Tue, 24 Sep 2019
Tags: Wildlife

Study examines how wolves use their territory and their impact on moose

The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) is supporting a number of studies to inform management decisions responding to the declining moose population in north-central British Columbia. One is looking at the many ways wolves use their home territory, and how this can impact moose.

HCTF has contributed close to $250,000 for the first three years of the study by the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development that is using satellite collars to track up to 10 wolf packs to examine the seasonal wolf predation risk to moose in two areas near Prince George and Fort St. James.

HCTF board member Al Gorley, who wrote a report for the ministry in 2016 recommending ways to restore moose populations in the province, welcomes the work. “While we need to apply the best management tools on the ground, it’s just as important to address critical information gaps,” he says. “This includes making sure we have scientifically appropriate and technically sound data about the complex and dynamic relationships between moose and predators such as wolves.”

Wildlife biologist Morgan Anderson, who is leading the research project for the ministry, agrees. “Where there’s food, there are wolves,” she says. “But it’s not that simple.” Wolves have large home territories – those in the study areas range from around 250 km2 to more than 900 km2 – but they do not use the whole territory in the same way. There are places on an active wolf territory where moose may never encounter a wolf.

“If we can figure out how wolves function over the entire landscape, we can determine what makes an area riskier for moose,” Morgan says. For example, if wolves avoid a road, maybe because of high volumes of industrial traffic, the area may be safer for moose – at least from a wolf predation standpoint. If the road improves access and moose are more likely to encounter a wolf, it would be riskier.

“Wolf responses to these features can inform our next steps for improving the landscape for moose – there may be ways to rehabilitate roads or configure harvesting to create places where moose can be more resilient to predators,” says Morgan.

It’s also important to understand population dynamics. One pack of 10 wolves can be extremely efficient, consuming a large adult moose completely and losing very little to scavengers. If the breeding male or female is killed and the pack splinters, the smaller packs are not as effective defending their kills from scavengers, forcing them to kill more prey.

The project is in its third year, and so far 17 wolves have been fitted with radio collars, although some have died or dispersed. In most cases, the animals are tracked by helicopter in the winter and darted. In the summer, rubber-padded leg-hold traps are used to capture wolves. Additional collars will be deployed this year to maintain collars on about five packs in each of the study areas, and to make up for wolves that die or disperse.

The satellite collars, which record hourly location fixes and upload this data every couple of days, are programmed to last two years and automatically drop off. The research team uses these locations with other spatial layers in GIS to identify the kind of landscape across the home territory and pinpoint where the wolves spend their time.

“We run a clustering algorithm that sorts the locations into groups, which we can visit on the ground,” says Morgan. “A larger cluster of 15 to 20 hourly locations within 100 metres suggests that they are on the kill of a large ungulate, so it’s a priority to visit it to identify the prey and collect samples.” As backup, some animals in the packs are equipped with VHF collars, which tend to have more reliable radio signals and battery life for relocating a pack if the satellite-collared wolf goes missing. They do not provide location data.

Moose cow kill site

Even though the wolves are pretty efficient – they often carry off and eat even the largest bones – it is still easy to find kill sites and identify the type of prey and its age. “We try to get out at least once a week. It’s not as easy in the winter when sites are covered with snow – you can be standing on top of it and not know. So we make this it priority to get to these sites in the spring.”

Morgan has worked with wolves before. She earned her Masters’ degree studying moose and wolf dynamics in Ontario, and is involved in a project in Nunavut examining interactions among Arctic wolves, muskox and endangered Peary caribou. “It’s interesting how similar wolves are across their range – they are super adaptable and flexible, but a lot of the behaviour patterns are the same.”

She is confident that by the time the project in north-central B.C. ends in 2021 there will be plenty of data to develop a predation risk layer that can be built into moose enhancement activities.

“We already have enough to start sketching in the picture, and are getting to a point where we can actually say something with the data we have,” she says. “It’s confusing when the pack territories shift and collared animals disperse, but we have a ton of locations for the resource selection work, and over 100 kill sites already identified. Of course, the more you want to break it down by season and study area, the bigger the sample you need in order to say anything meaningful.”

One thing that has surprised Morgan is the number of times wolves have left their pack. “We collared one wolf in a large pack and from his size and behaviour, we assumed he was the breeding male. Then he made a big walk, and ended up in a completely new area. We were surprised to see him take off. The next winter, another large pack in a productive neighboring territory started to use the dispersed wolf’s territory. It doesn’t seem like the old pack was entirely trapped out, so what happened to them, and why did the other pack leave their territory to move in?”

