Northwest Boreal Landscape Conservation Cooperative Holds Monitoring Workshop

WMI Landscapes

Northwest Boreal Landscape Conservation Cooperative Holds Monitoring Workshop

The Northwest Boreal Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NWB LCC) recently conducted a two-day workshop to begin developing a monitoring system to detect the impacts of climate change and human disturbance at a landscape scale. The workshop, held in Anchorage, Alaska and facilitated by the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), brought together a diverse range of scientists from Alaska and Yukon Territory. Participants included federal agency representatives from the U.S. and Canada, the University of Alaska, and non-government organizations on both sides of the border.

"The boreal regions of Canada and Alaska are still largely intact, but we know that climate change and human disturbance associated with development are already affecting the North," said NWB LCC Coordinator, Amanda Robertson. "The goal for this monitoring system is to give resource managers advance warning of the effects of these major drivers so they can help people adapt to the changing environment."

WMI Western Field Representative, Chris Smith, who helped plan and conduct the workshop began the discussion with an analogy familiar to scientists who work in boreal regions. Drawing a parallel between developing an ecosystem monitoring system and flying in a small aircraft in bad weather, Smith explained, "When a pilot can't see where he's headed, he has to rely on a handful of instruments to monitor the plane's altitude, airspeed, heading, and artificial horizon to maintain safe flight. We don't know exactly how climate change and human disturbance will impact the boreal ecosystem, so we need to figure out which ?instruments' will tell us what's going on so we can adapt."

The scientists used a conceptual model of the boreal ecosystem to identify key attributes and indicators the NWB LCC could use as a basis for detecting change in the ecosystem. The Boreal Ecosystem Model, developed by Drs. Jamie Trammel and Tina Boucher of the Alaska Natural Heritage Program at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, categorized the major ecosystem drivers, change agents, resources and relationships to provide a framework for the group's discussion.

Workshop participants assessed resource attributes such as species abundance and distribution, community structure, contaminant levels, and presence/absence of permafrost for their importance to ecosystem processes and sensitivity to climate change or human disturbance. They evaluated what indicators could be detectors of change in the ecosystem and what metrics could be used to track those indicators. In the end, 35 potential indicators were identified including: landscape patterns and connectivity, treeline location, land cover conversion, land use change, growing degree or cold degree days, snow depth and hardness, soil temperature and moisture, plant phenology, and spread of invasive species.

While the workshop was a solid first step in developing a monitoring system, there is much work to be done. Over the next six to nine months NWB LCC partners, with WMI's assistance, will work to further refine the list of indicators of climate and human-made change. They will also evaluate the extent to which current monitoring programs of the various agencies (e.g. the USFS Forest Inventory and Assessment program, the USFWS Inventory and Monitoring program, or the BLM Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring Strategy) are already designed to capture data that can be used to inform the monitoring system. If needed data are not already being gathered, agencies will also evaluate the potential costs of modifying existing programs or developing new programs to gather the additional information needed. Then, in early 2017, the NWB LCC and WMI will bring the scientists back together in Whitehorse, Yukon to finalize the list of indicators and develop an implementation plan.

Detecting the impacts of climate change and human disturbance across a 330-million-acre landscape will be a challenging task, but one that is important to fulfilling NWB LCC's mission to "enhance the ability of organizations and communities to understand, manage, and adapt to our changing landscape." (cs)

March 16, 2016