Tue, 20 Aug 2019
Tags: 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

Thu, 21 Mar 2019
Tags: Caribou / Wildlife

Hands-on conservation at the Klinse-Za caribou maternity pen

Maternal pen, photo: Shari Willmott

Transporting crew to the pen, photo: Wildlife Infometrics

More than half of the caribou herds in BC are listed as ‘Threatened’. Given that predation on calves is one of the most direct causes of caribou population declines, two First Nations have partnered with Wildlife Infometrics on a maternal penning project of the Klinse-Za herd, supported by an HCTF grant.

To protect cows and calves from predators during the calving season, a proportion of the herd’s pregnant cows were captured in late March and placed in a guarded pen where they are monitored and fed by a team of First Nations Guardians. The cows and their calves will be released back into the wild in late July when the calves are 2 months old. This project is located in the historical territory of the Klinse-Za herd, northwest of Chetwynd, and the traditional territory of the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.

Follow the project on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pncaribou or Twitter at https://twitter.com/CaribouRecovery

 

Wed, 20 Feb 2019
Tags: E&R / Wildlife

CWD: Challenging, Worrying and Deadly – by Brian Harris

CWD-map

It could be the plot for a science fiction horror movie. A disease that reduces the brain to Swiss cheese, spreads insidiously, is always fatal, and is caused by something that is difficult to kill because it is not actually alive. Yikes! This is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). It is a disease of cervids (animals in the deer family), and in Canada in the wild, it has been identified most commonly in mule deer, but also in white-tailed deer, elk and moose. Recently CWD has been reported in wild reindeer in Scandinavia, so our caribou populations are also potentially at risk.

CWD is one of a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy that affect the brain and nervous system of many animals including humans, cattle and sheep. The disease agent is most likely an abnormal form of protein called a prion (the acronym for proteinaceous infectious particle only). Why a protein becomes a prion is not known. Proteins are normal organic molecules of healthy cells in all living creatures. However, in an animal with CWD, contact with prions causes normal proteins to change shape, then go rogue and become deadly. These altered proteins so resemble normal ones that they are not destroyed by the animal’s immune system. In certain areas of the brain, the accumulation of these abnormal proteins kills cells, so that that part of the brain looks “spongy”. As the disease progresses, body functions associated with those areas of the brain begin to fail. An affected animal gradually loses weight, becomes listless, may salivate heavily and urinate frequently. The animal eventually wastes away (hence the disease name) and dies. However, the prions in excreted body fluids and feces (and some body parts once the animal dies) may persist in the soil and be taken up by growing plants. This is a unique feature of CWD. Then, healthy animals that eat such vegetation can become infected. Even transporting feed or hay grown on land where CWD has been present can spread the disease.

CWD is well established on game farms and in wild deer in much of central USA. In Canada, so far the disease is reported only in Alberta and Saskatchewan in farmed and wild deer and elk, but in 2018, CWD was recognized on a red deer farm in Quebec. The CWD Alliance website is a good source for more information.

Monitoring for CWD in BC began in 2001 and fortunately no samples have tested positive. This is partially attributable to Provincial regulations that prohibit the farming of native cervids or importing live cervids. Recent additional regulations prohibit the importing CWD risky body parts of deer harvested outside the Province, and possessing scents derived from cervids. However, there is no room for complaisance. The Alberta CWD Program has mapped the disease expanding slowly but relentlessly westward, especially following the valleys of the South Saskatchewan, Battle and Bow Rivers. In 2017, CWD cases were reported very near to both Calgary and Edmonton. In addition, recent cases in Montana mean that BC is becoming surrounded by a growing risk of CWD.

From CWD Alliance

Some of BC’s most cherished game animals are at risk, but the disease does not affect all animals equally. In Alberta, it is mule deer that are most susceptible, while in other jurisdictions it is white-tailed deer or elk. In 2017, the Alberta Government tested for CWD in 6,340 wild deer and elk. The disease was detected in 8.2% of mule deer, 1.8% of white-tailed deer and 0.4% of elk samples (so far the only recorded incidence in Alberta moose is a single positive in 2012). Males are more likely to be infected than females. Since 2005, CWD has been detected in 796 Alberta mule deer, 119 white-tailed deer, two elk and one moose. To obtain these samples, the Alberta Government CWD Surveillance Program “relies heavily on participation by hunters, guides and landowners”.

In BC, the increasing proximity of the disease to the Province’s eastern border and the low number of samples from the Peace Region (7B) has increased the urgency for improved monitoring. In 2018, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) and partners contributed funding to improve CWD surveillance in the Peace. Most of the HCTF funding comes from the surcharge on hunting, fishing, trapping and guide outfitting licences sold in BC. This money is used to fund conservation projects benefitting wildlife and fish populations, beyond the basic management by governments.

BC’s Wildlife Veterinarian, Dr. Helen Schwantje, said, “The Peace is considered the Region at highest risk of natural expansion of CWD from Alberta into British Columbia and hunters have a key role in helping to avoid this disease from entering our Province”.

An objective of the HCTF-funded project is to increase by 10 times the number of samples from Peace Region from less than 30 to at least 300 annually. To test for CWD, the whole head of the suspect animal is required. One of the best ways to gather such samples is to involve hunters.

“Hunters are probably the group that should be the most concerned about the spread of CWD ”, says CWD Project coordinator Brian Paterson, “And coincidentally, they are the group that can help the most with early detection efforts by submitting the heads of harvested animals to our program.” Paterson continues, “As outreach coordinator, it is my role to spread information, increase awareness, and let hunters know how important the submission of a single head is in the fight against CWD.”

In 2018, Paterson delivered information on CWD to hunters in the Peace Region through contact with sportsmen’s groups, outdoor sports equipment stores, trappers, meat cutters as well as interviews on CBC and via social media sites like Facebook.

In the first year, Paterson says the response to the project has been really good, but he wants to continue the outreach and recruitment, so that “Submission of heads becomes part of the hunt. If you know that your buddies are submitting heads, you are more likely to do the same. The program can’t be truly effective without hunter participation”.

Awareness and cooperation are key, but with a sample as large as a whole head, getting to a collection site (such as dedicated freezers) must also be convenient. The locations of collection sites and a summary of the results of CWD testing will be posted on the BC Wildlife Health CWD website (www.gov.bc.ca/chronicwastingdisease.ca). If any samples test positive, the hunter will be contacted directly and confidentially.

To date, there is no treatment for affected wild animals and no vaccine, so prevention is key. The risk to BC’s game animals is real and the consequences potentially dire, but hopefully the science fiction plot of CWD does not play out in this Province. Our best defence is vigilance, and cooperation between wildlife agencies, First Nation and local governments, stakeholders and the communities most likely to be affected.

Hunters Note. Although CWD is not known to affect humans, the meat should not be eaten. Suspect animals or carcasses should be reported to the BC Wildlife Health Program (250 751-3219 or the RAPP line 1-877-952-8277). When processing a suspect animal, hunters should take care to avoid direct contact with the animal’s body fluids and especially the brain, backbone or internal organs. Avoid sawing through any bones by separating the carcass at the joints. Leave the high-risk body parts behind.