In some cases, the lone wolves travel so far they leave the study area. “We keep an eye on them but don’t do kill site investigations,” Morgan says. “We do talk to other biologists in case it is useful to their projects to have a bonus wolf with a collar.”

That’s just one example of how researchers are working together to gather and share data. Morgan offers a tip of her hat to the HCTF for supporting projects that let her and her colleagues work together to collect information and compare interactions – the wolf work is directly linked to the Provincial Moose Research Project, both other projects in the region can also benefit from the data.

She’s also grateful for the support of resource users such as hunters and trappers who return collars if they harvest a collared wolf, and provide regular updates about what they are seeing out on the land.

 

Wed, 28 Aug 2019
Tags: Wildlife

HCTF staff members at the Haley Lake Ecological Reserve

HCTF Staff Members (from left: Karen Barry, Christina Waddle, Sarah Sproull, and Jade Neilson) posing at the top of the bowl of the Haley Lake Ecological Reserve.

This summer, HCTF staff members were invited to join a team of researchers from the Marmot Recovery Foundation at the Haley Lake Ecological Reserve in the Nanaimo Lakes District to observe Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis). The staff members were treated with good weather, great scenery, and many marmot sightings. Marmots Alan and Towhee put on quite the show by sun tanning on rocks, chasing each other, and even touching noses!

Marmot Recovery Foundation Executive Director Adam Taylor and Acting Field Coordinator Mike Lester guided the HCTF group across the steep terrain of the Haley bowl to locate the marmots through the use of telemetry and binocular glassing. Throughout the excursion, the staff learned about the physiological and ecological requirements to sustain the marmot population plus predation risks and other threats that marmots face. The Marmot Recovery Foundation is collecting important information to help us better understand these endangered mammals, but there is still a lot to learn.

With only an estimated 200 marmots remaining in the wild, the Vancouver Island Marmot is currently listed as Endangered under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) and by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species (COSEWIC). They are one of the rarest mammals in the world.

Although work at the Haley Lake site is not directly funded by HCTF, the staff were able to see first-hand the various field methods used by the Marmot Recovery Foundation at more remote sites on the Island. HCTF has funded a multi-year program to assist the Marmot Recovery Foundation with their work in Strathcona Park. The grant has enabled the team to work towards restoring a self-sustaining population of marmots through the use of translocations, food enhancement, monitoring and potentially habitat restoration. Another important aspect of their program is engaging the public and encouraging people to report marmot sightings. If you see a marmot while in the backcountry, you can submit your observations to marmots@telus.net or 1-877-4MARMOT (1-877-462-7668). To learn more about the Vancouver Island Marmot and how to help, visit their website at https://marmots.org/

Marmot Alan* sun tanning on a rock. Photo Credit: Adam Taylor

*On August 15, we were saddened to learn about the passing of Alan. Alan was described to be quite the adventurous and nomadic marmot! To learn more about Alan and his incredible peripatetic life, please visit the Marmot Recovery Foundation blog.

Tue, 20 Aug 2019
Tags: E&R / Wildlife

Seeking ways to protect western bats from deadly white-nose syndrome

Cori Lausen glues a transmitter onto a bat in fall which will help locate roosts as well as provide valuable information about hibernation behaviours and physiology, needed to understand how white-nose syndrome may impact bats in BC.

The first time Cori Lausen held a big brown bat in her hands, it was love at first sight. “She was so tiny, she fit in my hand. And the band showed that she was older than I was.”

The more Cori learned about bats, the more she realized how unique they are – and when she asked questions about them there were often no answers. “There are so many things we just don’t know about them.”

So she took a leave of absence as a high school teacher in 1999, earned a Masters’ degree on bat ecology at the University of Calgary and a PhD in bat population genetics.

Today as associate conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, Cori is looking for ways to protect western bat populations from deadly white-nose syndrome (WNS). This includes cutting-edge research supported by Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) to develop and apply a probiotic cocktail that can help bats survive the disease. HCTF has contributed nearly one fifth of the $583,000 budget for the two-year project.

WNS originated in Europe and is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. It first appeared in North America in New York State in 2006, and has since killed millions of bats. “Many of us shed tears when we first heard of it,” Cori says. “We did not understand it, but knew its devastation was going to spread like wildfire.”

The disease started in the east and gradually moved south and north. Its spread west was slower because of migration patterns, until 2016 when it made a giant leap into Washington State. “The jump was a big shock,” says Cori. She expects the infected bat hitched a long-distance ride on a transport truck going to the port in Seattle, highlighting the importance of checking trailers, campers, and trucks for stowaway bats.

