I currently work with two interdisciplinary research teams in arid Australia and Western North America involving collaborations between Indigenous communities, ecologists, geographers, land managers, ethnographers, and archaeologists. These projects investigate the dynamic coupled relationships between humans and other species, and explore how forms of these relationships interact under variable environmental contexts. We're currently exploring fundamental ecological links between changing anthropogenic and natural fire regimes, livelihood and mobility strategies, endemic biota and environmental variability. To do this we use intensive observational records of subsistence activities in remote communities, systematic ecological survey in collaboration with Indigenous ranger teams, remote sensing and GIS analyses. Our lab is now developing approaches based in agent based modeling and stable isotopic measurements of archeofaunal remains to understand and characterize variability in spatial and temporal scales of anthropogenic habitat modification.
Some recent results
The Martu Ecological Anthropology Project. Our work with Martu communities in began in 2000 when we were invited to contribute some independent data on contemporary subsistence and customary land use for the Martu Native Title Determination (granted in 2002). Since then we have, in collaboration with many Martu from Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji, developed a long-term ethnographic and ecological project on Martu social relationships, land use and resource values with many dozens of publications.
Recently our team has been able to demonstrate empirically that Indigenous burning practices throughout arid Australia not only maintain sustainable livelihoods in the immediate term, but reshape environmental diversity over the long term in ways that support critical habitat for keystone species. Traditional burning by Martu hunters accomplishes this by establishing a patch mosaic of different stages of vegetative regrowth that buffers against climate driven cycles of drought and wildfire, preventing large wildfires from spreading, and increasing the amount and dispersion of habitat that is vulnerable to climate change and invasive species (Bird et al. 2005, Bliege Bird et al. 2008). We measured the climate buffering effects of these smaller "anthropogenic" fire mosaics using 10 years of satellite images from a large region of the Western Desert, in which we compared Martu landscapes in areas where they regularly hunt and burn with landscapes whose mosaic is structured by lightning fires (Bliege Bird et al. 2012). The Martu landscapes support a mosaic of habitats that are an emergent property of their own hunting practices, and those patchier landscapes in turn support higher populations of hill kangaroo (Codding et al. 2014) and monitor lizard (Bliege Bird et al. 2013), which are critical species not only for many Indigenous communities, but for ecosystem function in general.
People and endemic mammals. Arid Australia currently has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. Our team is now investigating the hypothesis that the withdrawal of anthropogenic fire through the clearance of Indigenous occupants from their homelands in the 1950s and 60s disrupted a complex adaptive system that emerged through millennia of Indigenous environmental interaction – a colonial disruption that contributed directly to the collapse of many endemic mammal species. Based on our previous work exploring Aboriginal livelihood practices and the socio-ecological factors that affect them (Bird et al. 2009, 2013; Bliege Bird and Bird 2008), we suggest that patch mosaic burning has since been restored in a way that maintains habitats that are especially sensitive to climate change across a considerable part of arid Australia. In collaboration with anthropologists at Penn State, University of Utah, ecologists from the Carnegie Institute, physicists at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and in partnership with local NGOs and Indigenous communities, we are starting a new phase of NSF-supported research focused on directly testing this hypothesis and modeling its implications for resource management across variable climatic and ecological parameters. Along with Kanirninpa Jurkurrpa Martu ranger teams based in Karlamilyi National Park, we're now collecting data to operationalize a dynamic model of the effects of subsistence hunting, burning practices, pyrodiversity, vegetative succession, and non-human predators (both endemic and invasive) on habitat structure of other small and medium sized mammals, including some like mala (a hare wallaby) that went locally extinct during the mid-20th century hiatus of Martu and other Aboriginal groups from their desert homelands.