Steve Zack – Scientists

Steve ZackSteve Zack
Wildlife Conservation Society
Portland, Oregon

What questions related to the Arctic are you trying to answer? We are trying to understand how wildlife in the Arctic is affected by both a changing climate and increasing oil development. The wildlife we do our work with in Alaska are the migratory birds that arrive in the spring to nest on the tundra. Birds arrive from all over the world; coming from every continent and every ocean, to raise their young in the Arctic.

The warming of the arctic is changing the habitat in many different ways and will continue to change. Birds are arriving earlier to nest because springtime is arriving earlier with a warming climate. The oil industry is growing in Alaska, and new buildings, pipelines, roads, and people are coming to areas that were before wilderness. With the oil industry come larger numbers of arctic fox, ravens, and gulls. These species eat birds’ eggs, and so can affect the wildlife breeding near industry.

We are concerned that many Arctic wildlife species are at risk of losing populations size and even extinction unless we understand through science how a changing Arctic is affecting its important wildlife. We want to find key regions of Arctic Alaska to protect for wildlife conservation. We have found that the areas around Teshekpuk Lake are very important for wildlife. We are working with other groups to try to protect this region from oil development.

How will answers to those questions help us understand more about our world? Climate change is happening more dramatically in the Arctic than any other region on Earth. Because of this fact, we are seeing climate-related changes now in the Arctic that might be important for us to understand in other parts of the world in the future. And so the Arctic is important because it is showing us what climate change means and what it does, and that information we can share and use to understand what climate change might mean for us in the lower 48 United States so we can prepare for it.
Wildlife conservation is important to us in the Wildlife Conservation Society. We want to help insure that wildlife has a place in our world. Understanding how climate change is affecting wildlife in the Arctic helps us understand how best to prepare for changes that may happen soon to other wildlife in other parts of the world.

How are you trying to find the answers to those questions? We study wildlife with scientific methods. We find bird nests and follow them throughout the season, trying to understand which nests succeed in rearing young birds and which nests fail because predators find them. We try to identify areas where birds are more successful raising young and work to protect them.
Teshekpuk Lake is a remote area where birds are very abundant and have great success in raising young. By having that information, we try to convince others that protection of this region is needed.

Because others did studies on bird nesting twenty years ago, we can compare our studies now with theirs and understand how a changing climate is changing the timing of when birds breed. We can look at other changes, too. For example, we can understand which species are increasing in numbers over time, and which species are declining in number. Having that information helps us decide what studies we need to do to help conserve wildlife.

Recount for us one of your field days in the Arctic. I have been lucky to be able to be part of raft trips where we float down Arctic rivers and camp in remote areas along the way. On my first trip to the Arctic we floated down the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

On one special day late in the trip, I saw a tusk from a wooly mammoth on a stream bank. Wooly mammoths were related to elephants and were in the arctic 10,000 years ago. They went extinct along with many other arctic species. The tusk had been buried for thousands of years and became exposed by the workings of the river on the bank.

To find the tusk in this remote region was very exciting. It was a reminder of how places can change, and how North America had amazing wildlife long ago. All of us in the group were yelling and screaming with excitement. The tusk is on my desk today, and is a reminder of the arctic past and present, and that special day.

What do you find most rewarding about being a scientist? Being a wildlife scientist means being able to work in wild and remote places. I enjoy working in remote parts of Alaska with wildlife that migrate long distances to get there. I like to think that the work we do helps others understand how important wildlife and wild places are, and why we need to balance wildlife protection with the challenges of our changing world.


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