WNS causes a white fungal growth across a bat’s muzzle and wings, and has a death rate of up to 100 per cent. It disrupts winter hibernation, rousing the bats so they use up the valuable fat reserves they need to survive until spring.

There’s an added challenge in western North America because there are no large bat hibernacula like in the east. Instead, bats overwinter in smaller numbers in rock crevices, trees, caves and mines, and even in some buildings.

Cori was already interested in what bats in western Canada do in winter when WNS appeared in Washington State, and thanks to help from many BC naturalists, had detected eight of the 14 species that overwinter in British Columbia. “When the fungus first showed up, we realized that understanding where bats are is now more than curiosity – it is absolutely urgent.”

 

Cori Lausen tracks bats in winter in the West Kootenay region. Telemetry is used to locate hibernacula, as well as provide valuable information about hibernation behaviours and physiology, needed to understand how white-nose syndrome may impact bats in BC.

Cori Lausen tracks bats in winter in the West Kootenay region. Telemetry is used to locate hibernacula, as well as provide valuable information about hibernation behaviours and physiology, needed to understand how white-nose syndrome may impact bats in BC.

But with few locations and few bats, these winter hibernacula are unlikely to yield a solution to the WNS problem. “We need a ‘made in the west’ approach to fight off the fungus, and set them up to come back in the spring alive,” Cori says. “We decided to target our vulnerable building-roosting bats as we know where thousands of them roost in the summer.”

Through the HCTF project, the researchers developed a probiotic using bacteria sourced from local healthy bats. They first tested it on captive bats at the British Columbia Wildlife Park in Kamloops in 2018.

This spring, they developed an application method, and will test it in the Vancouver region where WNS will probably appear first in British Columbia. At roost entrances, they will dust powdered clay infused with the probiotic, so it sticks to the bats and they get a small dose every time they come and go.

“We are the first to propose treating bats in summer, introducing probiotic gradually so it does not overwhelm their immune system,” Cori says. “We will take wing swab samples from the bats now, and repeat in spring to see if the probiotic is still there and still viable.”

A California Myotis bat from Lillooet BC is wing-swabbed to look for bacteria that naturally prevent growth of Pd to use in the development of the probiotic cocktail. Photo by Ian Routley.

Purnima Govindarajulu, acting head of the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy’s Conservation Science Section, is part of an advisory committee supporting the project. “Bats are an important part of a healthy ecosystem,” she says. “White nose syndrome could have serious repercussions in British Columbia because bats eat huge number of insects, and this benefits agricultural crops, forests and people.”

British Columbia is better positioned than many other western regions thanks to BC Community Bat Programs (www.bcbats.ca/) that encourage individuals to identify roost sites and show landowners how to protect these sites or install bat-houses.

“We know white nose is coming so we have nothing to lose,” says Cori. “It does not cost a lot to give a landowner a little bag of clay that they can dust into bat boxes or building roosts. If it looks like it will save bats, we will apply for further research support to develop a widespread approach.”

 

Thu, 27 Jun 2019
Tags: Wildlife

Tackling Invasive Plant Species Improves Bighorn Sheep Habitat in the East Kootenays

2008 photo of the Bull River bighorn herd. Beginning in 2009, wildlife managers noticed a rapid spread of yellow hawkweed and other invasive plant species in this herd’s winter range.

Bighorn sheep are well suited to the rugged mountains of southeast British Columbia. But it’s a tough life, and it’s even tougher when invasive plant species crowd out nutritious native forage.

The BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is in the midst of a five-year project to manage invasive species on three critical sheep winter ranges in the region – near Bull River, at Wigwam Flats east of Elko, and at Columbia Lake East north of Canal Flats. The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation is contributing approximately $160,000 to this project.

“Loss of habitat is one of the reasons why Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are blue listed as vulnerable in BC,” says ministry wildlife biologist Irene Teske of Cranbrook, who is leading the initiative. “By reducing invasive plant species, we can increase the quality of grasslands in southeast BC and improve habitat for bighorn sheep and other ungulates.”

Invasive plants alter habitat by displacing native vegetation. They reduce soil productivity, impact water quality and quantity, threaten biodiversity, and alter natural fire regimes. They can be bitter tasting and some even cause health issues or death. A 2016 Forest Practices Board report on rangelands identified invasive plants as an issue that threatens the sustainability of rangelands in the long term.

St John’s Wort in flower in Wigwam Flats

Early in the 2000s, it appeared that spread of invasive species was somewhat under control in Bull River, and herbicide treatments focused on transportation corridors. The situation in Wigwam Flats was similar thanks to previous herbicide treatments (HCTF project 4-303) and biocontrol for knapweed and St. John’s wort. In about 2009, wildlife managers noticed reduced habitat quality for low-elevation ungulate winter ranges due to a rapid spread of yellow hawkweed, declining effectiveness of biocontrol for St. John’s wort, and continuing infestations of sulphur cinquefoil and spotted knapweed.

