Project: Wildlife Change in the Arctic

The Wildlife Change in the Arctic project, led by ARU's Dr Helen Wheeler, examines the social and ecological causes and consequences of the North-American beaver Castor canadensis' range expansion.

With the rapidly shifting climate, arctic wildlife distributions are changing. Some boreal plant and animal species are expanding further north into previously unoccupied territories. Environmental conditions are changing with northward expansion of shrubs and trees and increases in shrub cover.

Beavers are particularly well adapted to these new environmental conditions. New beaver lodges have been reported even further north than current treelines, and at higher elevations, colonising alpine shrub-tundra environments.

Fundamental questions are emerging regarding the drivers of this change and the resulting implications at local, regional and biome levels. We are interested in how rapid climatic, ecological and socio-economic changes in the Arctic affect wildlife behaviour, population ecology, spatial distributions and interactions between species.

Setting an agenda for research priorities

We are still to fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the impacts of increased beaver abundance and activity in the Arctic. Therefore, as members of the Arctic Beaver Observation Network, we are collaborating to coproduce and coordinate long-term beaver research priorities across the Arctic.

We are leading a Delphi process to bring together interdisciplinary expert opinions to identify research needs and represent the needs of Indigenous communities, natural resource managers, scientists and other stakeholders.


Beavers are keystones species. As notorious ecosystem engineers they are agents of change, altering hydrology, landforms, biodiversity and biophysical processes. Such dramatic transformations have both major ecological consequences and profound social consequences for the people living in northern communities.

For instance, community concerns have been raised regarding beaver engineering in tundra habitat, and impacts on fish and other species such as muskrat, whilst thawing permafrost exacerbated by newly created wetlands could be a substantial contributor to the release of greenhouse gases.

Understanding the causes of change

We initially worked at two sites in northern Canada to understand how beaver populations are changing and the dynamics of population change. Further work addresses the causes of change and role of climatic and social factors. We are mapping beaver lodges, using new methods to determine the history of occupancy and using drones to survey habitat.

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon

Tombstone Territorial Park

This is rugged mountainous area. Here we can use elevational gradients to explore the population dynamics of beavers in different habitats, from spruce forest at the lowest elevations to shrub-tundra and alpine tundra at higher elevations.

Jackfish Creek, Mackenzie Delta, Northwest Territories

Aerial view of Jackfish Creek showing a beaver lodge with feedpile

Here we are working along the East Branch of the Mackenzie River understanding how beaver populations are changing within Gwich’in lands, working with community members with reciprocal sharing of knowledge through a community-based monitoring camp.

Right: A beaver lodge with feedpile on Jackfish Creek

Project Co-lead Dr Helen Wheeler welcomes enquiries from prospective PhD students in the areas of her research interests and expertise. She is currently looking to her expand her group and welcomes interest from postdocs who wish to apply for external fellowships.

The group is also occasionally able to take on volunteers.

Email [email protected] for more information.

July 2022: Fieldwork commences for 2022

Dr Helen Wheeler is in the Arctic doing preliminary fieldwork for the forthcoming BARIN project in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, and the tsee' project in the Gwich’in Settlement Area, alongside community researchers and Canadian research partners.

We are mapping beaver lodges and dams and collecting dendrochronological samples to assess past beaver occupancy.

Meanwhile we are coordinating with other BARIN collaborators to assess the impacts of beavers on hydrology, gas fluxes, fish habitat and fish.

May 2022: Beavers and socio-ecological resilience in Inuit Nunangat (BARIN) launches

Our beaver-related research is expanding. We are working with the Inuvialuit Fisheries Joint Committee, Wilfred Laurier University, and a number of UK and Canadian partners to coproduce research to better understand the social and ecological impacts of beavers in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, thanks to research funding from the Canada Inuit Nunangat UK research program.

August 2021: Tsee' team head out to the field

The tsee' (beaver in Gwich’in language) team headed out to the field on Tuesday 17 August. In the Arctic, beaver populations are increasing, and as ecosystem engineers this can have major ecosystem consequences.

Dr Helen Wheeler and the Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board are collaborating to understand how they are changing and why. Doug Esagok, Angela Koe and Frank Smith will be mapping beaver lodges and collecting dendrochronological samples to understand these changes.

Composite image of Tsee' team by Cheryl Greenland, with Doug Esagok and Angela Koe in a boat on the left, and Frank Smith in a boat on the right

Above: Doug Esagok and Angela Koe (left); Frank Smith (right). Photo credit: Cheryl Greenland.

May 2021: Delphi consultation launched for beavers in the Arctic

During May 2021, we launched our Delphi consultation with Indigenous experts, decision-makers and researchers.

