John Weaver at the Ram Plateau in Nahanni National Park Reserve, NWT, J. Weaver
John Weaver at the Ram Plateau in Nahanni National Park Reserve, NWT © J. Weaver

The remarkable 50-year conservation journey of Dr. John Weaver


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Justina Ray
President & Senior Scientist

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Published

2020-02-27

John Weaver has packed a formidable number of accomplishments into his adventures across the wild landscapes of western North America.

By Justina Ray

John Weaver has packed a formidable number of accomplishments into his adventures across the wild landscapes of western North America. In his 50-year career as a conservation biologist, Dr. Weaver has helped to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park, provided the research insights that led to a sevenfold expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve and introduced important new ways to survey wildlife populations in their wild homes.

John, who hung up his hat in retirement this winter, has played an outsized role in my own growth as a field biologist and conservationist. In fact, our first collaboration more than 20 years ago was when I was his field assistant for a two-month survey of Canada lynx in the Adirondacks (punchline: we found no sign of the 80 or so that had been introduced there from Yukon in 1989)

What I have always admired about his approach is that John always had his feet on the ground – or in the stirrups – as he ranged across the west working for the protection of some of the continent’s biggest remaining wild spaces. It’s fitting that he began his work as a “heli-tack” firefighter because John lit many fires when it came to introducing bold new ideas for saving wildlife.

His monograph, The Wolves of Yellowstone, which first drew attention to wolves as “the missing link” in the park’s ecosystems, sparked a 17-year campaign to restore wolves to the iconic protected area. As the U.S. Forest Service’s first Endangered Species Biologists for two large national forests bordering Yellowstone, he worked to restore peregrine falcons. He also sought to develop strategies to halt the decline in grizzly bears, by better protecting their habitat and reducing the potential for human-bear conflict. (He would later participate in efforts to reintroduce wolves to Idaho and grizzly bears in Idaho and Montana.)

It was here that John started to focus on the bigger picture of conservation, both by helping to pioneer the concept of the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” rather than having conservation efforts constrained by park boundaries and by leading an inter-agency effort to grapple with the concept of cumulative effects assessments for the first time. Thinking big became a cornerstone of John’s career when he joined the Wildlife Conservation Society, including mapping natural connections across borders, such as in the Transboundary Flathead between Montana and British Columbia.

Understanding the population status of threatened and endangered species is critical to their recovery. John developed an innovative, non-invasive field technique in the 1990s for enticing Canada lynx and ocelots (their southern cousins) to rub their furry cheeks on a scented carpet pad. DNA analyses of the hair enabled an assessment of the population abundance, distribution, and level of genetic diversity.

Demonstrating that the habitat needs and movements of wildlife such as caribou and grizzly bears extended well beyond park boundaries helped to build a compelling case for the expansion of Nahanni National Park in NWT. The original park was designated primarily for its scenic value – to showcase the spectacular Virginia Falls and its surroundings. But it was too small and too narrow to offer strong protection for biodiversity, particularly as roads and associated development were increasing in the region. Thanks to John’s insightful science, 34,900 km2 of the Greater Nahanni was protected as National Park Reserve– an area seven times the size of the original Park Reserve.

John did not just rely on good science, however, to make the case for conservation. He is an evocative communicator whose writing brought places like the remote Bighorn Backcountry of Alberta and the wilds of BC’s Muskwa Kechika alive on the page. John’s passion for these places was also front and centre in his presentations to community members and decision makers about the importance of saving such special places.

His conservation plan for the Bighorn led the Alberta government to present its own ambitious plan for conservation of this critical headwaters area, while his work in another headwaters area – the Castle Wilderness to the south – contributed to the creation of more than 100,000 hectares of new protected areas.

John has never forgotten the priority of bringing the importance and beauty of these places to people. In particular, from early in his career he understood the importance of collaborating with, and learning from, Indigenous peoples who shared deep insights into the nature of these places with him. John has worked closely with indigenous people in Montana (Blackfeet), BC (Ktunaxa and Kaska), and NWT (Dehcho) for better protection and conservation of wildlife and wildlands within their traditional homelands.

His unrelenting focus on the big picture also instilled patience. John recognized that the scope of the conservation plans he developed for places like the Flathead, Bighorn and Greater Muskwa Kechika (GMK) would be challenging for political leaders more comfortable with incremental change. But in the face of accelerating biodiversity loss and rapidly worsening climate change, John has also been a champion of the need for bold action. His recent work on the GMK exemplifies John’s conservation vision by building on traditional knowledge and a detailed scientific assessment of current conditions, but also leaping ahead with an understanding of what will be required as our climate changes and wild places are increasingly surrounded by industrialized landscapes.

As a senior scientist with both WCS and WCS Canada, John has blazed a bold path. His retirement, thank goodness, will only be from the day-to-day work of documenting conservation needs and opportunities at a fine scale. Lucky for those of us still working to realize the vision John did so much to develop, the real work of being a tireless advocate for wildlife will never stop for this ground-breaking scientist.

Justina Ray, WCS Canada

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