Muddy Boots in the Boardroom





WCS Canada's approach to protecting iconic wildlife species and spaces. A board member's perspective.

By: Dr. Sherman Boates, WCS Canada Board of Directors

It is the ‘muddy boots” part of science that first got me and many of my WCS Canada colleagues hooked on wildlife and the environment. As a child, I was a nature nerd, captivated for hours on summer days, playing in a stream or pond, catching and observing fish, amphibians and invertebrates. I also recall the relentless hooting of barred owls as I sat by a late winter campfire in a back-country sugar maple forest of Nova Scotia. To this day, even the thought of a barred owl “hoot” makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Early, simple, nature experiences like these often make a lasting impact on us and influence our life-long values.

The muddy boots part of science is often the most fun and interesting for us wildlife biologists, but it is also the driver of the passion that helps us do the most challenging part of the job -- translating the muddy boots part of our science into positive outcomes for wildlife and their habitats. At WCS Canada, science, in combination with traditional indigenous and community knowledge, is the essential foundation for policy change and positive conservation outcomes.

There is nothing I would rather do than spend my career in the field studying and answering questions about science – especially curiosity-driven questions about species like goshawks, leafy lichens, flower flies and wood turtles; ecosystems including saltmarshes, peaty treed swamps and old growth sugar maple forests; and ecological processes like pollination and carbon sequestration. But of course, our work is not over when a pile of data is collected.

The compilation and analysis of scientific knowledge is a critical part of the process and until the research is published, the job is not complete. But, for many, the job stops with publication in a peer-reviewed journal. For WCS Canada, that’s where the real challenge begins. We work hard to use our findings to inform the people and processes where decisions that impact wildlife and their habitats are made. In doing this WCS Canada ensures that political decisions are at least in part based on scientific evidence. People think that field work can be gruelling and requires great energy and perseverance, but getting serious attention paid to our science and related recommendations can be far more daunting.

Many individuals and groups can benefit from the results of WCS field studies and analysis. These same groups often collaborate with WCS Canada and provide valuable information and understanding that supports our work. Here are four examples of successful WCS Canada projects that illustrate our muddy boots to boardrooms approach:

  • The unique style of work of our senior conservation scientist, John Weaver, has led to the creation or enlargement of a number of protected areas in western Canada. John looks at the vulnerabilities of a carefully chosen set of focal species to help illustrate what needs to be done to conserve biodiversity in a region as a whole. John’s work led to a huge expansion of Nahanni National Park and he is currently pressing decision makers to use his research to improve protection for the Bighorn Backcountry wilderness in Alberta.
  • Similarly, our President and Senior Scientist, Justina Ray, has led efforts to improve our understanding of wolverines in Ontario. Justina has conducted extensive aerial surveys to track elusive wolverines across the province and interviewed 125 trappers and elders about their relationships with these clever animals. This information was used to help develop the official Ontario wolverine recovery strategy, which Justina helped to write.
  • Yukon’s Peel River watershed is one of Canada’s (and the world’s) most significant wild areas. WCS Canada’s Don Reid co-led a conservation assessment of the area as part of a land-use planning process agreed to under Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement, a modern land claims agreement. This assessment directly informed the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s recommendation for over 80% protection of the region, which was widely supported by First Nations in the territory. An attempt by a previous Yukon government to severely water down protection for the watershed was rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada in December 2017, with the court noting that the plan that WCS had contributed to was a model for reconciliation.
  • To protect bats in western Canada from deadly white-nose syndrome (WNS), WCS Canada’s Cori Lausen teamed up with cavers to help locate and protect bats. This is an important element of our relentless efforts to prepare for the arrival of WNS in the west, including getting governments to recognize the urgent need to reduce habitat pressures and other threats in the face of a disease that has wiped out bat populations in Eastern North America. Cori is also working with colleagues on a probiotic treatment that she hopes will help inoculate bats from the disease.

During my 13 years as a director on the board of WCS Canada, I have witnessed many high- quality science and community knowledge projects that have driven vital conservation change across some of the most iconic landscapes in Canada. These effective efforts, the work of passionate and dedicated researchers, usually begin with well-planned and targeted muddy boots field work and finish with better informed decisions in the boardrooms of the nation.

The next time you hear the hoot of an owl or see a fox cross the road, think of the passionate muddy booted scientists at WCS Canada that work tirelessly and passionately to maintain vibrant wildlife populations that are such fundamental part of who we are.

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