Don Reid in the field trapping an Arctic lemming., WCS Canada
Don Reid in the field trapping an Arctic lemming. © WCS Canada

Big Boots to Fill


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Hilary Cooke
Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program

Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle
Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program

Justina Ray
President & Senior Scientist

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Published

2023-05-01

The remarkable WCS Canada career of Dr. Don Reid

When Dr. Don Reid set up shop in Whitehorse, Yukon in 2004 as the founding member of what would grow to become WCS Canada’s Northern Boreal Mountains team, this versatile -- and well-versed -- scientist also brought an expert knowledge of the wildlife and wild places of one of Canada’s most globally important areas – the wild region spanning Central B.C. and southern Yukon. In the almost two decades since arriving at his northern post, Don has touched on so many different aspects of this amazing area that it is hard to remember what his scientific efforts have not touched in some fashion.

There’s his work on the ecology of river otters and their interactions with beavers; the effect of different landscape scales of forest harvesting on the population dynamics of snowshoe hare and lynx; the importance of open water to wildlife in winter; the cumulative effects of landscape change on northern mountain caribou; and how beneficial agricultural practices can improve habitat for bird and bat Species at Risk. His interests and commitment to conservation also led him to explore diverse topics, ranging from the potential for air ships to avoid new mining roads in remote areas; methods for quantifying the amount of carbon in the region’s soils and plants; emerging risk of disease in Arctic and subarctic wildlife associated with climate and other anthropogenic change, and potential spillover to humans; and, modernizing the legislation regulating Yukon’s antiquated mining regime. He testified to the Yukon legislature on the impacts of fracking and changed the public discourse on development of new hydro projects through a careful analysis of impacts to fish and aquatic ecosystems. He undoubtedly influenced the outcome of both issues: a fracking moratorium and no new hydro dams.

One of Don’s most important accomplishments is his work on stickhandling the conservation assessment for the pristine Peel Watershed in a ground-breaking land-use planning process, setting the stage for bold recommendations to protect 80% of the watershed. The scientific rigour of the assessment helped to ensure that despite changing governments, court challenges and heavy industry pushback, the final Peel plan calls for 55% of the watershed to be immediately protected and another 28% to be put under interim protection.

Don’s work has never shied away from calling for big paradigm shifts in keeping with the scope of the wild landscape he was working within. He understood both the facts on the ground and the big picture, and did a brilliant job of bringing them together in commentary on government policies, news pieces and reports.

  • Don at an otter latrine -- counting and collecting scat is one of  his many field talents!

    Don at an otter latrine -- counting and collecting scat is one of his many field talents!
    © Kim Melton

  • Don setting up a camera trap.

    Don setting up a camera trap.
    © WCS Canada

Don was no desk jockey. Even with a growing team in Whitehorse, he made it a point to get out in the field and get his boots muddy. He brought back insights from mountain valleys, lakeshores and the high alpine to help frame WCS Canada’s vision of how to maintain an intact wild landscape in one of the few places on the planet where that is still possible.

But once back at his desk, he also steadily churned out well-received papers on multiple issues -- something like more than 50 academic papers, along with major conservation reports and easy to understand media pieces. Don also made time to support and mentor the next generation of conservation scientists -- facilitating discussions, inspiring ideas, and drawing on the breadth and depth of his knowledge to provide insightful and detailed advice to many Northern Boreal Mountain Weston Fellows since 2009 and over 10 Whitehorse based staff.

On top of all that, from 2006-2010, Don coordinated an International Polar Year project assessing the effects of a changing climate on the Arctic tundra food web in north Yukon. The work focused on lemming winter ecology, the competitive interactions of Arctic and red foxes, the timing of nesting in birds, and the population biology of raptors. It all went into The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment published in 2013, under the auspices of Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) -- the biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council.

Don was also the lead author of the ‘Mammals chapter’ of the Assessment, which detailed what was known about significant changes in the distribution and abundance of Arctic mammals over the past 50 years. And he co-led, and co-wrote, a synthesis of Drivers of Landscape Change in the Northwest Boreal Region of Yukon, NWT, B.C. and Alaska.

So it seems like Don has earned his retirement, but he will be leaving big boots to fill. The biggest legacy he leaves as he steps out the door one last time is his drive and vision for a place he loves and his relentless pursuit of better conservation outcomes for this special place. But we know our Yukon team will work hard to fill those big boots every day, inspired by Don’s example.

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