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Diverse Group Provides Environmental Observations from Remote Alaskan Sites

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Dispatches from the front lines of climate change …

This week, the second of our two-part series on the network of observers in remote areas around Alaska and western Canada who provide information about potential emerging health threats in those areas – many related to climate change.

Credit ANTHC
Mike Brubaker, director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's Center for Climate and Health, heads up the LEO Network.

“What we’re really relying on here is local knowledge – and sometimes, traditional knowledge,” says Mike Brubaker, referring to the kinds of information posted to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Local Environmental Observer, or LEO, Network.

Brubaker – who’s headed up the citizen science-driven project – says it’s become an important source of data collected by its 120 members, who come from diverse backgrounds.

“Sometimes they’re hunters. Sometimes they’re environmental or natural-resource managers, commercial fishermen, pilots, people who work in forestry, people who work in a hatchery,” he said.

Brubaker, who directs the Consortium’s Center for Climate and Health, says the observers provide firsthand data on environmental anomalies in their areas. Like the unusual parasites that Victoria Kotongan says she found in grouse and ptarmigan she’d harvested near her western Alaska community.

Credit Victoria Kotongan
LEO Network Observer Victoria Kotongan reported worm-like parasites showing up in grouse and ptarmigan in 2012.

“I asked other hunters in town they’d seen anything like that. And they hadn’t,” she said.

Kotongan is an environmental specialist with Unalakleet’s tribal council. She says she posted the observation because she didn’t know whether she should eat the fowl.

Brubaker says he referred her to a wildlife toxicology expert with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who in turn conferred with experts with Colorado State University’s Veterinary Wildlife Laboratory.

“And it resulted in a (research) paper, because it was the furthest north that that type of parasite had ever been documented,” he said.

Brubaker says that’s one of more than 350 observations posted to the LEO Network website since it was launched nearly four years ago. And it’s the sort of data needed to monitoring changes that affect wildlife that are essential for residents’ food security.

“We see that the role of the environment in achieving healthy communities is getting more complex, and probably more important than it has been in the past,” he said.

Brubaker says the project has been so successful that the eight-nation Arctic Council has adopted it as the model for an international circumpolar environmental-observer network.

Editor's note: This online version of this story has been revised.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.