Canadian prairies and parklands 'legendary' for wetlands and waterfowl, says U.S. researcher

An avian ecologist from the U.S. is migrating up north to Saskatoon to take a position the University of Saskatchewan says is the first of its kind in Canada.

Avian ecologist Mitch Weegman joining USask in newly created role in wetland, waterfowl conservation

Mitch Weegman says he wants to ensure people can enjoy wetlands and the natural environment for generations to come. (Mitch Weegman/University of Saskatchewan)

An avian ecologist from the U.S. is migrating up north to Saskatoon.

Mitch Weegman will be the Ducks Unlimited Chair in wetland and waterfowl conservation in the department of biology at the University of Saskatchewan.

The university says the position is first of its kind in Canada — the result of a partnership between Ducks Unlimited Canada and USask. The position is established through fundraising to focus on targeted areas of research. 

The two organizations will be raising $5 million to support research into wetland and waterfowl conservation.

Weegman said Saskatchewan is one of the epicenters in North America for nesting ducks and geese, making the province a "phenomenal" place to be based for his research.

"This is an absolute foundational part of the world for these birds," he told CBC's Saskatoon Morning.

Weegman said the position gives him the opportunity to advance conservation on a continental scale because the birds are migratory and many of them winter in the southern U.S. 

"The Canadian parklands and prairies are home to millions of waterfowl every year," he said. "These landscapes are really critical for these species."

USask was chosen as the site of the chair in part because of its proximity to these landscapes.

Legendary landscapes

Weegman said the Canadian prairies and parklands are "legendary" for wetlands and waterfowl and even as a kid, he dreamed of visiting here.

Growing up in Minnesota, his family spent a lot of time outdoors, giving him an appreciation for nature from an early age.

Then in middle school, he and his twin brother based a science fair project on waterfowl and ended up competing in local, regional, national and international science fairs through high school.

Geese parents in Saskatoon lead over 40 goslings through the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon on May 30, 2020. (Mike Digout)

He continued with that research through his undergraduate studies, graduate studies, postdoctoral research and most recently as a faculty member at the University of Missouri.

His brother also works in wildlife ecology, at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, and Weegman said his family's support has been critical to his success.

"We really can't thank my parents enough for exposing us to the natural resources and the outdoors from such an early age," he said.

The university says Weegman was chosen for the position because of his strong research record and passion for student mentorship. 

Weegman told Saskatoon Morning he's excited to work with a variety of partners in the conservation community in Canada and the U.S.

He said he hopes to discover more about how survival and the number of young the birds have contribute to population change, and how wintering decisions contribute to which birds reproduce and which don't.

"There are lots of details related to the ecology of these ducks and geese and the landscapes they use that we still don't understand," he said.

He'll begin his role in USask's department of biology on July 1.


Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from Saskatoon Morning