Meet the Team: Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Manager

July 20, 2020
By: admin

Meet the Team: Gillian Chow-Fraser Boreal Program Manager

Published [post_published]
Sarah Nason

In this blog series we will be profiling each member of our team at CPAWS Northern Alberta to help our audience get to know us better! This post introduces Gillian Chow-Fraser, our trusty Boreal Program Manager and main hero for coordinating all things caribou-related.

Gillian thrives most when she is outside in nature! The creature in hand is a painted turtle, one of Canada’s unique native reptile species. Photo taken in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.
Gillian thrives most when she is outside in nature! The creature in hand is a painted turtle, one of Canada’s unique native reptile species. Photo taken in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.

What is your background (education, experience, where you grew up/where you’ve lived)?

I grew up in Hamilton in southern Ontario. I went to Trent University in Peterborough for my B.Sc. I loved it – I could always sing praises for Trent! When I was at Trent, I did my first own research project on flying squirrels in the area, which was my first taste of conservation work.

Then I got into a Masters program at the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies. All of that research was looking at the boreal forest, especially the mammal community within it, and how it was responding to different kinds of human disturbances and activities. That was where I first dipped a toe into the caribou world, and then eventually fell in headfirst! That’s how I first understood this was a huge conservation issue. It’s so interesting to be working on it in Alberta. There’s so much work to be done, so much knowledge in the province about the declines, and so many opportunities to make really smart management plans for caribou.

I met Kecia Kerr at a conservation biology conference in Toronto. I was still a baby grad student and I already knew I wanted to go into the environmental non-profit world – I really wanted the stuff that I did to affect change. Kecia introduced herself as the Executive Director of CPAWS Northern Alberta and I was shell-shocked. “Be on your best behaviour Gill! Time to sell yourself!” I like to think I left a good impression because it totally opened the door to the Boreal Program Manager position with CPAWS.

I actually moved to Edmonton and started the job before I had defended my Masters. That’s how excited I was – I tell everyone this is my dream job, and it totally is. I love every second of it. I’m so happy to be here doing this!

What motivated you to get into conservation work?

My mom is a biologist and she introduced me really young to nature. She used to take me on field trips and that’s where I first thought about pursuing working for nature and the environment! It helped crystallize that nature is really important to me and what I love. I spent lots of summers in the Great Lakes, in wetlands and with fish and turtles, and I was totally enthralled.

Also, going through the process of the Masters, I felt like what really matters is the advocacy and communication piece. Really using the research that’s coming out and putting it to work. I think that was what I learned, and what CPAWS does really well.

What keeps me in conservation is seeing outcomes – seeing the work actually matter and cause change on-the-ground or decisions to be reversed.

Gillian focuses much of her time and effort on helping to conserve woodland caribou. This species is listed as Threatened in its boreal range. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash.
Gillian focuses much of her time and effort on helping to conserve woodland caribou. This species is listed as Threatened in its boreal range. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash.

It’s so interesting to be working on [caribou] in Alberta. There’s so much work to be done, so much knowledge in the province about the declines, and so many opportunities to make really smart management plans for caribou.

Some winter fieldwork recently brought Gillian up north to set up wildlife cameras to study caribou near Bistcho Lake. You can read more about the trip and the project on our blog here!
Some winter fieldwork recently brought Gillian up north to set up wildlife cameras to study caribou near Bistcho Lake. You can read more about the trip and the project on our blog here!

What’s the day-to-day like in your role with CPAWS NAB?

One of the main projects I work on is our caribou file. At CPAWS we have a multi-pronged approach to caribou conservation. A lot of the work is public education, making the research very accessible to the public and making sure the public understands caribou conservation issues. The second prong of the caribou approach is engaging on these issues with the government – participating in public consultations, participating in multi-stakeholder tables, and providing input on range plans and what the management priorities should be for caribou in Alberta. The final prong is collaborative projects that we have with our industry partners, other ENGOs, and our First Nation partners. We do that collaborative research to better understand what action needs to happen for caribou and move the dial inch-by-inch.

I also work on our Wood Buffalo National Park file. Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s largest national park and a World Heritage Site, but it is also super degraded and has the potential to be listed by the IUCN as a World Heritage Site in Danger. I follow up on Canada’s commitments to help the Park, and try to make sure the federal government is following through and monitoring the ecological conditions in Wood Buffalo. And we try to make sure things don’t get worse for the Park in the meantime. That work involves a lot of environmental issues in the oil sands, because the oil sands are upstream from Wood Buffalo – anything that happens in that area ultimately culminates in the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Wood Buffalo National Park.

I tell everyone this is my dream job, and it totally is. I love every second of it.

What is one of your favourite Alberta species?

There’s so many. Just one?! I love all weasels and squirrels! I really find wolverine very fascinating. I think they’re so cool. Wolverine, fisher, those two are tops.

I also love pikas. I was so excited the first time I saw one on a backcountry hike in the Rockies. I did the hike with two other people and trained them to identify pikas. They had never even been on a backcountry hike before! I did all this research and I was like “odds are pretty good when we’re in this rock barren – keep your eyes out for a pika!” And the first night we were at our campsite, my friend called me over to a spot thinking he had seen one. They were jumping up and down and pointing to something moving in the grass. And it was a mouse. It was an earnest misidentification—but very wrong! We saw one a few days later though, so we got there eventually. We all agreed it was much more exciting than the mouse!

An elusive pika spotted by Gillian and her friends while on a backcountry hike.
An elusive pika spotted by Gillian and her friends while on a backcountry hike.
Gillian enjoying the view of the beautiful Mt. Assiniboine!
Gillian enjoying the view of the beautiful Mt. Assiniboine!

I love the boreal forest. Flat, rolling hills of boreal is so peaceful. I love doing any kind of fieldwork, or any excuse to head up to northern Alberta.

Where is one of your favourite places to get outside in Alberta?

The cliché thing would be Edmonton’s river valley. I don’t have a car. I have a bike, so I just like cycling the river valley. I think that’s definitely my favourite part of living in Edmonton. And if I can get out of the city – I’ll say northern Alberta. I love the boreal forest. Flat, rolling hills of boreal is so peaceful. I love doing any kind of fieldwork, or any excuse to head up to northern Alberta. When you’re just on the highway it’s kind of hard to grasp how cool it is – I guess it’s unfair of me, because I often am taking a helicopter around northern Alberta if I’m up there!

When doing fieldwork in the boreal, the best way to get around is by helicopter. Gillian swears by the view – the boreal is one of her favourite landscapes in Alberta to see from the air!
When doing fieldwork in the boreal, the best way to get around is by helicopter. Gillian swears by the view – the boreal is one of her favourite landscapes in Alberta to see from the air!
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