Much of what we know about landscapes in the Kootenay region can be traced back to Greg Utzig. In some way or another, for the past 40 years Greg has been at the centre of landscape analysis for land use planning, climate modelling, watershed and habitat analysis, terrain stability mapping, forest management and biodiversity protection — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’m actually trying to retire but people keep calling me,” Greg says with a laugh.

Greg grew up in Wisconsin and earned his undergrad degree in geology at the University of Wisconsin during the height of the Vietnam War. Although he was declared a conscientious objector, his opposition to the war led him to look north. He was accepted into grad school at the University of British Columbia and by the time he graduated with a Masters’ degree in soil science in 1978, he had already been working as a regional soil scientist for several years for the Ministry of Forests in Nelson.

“I was in charge of developing the biogeoclimatic ecosystem classification for southeastern BC, from the late 70s into the 80s. When I started studying climate change in the 1990s, I realized it was going to negate much of my previous work.”

Greg worked as a forest manager in Mozambique in the mid-1980s before returning to the Kootenays as an ecologist and land use planning consultant. Through his consulting company, Kutenai Nature Investigations Ltd., he worked on initiatives like the Commission on Resources and Environment (CORE), attempting to steer region land use plans to place more emphasis biodiversity conservation and adapting to climate change; the development of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) forest certification program; and habitat assessments and modelling for various threatened species such as caribou and grizzly bear.

In 2010, the BC Future Forest Ecosystems Scientific Council offered an opportunity to work on climate change modelling. Greg and other Kootenay researchers (Rachel Holt, Cindy Pierce and Heather Pinnell) received funding to look at climate change impacts on forest ecosystem resilience in the West Kootenays. Completed in 2012, the project generated a series of 12 reports, which are available on the website https://www.kootenayresilience.org/.

“We analyzed potential bioclimates for different forest zones and how vegetation communities might change. We really focused on the 2080s, because if you plant a tree today, you can’t usually expect to harvest it for 100 years.”

The study examined the results of three different scenarios to capture some of the uncertainty that the future holds. One thing all three scenarios agreed on was that the Engelmann Spruce-Subalpine Fir Zone climate envelope — the uppermost forested zone in the East and West Kootenays — will disappear by the 2080s.

“What the three models differ on is what it’s replaced by,” says Greg.

In low elevation zones, all three scenarios indicated that all seasons will be warmer and winters slightly wetter, but summers will likely be much hotter and drier. Many species will have to shift their ranges to survive. In some cases, they may have to adapt to climates similar to those that exist in places as far away as Arizona today. Climates associated with grasslands may occupy many valley bottoms in the East and West Kootenays, and even mid and upper elevations in the Boundary region.

“The study showed that certain ecosystems are likely to undergo drastic change, going from a really nice lush forest to weeds and brush,” Greg says. “We tried to identify ways to make those changes less catastrophic and more gradual so species could have an opportunity to potentially adapt.”

The Future Forest project focused on the West Kootenays, but Greg has since expanded those models to the East Kootenay and part of the North Okanagan. His research has been used by the BC Forest Service for general forestry guidelines, and by Y2Y, the Columbia Basin Trust and some First Nations for climate change-related projects.

Although Greg feels that in general a strong emphasis on climate change has been lacking, in the last year he has noticed a significant uptick in interest in his work, in part due to the Kootenay Connect project that focuses on key wildlife linkages in the Kootenays.

“The important cross-valley corridors that Kootenay Connect has identified end up being an important component of my regional climate corridors, which have more of a north-south emphasis because species are going to be moving upslope and to the north seeking cooler temperatures.”

Greg has also been looking at what climate change means for aquatic ecosystems. On a project for CBT, in collaboration with Martin Carver, Greg has also developed projections for the Basin’s hydrologic regions using the most current set of climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Not surprisingly, when he compared the new projections to the older models that came out of the 2010-2012 study, Greg discovered the outlook has grown even more grim.

“You have to keep in mind, what we do now determines what’s going to happen decades down the road. We’ve already pretty much locked-in what our projections demonstrated. That’s why it’s extremely important we reduce GHG emissions now, or preferably yesterday.”

Greg’s report outlining a potential approach to incorporating changes associated with climate disruption into threat assessments and management planning for Kootenay Connect wildlife linkage areas can be viewed here.

Further Reading

Learn more about ongoing threats to biodiversity and communities, assessing vulnerabilities, and identifying opportunities for building climate change resiliency.

Kootenay Resilience