Coupled Social-Ecological Dynamics

Section IV. Coupled social-ecological dynamics of Interior Alaska

Our study of social-ecological change in Interior Alaska focuses at the household, community, and regional scales. Interior Alaska has few roads and a scattering of human settlements with only one urban center of moderate size, Fairbanks and the North Star Borough (population size ~101,000). Rural settlements fall into two categories, those located on the road system, and smaller villages off the road system. Off-road rural villages are primarily situated on rivers and populated by Athabaskan Indians. On-the-road communities have more mixed ethnicity. Harvestable resources are particularly important to all rural communities for food security and cultural identity associated with subsistence. These same resources are also of value to many urban residents who harvest wildlife and fish for food and recreation. Moose, caribou, salmon, and waterfowl are particularly important, as is timber as a source of fuelwood. The diversity of human settlements and their respective cultural perspectives on harvesting resources makes for significant contrasts in social-ecological conditions. For example, annual per capita harvest of wildlife in the Fairbanks area is ~10 kg whereas harvest by villagers of rural Interior Alaska is 206 kg. This contrast creates challenges for policy makers when allocating resources for harvesting, regulating access to hunting grounds and harvesting seasons, and managing land-use changes that potentially alter ecosystems, demographics, and economic systems. The complexity of changes in climate and disturbance regimes to the landscape adds to the challenge of resource management. For example, the increase in fire frequency alters wildlife habitat and timber resources and creates smoke conditions that have human health implications. The degradation of permafrost and timing of precipitation affects river levels, hinders travel and access to hunting grounds, and affects subsistence species in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. BNZ LTER social-ecological systems research builds on our past focus on select study communities of interior Alaska to examine contrasting conditions of the region with comparative studies to consider both the effects of changes on different types of communities as well as communities’ respective capacity to adapt and or transform in the face of these changes.

Locations of rural communities that are actively engaged in building research partnerships with LTER scientists.

Task 1: Build and evaluate partnerships between LTER scientists and rural communities to increase two-way communication, develop metrics to assess impact, and ultimately expand the utility of LTER research to local stakeholders.

Our approach focuses on development of a community engagement strategy that integrates local research priorities and activities (e.g., citizen science) into long-term monitoring efforts. Our community engagement framework is a multistep process that includes contacting relevant communities that may be interested in collaboration, formalizing partnership agreements following local protocols and customs, ranking and assessing the feasibility of local research priorities, and co-designing and implementing LTER research agendas that address local needs. Although involving communities in the research will strengthen bottom-up planning, the outcomes of research plans will need to be carefully evaluated to determine effectiveness. We will develop an evaluation assessment survey to collect perceptions of both communities and LTER scientists on the extent of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with each step of the engagement process and the outcomes of the research partnership. Independent of the survey, we will create metrics to quantify local utility of LTER data. For example, the frequency that LTER data are used by communities to advance their interests will be an index of community benefit. Research partnerships also may benefit scientists through 1) exposure to new epistemologies that foster novel research questions, 2) enhanced awareness of societal consequences of research, and 3) insight on cross-scale (local-regional-national) social-ecological interactions. A key deliverable of this task will be a community engagement model that can be applied and tested across the LTER network.

Task 2: Advance the practice of community-based ecological monitoring through development of methods for documenting local observations.

Local and traditional knowledge is acknowledged as a valuable resource in reducing uncertainty, engaging the public in the work of science, contributing to policy, and enriching overall understanding of social-ecological change. In spite of greater recognition of local and traditional knowledge’s value, improved methods of capturing local observations are needed. We will develop a smart-phone application that can be used by local residents to capture geo-referenced observations of environmental conditions and ecological change that expands on our existing on-line system that posts locals’ observations in a manner that that is accessible to residents and allows for discussion among local observers and LTER researchers about the causes and implications of environmental change ( The local observers network can be used to inform and validate LTER models (e.g., ALFRESCO), and provide insight into the societal implications of model output. We seek to build and implement a low-cost system that can be operational for the long-term, which will contribute to LTER research, and contribute directly to tasks below. We will initiate the process with a select set of Interior Alaska communities and then expand it for the entire region.

Task 3: Evaluate interactions among environmental change, harvest regulations, and hunter access to wildlife to assess how environmental change has influenced the association among wildlife distribution, harvest regulations, and hunter access to wildlife resources.

Global-level changes in climate are having local-level impacts on the availability of wildlife resources at high latitudes. Increasingly, qualitative evidence suggests that climate-driven changes in the environment (shifting fire regime, erratic weather) have challenged hunters’ ability to access traditional hunting areas during times that would optimize harvest opportunity. Current regulations that restrict harvest to narrow time periods may exacerbate this impact by restricting adaptation options (e.g., shifting timing of the hunt). Investigations systematically quantifying the mismatch among peak hunting conditions and harvest regulations are limited. Our objective is to explore the prevalence of an environmentally-driven mismatch in timing of regulated harvest and peak access to important wildlife resources. Our hypothesis is that if climate-driven changes in environmental conditions have shifted timing of peak access to wildlife resources, then rigid hunting seasons will restrict the sustainability of harvest opportunities. We will test our hypothesis by quantifying potential incompatibility through an analysis of temporally-specific differences in wildlife distribution, peak hunter access and harvest, harvest regulations, and related environmental change. We will use management areas with liberal hunting regulations as our control. Our approach will integrate data collected through community-based participatory research, field observation and estimates (LTER and agency collaborators), weather stations, and wildlife harvest reports. An anticipated outcome of this research is identification of individual (hunter) and institutional (agency) adaptation strategies that facilitate sustainable harvest of nutritional and culturally critical wildlife resources.

Task 4: Assess the capacity of different communities to respond to environmental changes.

The study of social-ecological systems has been approached in the past with two analytical frames. Resilience theory has taken a descriptive approach, focusing on traps that impede adaptation, and tipping points and potential regime shifts or state changes that create new feedbacks and underlying governing properties. Vulnerability analysis has focused on the potential harm of change to humans by examining exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of social systems. While each offers helpful insight, there remain problems with construct validity and the generation of hypotheses that can be tested across cases. Here we integrate resilience and vulnerability approaches to assess the potential for adaptation, transformation, and social-ecological resilience in the face of environmental changes in a contrasting set of Interior Alaska communities, including urban, road-system, and off-road communities.

Of particular interest are the past and potential performance of institutions at the local and regional levels that shape policy decisions, and local economic conditions, including subsistence, as a financial resource in adaptation. This analysis will consider the capacity of existing and possible alternative institutions to be responsive to the livelihoods of residents. Sources of evidence and methods of analysis include review of past decisions of record (e.g., those of the Alaska Board of Game), interviews with opinion leaders, the actions of various advocacy groups (e.g., NGOs, tribal governments), and local participation in the policy process at various levels (e.g., local advisory councils.)

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