“We proposed a five-year project using a variety of methods to control these invasive species and try to restore natural grasslands, including chemical treatments, biocontrol and seeding/fertilizing,” Irene says. “We have also established vegetation sampling plots so we can monitor the change over time.”

Close up of Yellow Hawkweed taken at the Wigwam Flats study area.

So far it appears the treatments are working. In some plots, the coverage of invasive plants dropped from as much as 13% to as little as 1.6%. And bighorn sheep populations are up slightly, although this could be for a variety of reasons such as low snowfall or reduced predation. “We are certainly under no illusion that the problem has been fixed,” Irene says. “It is vitally important to keep these areas free of aggressive invasive plants so we will need ongoing periodic management to maintain the positive outcomes.”

A literature review in 2017 showed that the best option to control the invasive plants is through early detection and treatment of small sites. If the infestation gets too extensive, it requires a long-term management plan to replace weeds with desirable species, manage the land carefully, and prevent new infestations.

In 2018, 18 plots were resampled in Bull River and Wigwam Flats following treatment. The monitoring showed that invasive plant coverage in the two study areas had dropped substantially, total grass cover had increased slightly, and there was more bare ground where weeds had been removed. It is important to re‑establish vegetation on this bare ground as soon as possible to discourage the return of the unwanted species.

There are plans to continue herbicide treatments in spring 2019, with seeding in selected areas in the fall and fertilization trials in spring 2019 and 2020. Permanent vegetation plots have been installed and will continue to be monitored to determine the success of the treatments.

This project includes ministry staff from the wildlife, habitat and range divisions, and landowners such as BC Hydro, Nature Trust of BC, Nature Conservancy of Canada, and TransCanada Pipelines. The East Kootenay Invasive Species Council has been involved in some of the herbicide spraying, and Irene says that all contractors have done exceptional work, adding “we could not have done much of this without the dedication and high standards of the backpack herbicide crew from Crabbe Contracting who have been working in some very difficult terrain.”

Irene says a lot has been learned through the project, and many of the findings can be applied to other areas. Range agrologist Hanna McIntyre from the ministry’s range program agrees: “In areas where cattle grazing and bighorn sheep winter range overlap in the Bull River, we are working closely with range agreement holders in an effort to improve bighorn sheep habitat.”

Another example is work by biologist Catherine Tarasoff from Agrowest Consulting Scientists. In 2018, she studied whether St. John’s wort is becoming resistant to the Chrysolina beetle, used since the 1950s as a biocontrol. “Land managers were telling me St. John’s wort was increasing when they had been told it was under control,” Catherine says. “We found strong evidence on one site that the plants were producing a higher level of predatory defense chemicals, which drive off the insects. It’s not surprising – if you use the same vaccine for 70 years you would expect the target to develop resistance over time.”

The lesson learned, she says, is that all available tools need to be used to tackle invasive species – biological, chemical, mechanical and cultural. “What’s most important with resistant plants is to get rid of them before the resistant gene spreads to other plants.”

Another key element of the broader ministry project is public education. A new education sign about the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep herd will be installed at Bull River this year. It reminds visitors to respect the conservation property complex, and offers tips on what they can do to limit their impact on sensitive wildlife.

“Without a doubt, the best way to protect native plant species and natural habitat is to make sure land users learn how to spot invasive species and report them to government through a Report-A-Weed app or website,” says Todd Larsen, a range habitat specialist with the ministry. “It’s also important to follow best management practices such as washing equipment, recreational equipment, and boots or clothing to avoid spreading invasive species.”

 

Invasive species are one of the leading threats to native wildlife and plant communities in BC. Report-a-Weed and Report Invasive apps let you report invasive species sightings anywhere in BC in a few quick and easy steps. Learn more about the apps at www.reportaweedbc.ca/.

 

Fri, 3 May 2019
Tags: Wildlife

Translocation Project Returns Roosevelt Elk to Historic Range

Translocated elk leaving the truck.

 

Seeing a herd of majestic Roosevelt elk is a marvelous sight for almost anyone exploring B.C.’s coastal wilderness.

Early in the last century, unregulated harvest led to extirpation of the elk from much of their range on the mainland and in many areas of Vancouver Island. Today, while the animals remain on B.C.’s list of species of concern, in some areas they are doing so well they are seen as a nuisance – raising traffic safety concerns, damaging crops and delaying maturation of seedlings. The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has recorded 72 elk fatalities since 2009 on Vancouver Island, most near agricultural areas.

