Boyce, Dr. Mark

2014 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

 World Leader in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology

Dr. Mark Boyce, Professor of Ecology and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Wildlife and Fisheries at the University of Alberta, says his research is based on the premise that humans can coexist with wildlife and this enriches our lives.

Growing up on a farm in Iowa, Boyce grew fond of the outdoors from a young age. “Every minute I had I was out hunting or fishing or doing other outdoor activities and it was what I enjoyed the most,” he says.

Naturally his academic career reflected this passion for nature and throughout the years he has been studying fish and wildlife. He started at Iowa State University, completed his Masters degree at the University of Alaska, attended Yale for his PhD and the University of Oxford for a N.A.T.O. Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.

After several teaching positions at the University of Wyoming and the University of Wisconsin, Boyce was hired at the University of Alberta in 1999. Since then, he has become a world leader in wildlife ecology and conservation biology.

Conservation Issues

Early in his career, Boyce focused on theoretical questions in the ecology. Although he still holds on to these topics of life history evolution and theoretical demography, Boyce has since transitioned to conservation issues. He is trying to resolve problems associated with fish and wildlife management, conservation, environmental protection and endangered species.

“All those kind of things have come to the forefront of my interest and I like seeing my work applied,” Boyce says. “I see there are substantial needs for information to make sound conservation decisions.”

Boyce’s fundamental work into stochastic demography has led to a better understanding of conservation practices for a number of species.

Stochastic demography involves creating models based on probability theory and population mechanics in order to explore the consequences of environmental variability on population growth.

“You might have a severe winter that causes heavy mortality; that would be a stochastic driver in a structured population model,” Boyce explains.

In general, the more variable the environment, the lower the long-term growth rate and average size of animal populations. The consistent prediction is that global climate change has increased environmental variability and this affects wildlife populations.

“Environmental variability is a fundamental element of any conservation program and in fact coping with this environmental variability is a lot of what conservation is about,” Boyce adds.

Wildlife Impact

There have been several notable outcomes of Boyce’s research into conservation and wildlife ecology. From his spotted owl studies in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, $18 billion has been redirected from unstable old-growth timber industry to local economies that are now sustainable and compatible with conservation priorities.

Boyce’s work with grizzly bear population management contributed to the species being classified as threatened in Alberta in 2010.

Furthermore, his contributions to wolf recovery resulted in the relocation of animals from Alberta to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. This led to the removal of the Rocky Mountain wolf population in the United States from endangered species protection in 2012.

Improving Communication

Boyce also has been involved with educating the public on the importance of conservation. His monthly column in Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine has been immensely popular in bringing ecological research to the hunting and fishing communities.

“I have gotten almost nothing but positive feedback. It has been very rewarding because I’m helping educate the broader community about what the conservation issues are, how they should be approached and highlighting some of the scientific results that can help wildlife endangerment programs,” Boyce says.

Recently his paper on moose population modeling published in Theoretical Population Biology led to the Alberta government implementing his moose observation app for smartphones.

Boyce developed the app to directly involve hunters in data collection. With hunters monitoring the populations as they go out into the environment, it drastically reduces the cost of collecting data for monitoring the long-term trends of populations.

Coexisting with Wildlife

Boyce is now working on a new project that monitors wolverine populations in northern Alberta. Once thought to be a rare and remote wilderness species, Boyce and his team are finding there are significant animal numbers in industrially developed areas.

“As long as we exercise common sense in how development takes place, we can have wildlife and development in such a way that we are not destroying habitats any more than necessary and not subjecting animals to excess mortality,” Boyce says.