Natives' Firsthand Knowledge Informs Study of Climate-change Impact on Subsistence Hunting

Dec 9, 2016

Tracking climate change with both science and traditional knowledge …


Editor's note: Second of a two-part series.

Wildlife biologist Todd Brinkman says Inupiat and Gwich'in peoples have helped him and other researchers understand new climate change-related problems that subsistence hunters are encountering while trying to get out to remote areas in northern Alaska where they can harvest fish and wildlife.

Early spring breakup presents challenges to hunters who use dog teams, such as this one crossing Lake Minchumina in just west of Denali National Park. Lake of snow also complicates travel by snowmachine, which is becoming the more common form of travel among subsistence communities.
Credit Miki Collins

“You’re seeing changes to the trail system, whether it be from permafrost thawing, or more frequent wildfires coming through the area,” he said.

Brinkman’s an assistant professor of wildlife biology with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology. And he’s the lead author of a recently published study that details changes to the land and wildlife-distribution patterns that are making it harder for subsistence hunters to bring home food.

“This is really important to people, for both cultural and nutritional reasons,” Brinkman said.

The warming climate enables aquatic plants to proliferate in many lakes around the Interior, such as this one near Tok. That impedes travel by boat and makes it difficult to fish.
Credit Matt Snyder

The study, published in October in the science journal Climatic Change, is based on data collected from ground, air and space sensors, as well as firsthand accounts of people who live in Alaska’s Arctic.

“That local knowledge is critical,” he said. “And I think that we can learn the most when we merge the science with that local knowledge.”

Brinkman and five other researchers talked with hunters in four northern Alaska communities over the past five years about how the warming climate has made traversing land increasingly difficult – and rivers increasingly precarious.

Subsistence hunters in Kaktovik and Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) share knowledge with state Fish and Game Department consultant Henry Huntington on sea ice conditions in their areas and how it affects their ability to harvest marine mammals.
Credit Alaska Department of Fish and Game

“In the winter, y’know, these rivers are used as the travel corridors,” he said. “And the ice just seems to be much more unstable, thinner, more unpredictable.”

Brinkman says the firsthand accounts he and his fellow researchers have collected have helped them understand the pace at which the changes are occurring.

“It’s been accelerating over the past 30 years and especially within past 10 years,” he said. “And I think we’re beginning to cross some threshold where these changes are beginning to have serious consequences.”

To get a better understanding of the changes and the areas likely to be affected, Brinkman and his team are expanding their research in a followup study to nine rural and remote communities, from the Yukon Flats in the east to nearly the Y-K Delta in west.