Climate change opening up the door for invasive species in the North

Invasive species are a more important issue as increasingly warm winters and wetter summers help grasslands and forests in the North grow like never before, changing the very fabric of the North’s ecosystem.

Warm winters and wetter summers allow new species to enter the ecosystem and allow old ones to spread

A warming north has meant animals are showing up in places they rarely have before, like the moose shown here in Paulatuk, N.W.T. (Submitted by James Ruben)

There's an invasion happening in the North and biologists have gathered in Yellowknife to see what they can do about it.

This week, biologists from the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alaska and as far away as New York are in Yellowknife for the Pests, Pathogens and Invasive Species Symposium.

They're talking about how invasive species make their way to the region and what can be done about them.

It's become a more important issue as increasingly warm winters and wetter summers help grasslands and forests in the North grow like never before, changing the very fabric of the North's ecosystem, explained Bruce Bennett, the co-ordinator of the Yukon Conservation Data Centre.  

"Traditionally when you were looking at invasive species you were dealing with relatively stable habitats, grasslands or forests," Bennett said. "You weren't seeing those habitats shift, but that's what we're seeing."

Bruce Bennett participated in the Pests, Pathogens and Invasive Species Symposium in Yellowknife this week. He's sharing the experiences Yukon and Alaska have had dealing with invasive species. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

One presenter at the conference used Inuvik and Hay River as an example of this in action, he said. Sixty years ago, Hay River looked the way Inuvik looks today — and the wildlife living in those regions changed as a result.

In Yukon, the boreal forest expanded and shrubs cover grassland and tundra that had never seen them before, he said. This allows species from Southern Canada to come north, but also gives northern animals the habitat to move to areas they'd never been before.

Last spring, Inuvialuit hunter Richard Gruben trapped a beaver near the Arctic Coast near Tuktoyaktuk, the first time he'd ever seen one in the region.

Bennett had a similar experience with moose in Yukon's north slope region. When he first arrived in the territory in the 1990s, moose weren't known to be in the region, but within the last 20 years there are whole herds living there, he said.

"There will be winners and losers and it affects more than our buildings and roads, it affects our environment," Bennett said.

Bennett is participating in the forum to help explain what Yukon and Alaska have done to officials in the Northwest Territories who hope to start an invasive species council. That council would help control, monitor and prevent the spread of pests and invasive species in the territory.

"We want to look at a plan on how to identify what the issues are, what the risks are, what harm these species might be doing and the best steps in finding solutions," he said.