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Return of the Roosevelts Elk Translocation Program on Vancouver Island Aims to Restore Roosevelt Elk to Their Former Range  BC’s magnificent wildlife has long formed part of our province’s identity. Take the provincial Coat of Arms: while other Western provinces have chosen to include the likes of lions and unicorns into their designs, a pair of iconic ungulates make up BC’s provincial emblem. On the right, a bighorn ram represents the wildlife of the mainland. On the left, a rather wild-looking Roosevelt elk symbolizes Vancouver Island.  The Roosevelt is a fitting representative for the Island: it remains a stronghold for this species whose range was severely reduced following the arrival of the Europeans in the mid-19th century. Though Roosevelts remain on BC’s list of species of concern, populations in some areas of the Island are thriving, to the point where conflicts are arising between humans and herds. On the Island’s east coast, near the village of Sayward, the Salmon River watershed is ideal habitat for elk. The moist, rich soils of the river’s floodplain produce optimal forage for Roosevelts, both in the form of native plant species and agricultural crops. This vegetational bounty has allowed elk numbers to increase to the point where herds have become a nuisance for local residents. Crop predation and highway collisions are of primary concern, and elk have also been known to browse nearby forestry plantations. Having a local overabundance of a highly-valued species of concern presents an interesting challenge - and opportunity. Rather than focussing their efforts on culling the herd, wildlife managers have chosen to spread the wealth, so to speak, by moving some of Sayward’s surplus elk to wilderness areas where Roosevelts once roamed. Wildlife biologist Billy Wilton works for the B.C. Government, helping develop and implement the Roosevelt Elk management plan. The plan aims to increase the elks’ numbers in ranges where ecological conditions are suitable. He also spent four years working with the Government’s senior Roosevelt elk specialist, Darryl Reynolds on the Lower Mainland Roosevelt elk recovery project. Through ongoing financial support from organizations such as the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, this project has achieved a significant increase in the number of elk on the South Coast. Of the 25 wilderness areas identified as candidates for Roosevelt reintroduction in 2000, 19 have been successfully repopulated. By transporting elk from nuisance herds on the Sunshine Coast to these prime habitat areas, the lower mainland Roosevelt population has grown from an estimated 315 animals in 2000 to approximately 1600 individuals in 2015, an increase of more than 500%. These impressive results have inspired Wilton and his colleagues to continue elk translocations on the Island. “I’ve been really fortunate to work with Darryl and learn from his experiences,” says Wilton. “We work really hard to minimize the stress on the animals, and we’ve fine-tuned the process to protect both the elk and people involved.” Wilton says the first step is to identify a suitable herd of “nuisance” elk, composed primarily of pregnant cows in order to boost the reproductive potential of the herd. Then, the team set up a portable chain-link corral in an area known to be frequented by the target herd so that they become comfortable with its presence. Once winter sets in, the trap will be baited with a tempting combination of alfalfa, grain, and molasses, along with some minerals to keep the animals healthy. “We wait until the elks’ natural food sources start to dry up before trying to entice them with bait,” says Wilton. “Waiting until winter also helps ensure the bears are asleep, as we like to avoid accidently feeding any large carnivores.” Last year, Wilton and his colleagues trapped and transferred twenty-four nuisance elk from the Sayward area to the Mahatta River population unit west of Port Alice. The project went off without a hitch, and Wilton and his team are eager to repeat the translocation process. Plant communities in the release locations are similar to those in the Salmon River area, but the habitat is not as suitable, making it highly unlikely that the transplanted herd will increase to the levels seen in Sayward. The goal is to establish a sustainable population that will both benefit the ecology of the...
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Trail Cam Photos We love to receive photos of our grant recipients' projects, especially when they feature the fish or wildlife benefitting from the work. Below is a series of trail cam photos captured at an HCTF-funded habitat restoration site in the Kootenays. What a fantastic variety of mammals using this trail!  First up, the mountain goats:  Elk: Deer: Moose: And now for the carnivores, starting with a couple of cougar shots: Bobcat: And a glimpse of a bear:    Do you have a great photo of BC's fish or wildlife? Enter our 2015 photo contest! First prize is a $500 VISA gift card. For full contest details, visit out photo contest page. 
