Andrew Derocher, Professor Department of Biological Sciences

Andrew Derocher is a professor of biological science at the University of Alberta. His specialization is in ecology, management, and conservation of Arctic species. He currently teaches Zoology 408 – Biology of Mammals and Biology 366 – Northern Ecology.

What do you do on campus?
I have a large research group working on a variety of Arctic species. We’ve studied caribou, wolves, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, Arctic ground squirrels, ringed seals, peregrine falcons, and polar bears in my lab. Polar bears are my specialty but the diversity of species provides a lot more opportunities for graduate students.

How does your position relate to sustainability?
A major focus of our research is the understanding the effects of humans on wildlife. This varies from the effects of climate change and environmental pollutants on polar bears, to gas developments effects on grizzly bears, to the impacts of seismic lines on caribou. I spend a lot of time doing outreach and community education to increase science literacy on the issue of human impacts on the environment.

How did you get started in environmental work and how long have you been interested in it?
I’ve been working in environmental sciences for over 35 years. I grew up in Vancouver and North Vancouver: there were lots of wildlife and wild areas nearby. I spent days fishing on the Fraser River, catching salmon fry, snakes, and tadpoles in the wild areas of the city. I spent a lot of time hiking and bird watching on the North Shore Mountains. The 1960s and 70s were a dynamic time with increasing environmental awareness about the effects of pollution, over population, oil spills, logging and endangered species. I was hooked on wildlife from an early age and then, luck and circumstance took over.

What exciting sustainability-related opportunities lie ahead for you? 
The two major issues for the future are human overpopulation and the related issue of climate change. These are the main challenges for conservation biology in the coming years. It is a societal decision how we respond to the coming changes. An informed public will make informed choices. Scientists have to make their information accessible to the public. Politicians often work on a time frame that is too short to address the challenges facing us. Unless the electorate understand the issues and push for change, politicians won’t necessarily act for the longer term good of humanity. Polar bears as a species do some incredibly interesting things but they aren’t any more valuable than any other species. Nonetheless, people are fascinated by polar bears and by presenting our research to a wider audience we can provide insight into how the Arctic is changing. I don’t advocate for polar bears but I do advocate for having people understand polar bear science. The bears and the science we do provide a window on the future. Society has to decide if they like what they see and what they want the future to look like.

What is your proudest achievement in your field?
Most people understand the challenges facing polar bears as the climate changes. Having been a polar bear researcher for 30 years, I’ve made some meaningful contributions to the scientific literature on this topic and I’ve helped make the issue widely understood. Polar bears as a species have few researchers studying them but collectively we have worked together internationally to make the science known around the world. The polar bear and climate change story is simple but collecting the data to do the science is incredibly challenging. I’m also passionate about the successes of my graduate and undergraduate students. Students I’ve worked with have been in places and have contributed to wildlife conservation in a huge variety of ways ranging from sub-Antarctic albatross to lemurs in Madagascar to grizzly bears in the Northwest Territories and of course, polar bears in the circumpolar Arctic.

How can staff, students or faculty members become more sustainable?
People need to become more informed about the challenges facing our planet and the perils of uncontrolled climate change and population growth. People have to understand that we have a problem: the science on the issue of climate change and population growth is profound. Once we people understanding the problem, we can work on solutions. The hardest thing to change is behaviour but motivation to change will start with education.

What are some of the main changes you have seen to large Arctic mammals during your time as a researcher? Climate change is visible throughout the Arctic and most noticeable in the changes to the sea ice and polar bears. When I first wrote on the challenges of a warming climate in 1993, I thought it was a problem for the next generation of scientists but the changes have come much faster than anyone thought possible. Over the past 30 years, I can see the changes in sea ice, the reduced body condition of the bears, the loss in the number of polar bears, the decline in the number of cubs, and the loss of some den areas that used to produce large numbers of cubs. 

What recommendations do you have for students and staff looking to aid in protecting polar bears from climate change and toxic chemicals? We need a public that makes their views well known to politicians. Our current myopic view on the economy will only lead us into other crises. Canada used to be a world leader in environmental issues yet we have slipped dramatically in the past decades. We can deal with climate change now and pay a little bit or we can pay much more in the future. It is today’s children and their children that will look back on us and ask why we didn’t act when we could see so clearly what the science was telling us.