The Science of Conservation
Y2Y Board member Mark Hebblewhite was a little rebellious when he first developed his love for nature—a love that eventually led to a blossoming career as a biologist.
“I got into trouble when I was young and my mother got me into a ‘Hoods to Woods’ program,” he recalls. “I was definitely saved by nature.” That program included a stint as a Junior Forest Ranger in Algonquin Park near his hometown of Barrie, Ontario, which he followed up with a degree in ecology from the University of Guelph, and eventually a trip to Banff in 1995. “From there, I was hooked,” he said.
Now an associate professor at the University of Montana, Hebblewhite began his research on ungulates and large carnivores in B.C. and Alberta’s mountains, initially with renowned wolf biologist Paul Paquet. Hebblewhite says his focus on ecology was based in his fascination with life’s diversity, and because he loves the mountain wilderness that’s still so prevalent in western North America. But his studies on woodland caribou, part of his post-doctoral research, also made it clear how important it was to conserve species habitat.
“They’re all declining,” he said of woodland caribou populations in the southern Yellowstone to Yukon region. “I’d love to do research just for the sake of answering interesting questions, like ‘why are caribou antlers so big?’ Sure, they have really big antlers and yes, that’s very cool, but maybe we should concentrate on keeping them around first.”
Given the extent of global habitat loss and species extinction, Hebblewhite argues that scientists should be connecting their research in tangible ways with conservation and efforts in sustainable management. “Science is more effective when applied to real conservation problems,” he says, pointing to pioneers like E. O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur, who spearheaded these efforts in the 1960s with their science of island biogeography.
“I’ve used the Yellowstone to Yukon region as a backdrop to focus my efforts,” says Hebblewhite, “because there’s a great opportunity here to keep these areas intact. We have a real shot at making conservation work on a continental scale.”
Hebblewhite’s research has focused on everything from wildlife corridors, predator-prey dynamics and climate change adaptation to scientifically corroborating the traditional knowledge of First Nations.
In a recent study in Science, on the global status of large carnivores, Hebblewhite and other researchers made the case for a worldwide “Large Carnivore Initiative” to conserve these ecologically important species.
“Carnivores are doing very badly in parts of Asia and Africa,” says Hebblewhite, but he believes efforts to protect lions, tigers and other predators in these regions would benefit from an example like Y2Y. “If you look at maps of large carnivores in the Yellowstone to Yukon region and compare that to 20 years ago, we’ve gained. It’s worked for sure,” he says. “Now we have to work on communicating that to the world.”
A hint of Hebblewhite’s rebellious nature comes out when asked about future research. He says we should not be afraid to tackle controversial topics, and should in fact embrace them. “When something is controversial, it usually means it has touched on human values,” he explains. “There’s all the more reason to ensure objective science helps us understand how best to deal with it. That’s why it’s so important to do this.