The Wildlife Change in the Arctic project examines the social and ecological causes and consequences of the North-American beaver Castor canadensis' range expansion.
With the rapidly shifting climate, arctic wildlife distributions are changing. Some boreal plant and animal species are expanding further north into previously unoccupied territories. Environmental conditions are changing with northward expansion of shrubs and trees and increases in shrub cover.
Beavers are particularly well adapted to these new environmental conditions. New beaver lodges have been reported even further north than current treelines, and at higher elevations, colonising alpine shrub-tundra environments.
Fundamental questions are emerging regarding the drivers of this change and the resulting implications at local, regional and biome levels. We are interested in how rapid climatic, ecological and socio-economic changes in the Arctic affect wildlife behaviour, population ecology, spatial distributions and interactions between species.
We are still to fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the impacts of increased beaver abundance and activity in the Arctic. Therefore, as members of the Arctic Beaver Observation Network, we are collaborating to coproduce and coordinate long-term beaver research priorities across the Arctic.
We are leading a Delphi process to bring together interdisciplinary expert opinions to identify research needs and represent the needs of Indigenous communities, natural resource managers, scientists and other stakeholders.
Beavers are keystones species. As notorious ecosystem engineers they are agents of change, altering hydrology, landforms, biodiversity and biophysical processes.
Such dramatic transformations have both major ecological consequences and profound social consequences for the people living in northern communities. For instance, community concerns have been raised regarding beaver engineering in tundra habitat, and impacts on fish and other species such as muskrat, whilst thawing permafrost exacerbated by newly created wetlands could be a substantial contributor to the release of greenhouse gases.
We are working at two sites in northern Canada to understand how beaver populations are changing and the dynamics of population change. Further work addresses the causes of change and role of climatic and social factors. We are mapping beaver lodges, using new methods to determine the history of occupancy and using drones to survey habitat.
This is rugged mountainous area. Here we can use elevational gradients to explore the population dynamics of beavers in different habitats, from spruce forest at the lowest elevations to shrub-tundra and alpine tundra at higher elevations.
Here we are working along the East Branch of the Mackenzie River understanding how beaver populations are changing within Gwich’in lands, working with community members with reciprocal sharing of knowledge through a community-based monitoring camp.
Right: A beaver lodge with feedpile on Jackfish Creek
Dr Helen Wheeler welcomes enquiries from prospective PhD students in the areas of her research interests and expertise. She is currently looking to her expand her group and welcomes interest from postdocs who wish to apply for external fellowships. The group is also occasionally able to take on volunteers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Tsee’ (beaver in Gwich’in language) team headed out to the field on Tuesday 17 August. In the Arctic, beaver populations are increasing, and as ecosystem engineers this can have major ecosystem consequences. Dr Helen Wheeler and the Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board are collaborating to understand how they are changing and why. Doug Esagok, Angela Koe and Frank Smith will be mapping beaver lodges and collecting dendrochronological samples to understand these changes.
Above: Doug Esagok and Angela Koe (left); Frank Smith (right). Photo credit: Cheryl Greenland.
During May 2021, we launched our Delphi consultation with Indigenous experts, decision-makers and researchers. Fifty-six international experts have so far been invited to participate in the survey. Julie Carter is busy collating the responses as they come in.
In summer 2020, due to the COVID pandemic we were unable to travel to the Arctic. A dedicated team of community researchers conducted fieldwork in Jackfish Creek for the beaver project. We thank Doug Esagok, Brian Martin and Vincent Cardinal for their hard work.
In August 2019, we had our first field trip to the Mackenzie Delta, and were stationed for two weeks at Jackfish cabin. Helen Wheeler’s work focussed on beaver (‘Tsee in Dinjii Zhu' Ginjik, the language of Gwich’in First Nation) surveys, while Jeremy Brammer surveyed muskrat, a species of concern in the region due to its decline.
Our community field team worked hard with us to conduct surveys via boat and canoe and comprised Doug Esagok, Les Firth and the late John Jerome.
Right: The Jackfish Creek cabin
In July 2019, Helen Wheeler and two field volunteers conducted preliminary beaver surveys in Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon, Canada. Areas of beaver activity were mapped, and drone surveys were used to create aerial images of vegetation cover. Helen gave a public presentation at the Interpretive Centre on climate change and wildlife change.
Wheeler, H., 2020. Arctic heatwave: what warmer summers mean for the region's wildlife. The Conversation, 26 June 2020.
Wheeler, H. C., Root-Bernstein, M., 2020. Informing decision making with Indigenous and local knowledge and science. Journal of Applied Ecology, 57, pp. 1634-1643.
Wheeler, H. C., Danielsen, F., Fidel, M., Hausner, V. H., Horstkotte, T., Johnson, N, Lee, O, Mukherjee, N., Amos, A., Ashtorn, H., Ballari, Ø., Behe, C. Breton., Honeyman, K., Retter, G.-B., Buschman, V., Jakobsen, P. Johnson, F., Lyberth, B., Parrott, J. A., Pogodaev, M., Sulyandziga, R., Vronski, N., 2020. The need for transformative changes in the use of Indigenous knowledge along with science for environmental decision-making in the Arctic. People and Nature, 2, pp. 554-555.
Wheeler, H. C., Berteaux, D., Furgal, C., Cazelles, K., Yoccoz, N. G., Grémillet, D., 2018. Identifying key needs for the integration of social–ecological outcomes in arctic wildlife monitoring. Conservation Biology, 33(4), pp. 861-872.
Wheeler, H. C., Berteaux, D., Furgal, C., Parlee, B., Yoccoz, N. G., Grémillet, D., 2016. Stakeholder perspectives on triage in wildlife monitoring in a rapidly changing arctic. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 128(4). doi: 10.3389/fevo.2016.00128