Dr. Philip McLoughlin (PhD), professor of biology in USask’s College of Arts and Science. (Photo: Submitted)

USask-led study aims to understand, mitigate change in western boreal forest

University of Saskatchewan wildlife ecologist Dr. Philip McLoughlin’s (PhD) research team has been awarded $1.87 million by a federal granting agency for an interdisciplinary project to study complex environmental changes occurring in Western Canada’s Boreal Plains and help mitigate the consequences.

The five-year Alliance Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is the largest yet awarded to USask. Including contributions of $1.04 million in cash and in-kind support of $1.08 million from partner agencies, the total project amounts to nearly $4 million. 

“From natural resource development and climate change, the southern boreal forest of Western Canada is experiencing some of the most extensive restructuring of a terrestrial ecosystem in North America,” said McLoughlin, professor of biology in USask’s College of Arts and Science. 

“Landscapes and the numbers and types of species present are changing, while novel diseases in wildlife are also emerging. These interrelated but poorly understood threats have consequences for how people live and work in the Boreal Plains,” he said. 

The goal is to provide the tools, knowledge, and practical options, and build the capacity to conserve the Boreal Plains ecosystem while safeguarding the core socio-ecological needs and values of residents. 

“This innovative and inclusive project is directed at understanding and mitigating existential threats to northern food systems, which form the basis of culture and community well-being in the region,” said McLoughlin. 

“And our Indigenous STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)-focused training plan aims to effect lasting change within the existing academic, industrial, and bureaucratic structures that currently dominate stewardship of Canada’s natural resources.” 

The project was years in the making, and brings together First Nations and Métis groups, academics from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Québec, industrial partners from the energy, forestry, and peat harvesting sectors, and the governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Canada. 

McLoughlin said the research partnership is built around developing a diverse program advisory committee that will be expanded over time into a broad-based knowledge mobilization hub, what he is calling a “Boreal Plains Network.” 

The team wants to fill the knowledge gaps that are impeding the ability of agencies working in the Boreal Plains to flatten the pace of environmental change and buffer its impacts, he said. The project involves a progressive training plan and a series of milestones based on technology, ecology, and socio-ecology that will enable researchers to predict and help communities react to changes more effectively. 

“For example, we are using advanced computer science to develop a new method to remotely monitor wildlife populations like moose, deer, caribou, and their predators while applying Indigenous knowledge systems to inform our scientific understanding of food-web dynamics,” McLoughlin said. 

“We are also carrying out a comprehensive analysis of the threats posed by ecosystem change, like the novel diseases emerging in the area including chronic wasting disease in deer that are now crossing over into caribou habitat.” 

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