Billy Wilton, a wildlife biologist with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), is entering into the fourth year of a five-year project aimed at identifying elk herds that are a potential nuisance, and relocating them to places where they are more welcome. The work he is leading enhances native wildlife populations so the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and the Forest Enhancement Society of BC provided $15,000 for the project in 2017 and another $15,000 in 2018.

“Our goals are to re-establish viable populations of Roosevelt elk where they once lived historically, and at the same time mitigate potential problems,” Billy says.

“We are expanding their current range to match their historical distribution by moving them to unoccupied watersheds where ecological conditions are suitable, removing them from areas where they present a highway traffic hazard, and represent a conflict with agriculture or industrial forest management.”

As part of government’s commitment to reconciliation with First Nations, the ministry is working closely with First Nations on managing Roosevelt elk, including through elk translocation.

Elk translocation is not a new tool – other elk species were moved into Alaska from the southern states as early as the 1920s. “Translocation has the advantage of allowing us to target a specific herd and move them all,” says Billy. “Research shows that moving a population of 20 or more elk into underutilized habitat gives them the most success for a self-sustaining population.”

In February 2017, with support from partners and volunteers, Billy’s team moved 18 elk from the Lower Salmon Elk Population Unit (EPU) near Sayward, the traditional territory of Wei Wai Kai, We Wai Kum and K’omoks First Nations on the north Island to the Sarita/Pachena EPU, in Huu-ay-aht First Nation territory near Bamfield. In their new home, the ten cows, five calves and three yearling bulls have the potential to disperse and grow, and may even provide future harvest opportunities for local First Nation and licenced hunters.

The work began in March 2016 when project participants surveyed the Lower Salmon EPU to identify potential herds and areas where they could be contained. As winter approached and natural food sources became scarce, they worked with local Sayward Fish and Game Association volunteers, First Nations and farmers to entice the elk to move to a proposed trap site to feed. “Cow Elk weigh up to 600 lbs and bulls up to 1000 lbs so they are very food motivated animals, especially in winter,” says Billy.

Once the elk were used to feeding in the area, a large circular chain-link corral with a remote-controlled gate was put up, and they were encouraged to feed inside it.

Elk approaching trap

Within two weeks, the herd was comfortable moving into the corral. In mid-February, Billy’s team and the volunteers shut the gate remotely just before dusk, loaded the animals through a chute onto a stock truck, and drove them to a location near the Sarita River where they were released. Three of the cows were marked with radio collars to help assess the success of the project.

About 20 members of the Campbell River Fish and Wildlife Association helped move a herd in 2016 that was creating highway safety issues. “It is a really neat project that is right in line with the goals of our organization,” says club president Wade Major. “We do anything we can to improve fish or wildlife habitat, and assist with wildlife management.”

Roosevelt elk, the second-largest member of the deer family after moose are generalist grazers that have an impact on plant composition. Returning them to their native range increases biodiversity and re-establishes predator-prey dynamics.

The project receives funding and support from a variety of organizations – including the Ministries of FLNRORD and Transportation and Infrastructure, First Nations, fish and wildlife associations and the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C.

The transportation ministry has recorded 72 elk fatalities since 2009 on Vancouver Island, most near agricultural areas. Sean Wong, manager of biological programs, says animals that frequent busy highway corridors, especially large ones like Roosevelt elk, are a concern to transportation planners. “By supporting the translocations, we are able to reduce vehicle-animal collision risks and help rebuild elk populations in areas where they have historically been found, and where they represent less risk to the travelling public,” he says.

Since its inception in 1981, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation has invested more than $180 million into fish and wildlife conservation projects across British Columbia. The Foundation gives priority to projects like this one because they deliver proven results for native species.

As Billy Wilton says: “It is a pretty rare opportunity to be able to take what might be seen as a problem and turn it into a conservation solution and a success story.”

This article was first published in May-June 2019 issue of BC Outdoors magazine.

Thu, 28 Mar 2019
Tags: E&R / Wildlife

Congratulations on Grizzly Study Publication

SWBC Grizzly Project

Exciting news from project proponent Michelle McLellan Ph.D.

“We have been monitoring grizzly bears in the threatened Stein-Nahatlach population since 2010. This project was funded by HCTF and we’ve recently published the results of this work. Thanks to HCTF for making this possible.”

View publication on “Divergent population trends following the cessation of legal grizzly bear hunting in southwestern British Columbia, Canada” here:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320718301538