional environment.

“We want to get away from the sort of siloed approach of each agency only persuing it’s narrow area of interest,” said John DeLapp, the co-ordinator of the Northwest Interior Forest LCC.

“It will be something of an information clearing house, ideally,” he said. “It’s a way of identifying what is the existing body of knowledge, whether it’s western science or traditional ecological knowledge of aboriginal people. It’s a way of tapping into that body of information to make more informed land management decisions.”

There are five different landscape co-operatives that each deal with a different region. The Northwestern Interior Forest LCC captures central Alaska, most of the Yukon and a bit of the northern B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

The Northwestern co-operative is still in its infancy. It’s working out what information is already known and where the blind spots are.

Some of the other co-operatives, like the one dealing with the Arctic, are much further along in that work. But while they all deal with different regions, there are many similarities, said DeLapp.

“What’s common to all the northern LCCs is a general lack of high-quality, accurate, current geospatial data on the natural resources,” said DeLapp. “We generally work in an area that is very data poor so when we start developing models for potential impacts or vulnerability of existing species to change in climate we really need to develop a more rigorous body of information on which we can base that on.”

Contact Josh Kerr at