Fifty-six international experts have so far been invited to participate in the survey. Julie Carter is busy collating the responses as they come in.

Summer 2020: Community researchers conduct fieldwork for tsee' in the Mackenzie Delta

In summer 2020, due to the COVID pandemic we were unable to travel to the Arctic. A dedicated team of community researchers conducted fieldwork in Jackfish Creek for the beaver project. We thank Doug Esagok, Brian Martin and Vincent Cardinal for their hard work.

August 2019: Surveys conducted for tsee' in the Mackenzie Delta

ARU's Beavers in the Artic project's cabin at Jackfish Creek

In August 2019, we had our first field trip to the Mackenzie Delta, and were stationed for two weeks at Jackfish cabin.

Dr Helen Wheeler’s work focussed on beaver (tsee' in Dinjii Zhu' Ginjik, the language of Gwich’in First Nation) surveys, while Jeremy Brammer surveyed muskrat, a species of concern in the region due to its decline.

Our community field team worked hard with us to conduct surveys via boat and canoe and comprised Doug Esagok, Les Firth and the late John Jerome.

Right: The Jackfish Creek cabin

July 2019: Preliminary surveys conducted for beavers in the Yukon

In July 2019, Project Co-lead Dr Helen Wheeler and two field volunteers conducted preliminary beaver surveys in Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon, Canada.

Areas of beaver activity were mapped, and drone surveys were used to create aerial images of vegetation cover. Helen gave a public presentation at the Interpretive Centre on climate change and wildlife change.

Wheeler, H. (2020) Arctic heatwave: what warmer summers mean for the region's wildlife, The Conversation, 26 June 2020.

Wheeler, H. C. and Root-Bernstein, M. (2020) 'Informing decision making with Indigenous and local knowledge and science', Journal of Applied Ecology, 57, pp. 1634-1643.

Wheeler, H. C., Danielsen, F., Fidel, M., Hausner, V. H., Horstkotte, T., Johnson, N, Lee, O, Mukherjee, N., Amos, A., Ashtorn, H., Ballari, Ø., Behe, C. Breton., Honeyman, K., Retter, G.-B., Buschman, V., Jakobsen, P. Johnson, F., Lyberth, B., Parrott, J. A., Pogodaev, M., Sulyandziga, R. and Vronski, N. (2020) 'The need for transformative changes in the use of Indigenous knowledge along with science for environmental decision-making in the Arctic', People and Nature, 2, pp. 554-555.

Wheeler, H. C., Berteaux, D., Furgal, C., Cazelles, K., Yoccoz, N. G. and Grémillet, D. (2018) 'Identifying key needs for the integration of social–ecological outcomes in arctic wildlife monitoring', Conservation Biology, 33(4), pp. 861-872.

Wheeler, H. C., Berteaux, D., Furgal, C., Parlee, B., Yoccoz, N. G. and Grémillet, D. (2016) 'Stakeholder perspectives on triage in wildlife monitoring in a rapidly changing arctic', Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 128(4). Available at:

  • Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board
  • Thomas Jung - Senior Wildlife Biologist at Yukon Government and Adjunct Professor and University of Alberta, Canada
  • Dr Jeremy Brammer - Fish and Wildlife, Vuntut Gwich’in Government and Research Biologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canada
  • Arctic Beaver Observation Network, led by Dr Ken Tape - Research Associate Professor in the Snow, Ice and Permafrost Group of the Geophysical Research Institute at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, USA
  • Prof Ulf Büntgen - Professor of Environmental Systems Analysis in the Department of Geography and University of Cambridge and Senior Scientist at Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL

Project team


14 July 2023

BARIN in the field

The UK BARIN team are in the field from 15 July to 30 August. Our team has expanded, welcoming Dr Georgia Hole, dendrochronologist, and Dr Callum Pearce, anthropologist.

9 December 2022

Dr Helen Wheeler presents at ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting 2022

On 5 December, Project Co-lead Dr Helen Wheeler introduced BARIN at ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting 2022 (ASM2022) in Toronto, at the special CINUK session.

30 November 2022

Dr Helen Wheeler leads A-BON/BARIN research coproduction meeting

Project Co-lead Dr Helen Wheeler recently led a research coproduction meeting between Arctic Beaver Observation Network (A-BON) and BARIN in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Members pooled their knowledge on beavers and their effects on ecosystems.

Dr Wheeler would like to offer her thanks to everyone who participated for their great knowledge-sharing and food for thought concerning ongoing research coproduction.

1 December 2020

Tsee community-based monitoring project report for 2020 published

The Wildlife Change in the Arctic team have published a research update alongside our community researchers in Jackfish Creek, as part of the tsee' community-based monitoring project.

Read the tsee' community-based monitoring report for 2020 (PDF)