by Karsten Heuer
Wildlife biologist Mark Hebblewhite likes to think big. So it was no surprise to his friends and colleagues when, early in 2006, the lanky, 35-year-old professor from the University of Montana began eyeing Canada’s boreal forest for his next project. Stretching over 5,000 mile from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, the thick shawl
of spruce, pine, larch, poplar and aspen trees covers 1.5 billion acres and stores more than 186 billion tons of climate-changing carbon (the equivalent to 32 years of U.S. emissions). Its millions of lakes and rivers filter and store most of North America’s water. Home to 300 species of birds, wolverines, lynx, moose, deer, bear and caribou, it is one of only three such large-scale frontier forests left on Earth.
Yet for all its grandeur and life-giving function, Canada’s boreal forest (of which only six percent is permanently protected) is in trouble. Over half the 60 known herds of its signature species, the woodland caribou, are in decline. Assisted by a team of graduate students and colleagues from across North America, Hebblewhite wanted to find out why.
True to his leanings, “Heb” selected a massive study area, drawing a line around a western Alberta portion of the boreal forest larger than 10 Yellowstone National Parks. But instead of rushing off to study the nine herds believed to roam within that huge area, he ordered his research team to pack their backpacks for an orientation hike.