Precious Waste: Using Woody Debris to Create Connectivity Across Clearcuts Clearcutting continues to be the dominant harvesting system across much of North America. Its environmental impacts have long been the subject of debate, but there’s a general consensus that this forestry practice results in a shift in the species inhabiting an area. In the years following a clearcut, grasses and shrubs thrive, providing browse for moose and deer. However, this short-term boon comes at the expense of some of the site’s previous residents. Furbearers such as weasels and marten depend on mature forest, both for concealment from predators and for den and rest sites in the form of coarse woody debris. On most clearcut sites, this debris is burned after harvest. But what if there was a way to prevent the displacement of some forest-dependent species by building habitat out of waste wood instead of burning it? We spoke with Dr. Thomas Sullivan of the Applied Mammal Research Institute about his HCTF-funded project examining whether windrows constructed out of waste wood could reduce some of the negative impacts of clearcutting on small mammals. HCTF: I understand that many furbearers are reliant on mature forest habitat, and will inevitably be impacted by clearcutting. Would you say your project is about making the best out of an imperfect situation for these species? Sullivan: Yes: the overall goal here is to try and make these harvested sites more amenable to small mammals, particularly weasels, marten, and their primary prey species, red-backed voles. Marten in particular dislike the openings left by clearcuts, because they leave them vulnerable to predation by hawks and owls. As these openings continue to increase in size, we have to provide these animals some way to get from one section of uncut forest to another if we want to keep them on the landscape. HCTF: For this project, you proposed that waste wood shaped into windrows could act as travel corridors for small mammals, allowing them to move across clearcuts to areas of intact forest. How did you test this idea? Sullivan: We used a combination of live traps, scat analysis and predation events to compare small mammal presence in windrows constructed out of post-harvest woody debris to their prevalence on clearcuts where the debris was left distributed, both on sites near Golden and Merritt. What we found was that evidence of marten, weasels and red-backed voles was consistently higher in the windrows. HCTF: Your results seem to support the idea that the relatively small labour investment required to construct windrows out of post-harvest woody debris could pay big dividends for wildlife, yet the majority of this debris is burned. Why? Sullivan: Currently, foresters are legislated to deal with post-harvest woody debris: they have to get rid of it, either by burning or having someone agree to come and chip it up for biofuel feedstocks, with the latter only being feasible on sites near roads and processing plants. To my knowledge, the only way around this legislative requirement is if you build a variance into your silviculture prescription stating that you are going to leave some piles or windrows for habitat. HCTF: What is the reasoning behind the current requirements around debris removal? Sullivan: [The debris is considered] a fire hazard, even though there is absolutely no scientific evidence that these piles catch on fire by themselves. Once in a blue moon, up on a hilltop, you might get a lightning strike, but if there are any trees around, it’s far more likely to hit them. Any actual fire risk comes from humans who’d set them ablaze, which is why we probably don’t want to build windrows on sites near main roads. Far better to build them along deactivated roads or in the back country - and there’s certainly no shortage of this type of cut area. Before we can make windrows standard practice on these types of sites, there has to be a change in government policy, and that could take some time. I believe policy revisions have to follow what’s happening on the ground: we need to get as many foresters and companies trying out this method, even if it means going through a laborious variance process. HCTF: Speaking of foresters, both Louisiana Pacific Corp. in Golden and Aspen Planers...
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Declining Den Sites: Finding Cavities Fit for a Fisher What’s furry, fierce and likes to dine on porcupine? It’s the fisher, Pekania pennanti, a member of the weasel family that is seldom seen in the wild, but is an important part of British Columbia’s carnivore community. Despite its name, fishers do not fish and are dependent on forests for all their life history needs. The fisher is blue-listed (threatened) in BC, largely due to habitat loss. Female fishers require large diameter trees with cavities to birth and raise their young. They will only use cavities with entrance holes that are approximately 8 – 12 cm in diameter: large enough for them to squeeze into, but small enough to keep larger predators away from their kits. Den trees also need to have other trees and shrubs around them to allow the female approach her den unseen. These specific requirements (along with the fact that females usually require multiple cavities to accommodate the growing kits) make fisher populations extremely vulnerable to extirpation through loss of suitable denning habitat.   In the Bridge River Watershed, north of Lillooet, BC, fisher habitat has been impacted by the creation of two large hydro-electric reservoirs, large-scale fires, mountain pine beetle, and an ongoing history of forest harvesting that is dominated by clear-cut systems. Understandably, there is concern about the combination of these habitat impacts on local fisher populations. The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and BC Hydro funded a three-year project that would provide an accurate population estimate for fishers in the Bridge River watershed, as well as estimate the distribution, abundance, and supply of potential reproductive dens. In-kind support for this research was provided by the Lillooet Tribal Council, BC Ministry of Environment, and the BC Trappers Association. Estimating Fisher Density Fisher expert Larry Davis and his research team determined fisher density estimates using a winter hair snag survey. Davis explains: “We used sticky mousetrap paper to pull a sample of hairs from fishers that were attracted to traps baited with a chicken wing. Fishers trying to get the wing would press against the mousetrap paper and leave a hair sample behind for us to collect. We sent the samples to a laboratory specializing in wildlife genetics that identified the samples by species, sex, and individual identity.” “Of course, we captured many other animals that went after the bait,” Davis continues. “We even had one wolverine chew the top half of the trap off.” In the end, Davis and his team were able to identify 8 different fishers from the data, some of which were captured multiple times. The data was inputted into a computer program that used this information to estimate that there were 14 fishers in the 771-km2 study area. This yields an estimate of 18 fishers per 1000 km2: relatively abundant when compared to estimates from elsewhere in BC. “It’s important to note that this estimate is based on only one season of sampling and animal numbers can vary considerably between years,” clarifies Davis. “Also, only three of the 8 fishers sampled were females and some are likely to be young from last year’s litter or transient animals. Despite this caveat, Davis believes that “the Bridge River area supports a healthy population of fishers, and that a sustainable population can be maintained if important habitats, such as den sites, are retained in managed forests”   Estimating Available Denning Sites To estimate the number of trees that would make suitable fisher den sites, Davis concentrated on areas where track transects had found fisher. Potential fisher den trees were identified as those meeting the following criteria: right species; large diameter stems; and the presence of a heart-rot decay cavity with an entrance hole 8 – 12 cm in size. The “right species” criterion was based on previous research that found fishers using cottonwood, balsam poplar, trembling aspen, Douglas-fir, and lodgepole pine as den trees in BC. Common to these tree species is that they can have extensive heart-rot forming large internal cavities while the tree is still living. Other trees, such as spruce, also get heart-rot, but don’t maintain the hard exterior shell that preserves the standing tree and cavity for many years. The minimum tree diameter depends on the tree type, but is generally...
