Increasing biodiversity, ecosystem services, and ecological resiliency in a warming world involves addressing the needs and concerns of multiple stakeholder groups. When working in a landscape that includes Indigenous communities, it also means working across the deep cultural divide that often exists between Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Western science. TEK provides powerful insights about how energy moves through ecosystems and how best to sustain ecological resiliency in a changing world. For 45 years, Earthwatch Institute has funded citizen-science research globally that focuses on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and ecological resiliency. I will present the lessons learned and partnerships developed on three Earthwatch projects that are successfully bridging the chasm between TEK and rigorous Western Science to create more resilient ecosystem. The projects, Exploring Lions (Panthera leo) and their Prey in Kenya; Restoring Fire, Wolves (Canis lupus), and Bison (Bison bison) to the Canadian Rocky Mountains; and Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe, take place in grassland ecosystems in three continents: Africa, North America, and Asia. All take a multi-trophic approach to restoring ecological resiliency. Indigenous communities are directly involved in co-creating the research and in data collection as field technicians. All three projects are long-term (median length 9 years each).
In Kenya, intensive, short-duration (e.g. ≤2 weeks) cattle crazing improves habitat for zebra (Equus spp.), the primary prey of lions, which in turn increases the carrying capacity for lions and decreases livestock depredation. In Canada, restoring fescue (Festuca spp.) grasslands may not be fully feasible in a warming climate without reintroducing wild, free-ranging bison, which historically worked with fire and wolves to keep grasslands open, and also increased energy cycling via N fixation. In Mongolia, escalating livestock populations are negatively impacting argali sheep (Ovis ammon) habitat; however wolf depredation on cattle may be reducing predation on argali. In each project, research outcomes are being applied immediately by Indigenous communities and land managers to create more resilient ecological communities and improve ecosystem services (e.g., informing fire, carnivore, and livestock management and species reintroduction). TEK insights are being used to co-create a legacy for Indigenous communities in the form of open-access databases, data visualization platforms, and other interactive tools, to which tribal and non-tribal members can refer and can use for future environmental assessments and research. This highly transferrable TEK/Western Science co-created model exemplifies the partnerships and cross-cultural thinking needed to create a more sustainable future for humans on Earth.