Q&A with Y2Y's conservation scientist - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Q&A with Y2Y’s conservation scientist

Photo credit: Tristan Brand

Since joining Y2Y in February 2017 as conservation scientist, Dr. Aerin Jacob has had a busy year.

Analyzing data, writing research papers, serving on government panels, talking to journalists about Y2Y, and delivering conservation talks to wide-ranging audiences are all a regular part of her work.

Passionate about large landscape conservation, policy and science communication, and everything wolverine, she’s brought a lot to the organization since joining us.

Skilled at speaking about scientific topics to youngsters, politicians, and everyone in between, she has an easy way of explaining complex concepts in terms anyone will understand.

“It’s easy to talk about and tell on-the-ground stories that bring Y2Y’s big, bold vision to life. That includes what we and our partners do,” she says.

Previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria where she worked on conservation planning on the B.C. Central Coast, Aerin’s PhD research at McGill University focused on forest restoration and ecology in Uganda. Before grad school, her work involved research, conservation, consulting, and teaching across East Africa, B.C., Alaska, and Central America.

Recently, Y2Y’s communications and digital engagement manager Kelly Zenkewich sat down with Aerin in Y2Y headquarters in Canmore to reflect on her first year.

What is your role at Y2Y?

In simple terms, I am an ecologist studying how natural and human disturbances affect wildlife, ecosystems, and the benefits people get from nature. I’m thrilled to be in a position with staff and partners to connect them to work on emerging or recurring issues.

What’s it been like to switch gears from research to Y2Y?

The transition from academia to the world of environmental non-governmental organizations has been illuminating. Most academics spend their time doing research, teaching, and administration. I feel really fortunate to still do research but also more of the communication and engagement side that leads to on-the-ground conservation. What was once the icing on the cake in my academic life is now part of my everyday life. There’s also a lot more projects, huge variety, and bigger collaborations.

What do you find particularly rewarding about working with the Y2Y mission?

It takes a big team to achieve a big vision. Whether it’s engaging with donors, strategy, communications, politics, community work — these are all things within Y2Y and partners are experts in. It’s truly amazing to work alongside people doing such different things but all at the top of their game.

Has living in the Bow Valley been an adjustment?

It’s exciting to be a part of a community putting co-existence solutions to work. From hearing elk bugle during the rut, to contending with a black bear in the backyard of my new home the day I moved into it, to changing the way I garden to take living alongside wildlife into account, it’s all been educational. I love living in the mountains and feeling a part of the places we work to protect and connect.

What was the most satisfying moment for your work last year?

I loved visiting the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories this fall. It’s a place I’ve never been to before. It was exciting to spend time in the communities of Délįne and Tulit’a and learn about the land with those who know it the best: members of the Dene Nation. I learned a lot about connections between language, people and the land, especially about caribou. It was moving to me, personally, and also instructive as a scientist.

On the flip side, the first conference talk I gave about Y2Y in Lac La Biche, Alberta in March 2017 was scary. Sometimes I present research to people who have played a pivotal role in large landscape conservation, including Y2Y co-founders. It’s an exercise in humility to say, “I’m new here,” and ask people to patiently explain things and share their knowledge. It reminds me about the huge team effort required, both in research and in practice. That includes private land owners to government and managers to scientists and Y2Y supporters — anyone who cares about having a future for wildlife in this region.

What do you think lies ahead for Y2Y?

We’ll continue to make big strides in helping people live with wildlife better. In some places that means new protected areas, but it also means subtle but profound changes in communities and connectivity zones. Like with municipal bylaws, for example. I hope more communities implement techniques to help residents live alongside wildlife. It’s my wish that we prevent conflict instead of reacting to it.

How do you feel when you hear about challenges Y2Y communities face in living with wildlife?

Mostly I feel motivated about opportunities, especially to work with nature rather than against it. There are a lot of strategies and solutions to keep people and wildlife safe and healthy. It motivates me to do research that helps answer big questions and to work with people for practical results. The awesome thing about working with so many partners across such a big region is that somebody in one part of the region has come up with a strategy that can work in another area. That’s something I learned while creating this interactive map with graduate student Ross Donihue last summer. When we talk about the Y2Y vision of connecting and protecting landscapes, it’s often about connecting people who can then share information with each other.

What is one of the most solvable problems in the Yellowstone to Yukon region right now?

Solutions to a problem and the political courage to take action are two important ingredients to making change happen. That includes citizens recognizing the effects we have and working to reduce our impact. So we can still have big, wide-roaming creatures on the landscape who are happy, healthy and have their own lives. Sometimes the science tells us what we need to do and has for some time. For instance, we don’t necessarily need new research to know that bear bins work — we know they work. Getting them into the communities that need them is the challenge sometimes.

If you could wave your scientific magic wand, what would you like to address?

I would love a scientific magic wand! Climate change affects people and nature across the entire Yellowstone to Yukon region, and beyond. We need to know how climate change will affect current protected areas and connectivity. How will plants and animals live in and move through landscapes differently in the future? How will the ways people interact with and benefit from nature change? How do we plan for those things? We need systematic conservation and land use planning: a rigorous way of including community participation, human values and robust science. These are some the best ways to achieve our goals, including valuable, sustainable livelihoods and the well-being of people and wildlife. I believe one of Y2Y’s biggest talents is our ability to bring people and communities together to put scientific results into action.