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Tiny Technology: Mapping Marten Movement In the frozen wilderness of North-central BC, a small, furry head pops out from under the snow. Its fox-like profile stands out against a creamy orange bib of fur. In a flash, the animal’s long, lithe body and bushy tail spring from the powder. It is an American Marten (Martes americana), a medium-sized mustelid known for its tree-top acrobatics and cat-like curiousity. She boldly lopes across the snow towards a tasty morsel, conspicuously placed to entice her into a cage trap disguised with branches and straw. Marten are commonly trapped for their pelts, but this cage won’t spell her demise. Instead, she will become part of a ground-breaking study examining marten’s movements, and how they might be affected by forestry practices. Shannon Crowley, a researcher with the John Prince Research Forest (co-managed by UNBC and T’laz’ten Nation), and his colleagues check the study traps daily: if they’re lucky enough to get a marten, they fit it with the latest in GPS collars before releasing it safely back into the forest. “They’re tough little critters,” confides Crowley. “Based on our experiences capturing them, they’re not fearful at all. We’ve had marten in cage traps that we’ve released, only to have them come back moments later to steal a piece of bait sitting right next to us.” Crowley and his colleagues are working on their second year of an HCTF-funded project to determine how marten populations are affected by salvage logging of Mountain Pine Beetle-ravaged stands. They are comparing the species’ use of logged and unlogged areas by remotely tracking the movements of their collared subjects. “We’re working with very new technology,” explains Crowley. “Really, this study is pioneering the use of GPS collars light enough to go on an animal this size. To my knowledge, we and a group in Scotland are the only ones to have tried them on marten.” The general rule of thumb for tracking collars is that they shouldn’t exceed 5% of an animal’s body weight. The collars used by Crowley and his team are below that threshold, sitting at around 3%. “The marten really don’t seem to be bothered by them,” says Crowley. “We happened to get a video of one of the collared animals at one of our remote camera sites, and he was heading up into the trees, behaving very much like a typical marten.”   Above: Video showing typical marten behaviour. These curious creatures often travel under the snowpack, but are equally adept at climbing trees. See more videos of marten and other mesocarnivores filmed in the John Prince Research Forest at the end of this post.  Crowley says the location data from the new GPS collars is a significant improvement over what they could previously obtain using radio units. “We’re pretty impressed: we’re getting the kind of movement data that we could have never gotten in the past,” says Crowley. “Getting a location used to be very labour intensive, especially in harsh winter conditions. We would typically get about three locations a week. Now, we’re averaging between six and twelve locations a day.” The increased amounts of data allow Crowley and his team to examine how marten are moving across the landscape at a much finer scale. “Previously, we could see where they were, but we couldn’t see how they got there. Now, we have a clearer picture of how they’re using different habitat types.” Crowley’s team has been working closely with local forest company Conifex to compare martens’ response to different logging practices. Eventually, their results could be used to inform forest management decisions so as to reduce the impact on marten, as well as other species. “Marten have proven to be really good indicators of ecosystem health,” emphasizes Crowley. “They’re generally associated with mature forests with lots of structural complexity, which are also important for animals such as woodpeckers and mule deer.” Though Crowley’s marten study is a short-term project, the data collected will become an important component of a long-term monitoring program focused on mesocarnivores, a group that also includes fishers, river otters, foxes and Canada lynx.  “The mesocarnivores encompass a diversity of species that require different habitat types,” explains Crowley. “Studying one species alone can tell you something, but...