Mon, 30 Nov 2015
Tags: Wildlife

Return of the Roosevelts

Elk charge out of the truck at the release site near Chehalis, BC. This translocation was part of the Coastal Mainland Roosevelt Elk Recovery and Management Project. Photo: Dan Kriss

 

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.

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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.

HCTF Board and staff visit the elk trap that will be used to capture one of the Sayward herds.

“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 area and allow for some opportunities for harvest.

“Reintroducing elk to their historic range helps restore biodiversity,” says Wilton. “They’re a piece of the puzzle that went missing. Roosevelts are large, generalist grazers, so taking them out of the system impacts plant composition and has implications for a whole range of species.”

In addition to their influences on habitat, Roosevelts are an important prey species for wolves, cougars, and even black bear. They are also highly valued by hunters and First Nations. Each year, the province receives around 16,000 applications for just 250 Limited Entry Hunt Authorizations for Roosevelt Elk on Vancouver Island, and First Nations harvest around the same number annually. Both groups are eager to see populations return to historical levels, and are willing to assist in making it happen.

“Last year, we talked with the Quatsino First Nation [whose territory the elk will be released in], and they expressed an interest in helping us with the project,” says Wilton. “We also had a really dedicated group of guys from the Sayward Fish & Game Association working with us on the Mahatta River translocation last winter. They were out there every day, baiting the trap, monitoring the cameras, maintaining the equipment – we really couldn’t do this project without the help of the volunteers.”

Darryl_elk_picture_Sechelt_web.jpgA remote camera captures an image of a bull looking rather relaxed inside a temporary elk trap near Sechelt, BC. Biologists set up and bait the corrals well before the planned capture date to get the target herd comfortable with its presence.

While there are no guarantees that elk translocations will result in increased hunting opportunities, the results from the Lower Mainland project are certainly encouraging. Project leader Darryl Reynolds estimates that nine out of ten translocations from that project have resulted in new hunting opportunities, usually within five years of the release.

“The Limited Entry Hunting opportunities we have on the South Coast today can be directly attributed to the success of the Elk Recovery program,” says Reynolds. “Without it, there wouldn’t be any hunt.”

Elk charge out of the truck at the release site near Chehalis, BC. This translocation was part of the Coastal Mainland Roosevelt Elk Recovery and Management Project. Photo: Dan Kriss

Wilton agrees that five years is a reasonable time frame when forecasting potential new harvest opportunities. “Putting 20-25 elk in an area really makes a big difference in terms of the recovery of that population. Their numbers tend to increase quite quickly. We’ll be working with First Nations and stakeholders to evaluate if and when the population can sustain a harvest: we certainly don’t open it up just because it’s been five years, but that’s been our experience in many other areas.”

To keep tabs on how the population is doing, the project team will be conducting helicopter surveys in the spring of each year, as well as using strategically-placed GPS and radio collars.

“Elk differ from most other North American ungulates in that they are social herd animals,” says Wilton. “Matriarchal herds have a lead cow and a couple of other elders that hold knowledge about how to find food, water, and what to watch out for on the landscape. These are the cows we’ll be trying to collar.”

The GPS collars send regular emails to the biologists with information about their locations and habitat use. They also send out a mortality signal if the animal stops moving for 8 hours, hopefully giving the project team a chance to investigate the cause of death before scavengers move in.

“Understanding mortality is important for our management of these herds, and previously it was very difficult to get this information in real time,” says Wilton. “The collars also help us reduce survey helicopter costs by pinpointing the herd’s location.”

Only time will tell if Wilton’s elk relocation project is successful in establishing herds robust enough to provide additional harvest opportunities on Vancouver Island. Regardless, working to restore the iconic Roosevelt to its former range is laudable from an ecological perspective, and an initiative the hunters of British Columbia can be proud to support through surcharges on their licence purchase.

Thu, 17 Sep 2015
Tags: Wildlife

Trail Cam Photos

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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:

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Elk:

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Deer:

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Moose:

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And now for the carnivores, starting with a couple of cougar shots:

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Bobcat:

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And a glimpse of a bear:

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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.

Fri, 31 Jul 2015
Tags: Wildlife

Toads Under the Road

The culvert is lowered into position on Elk View Road

featured a conservation project led by the Fraser Valley Conservancy (FVC) that is helping Chilliwack amphibians make their annual migrations unscathed. Each year, thousands of amphibians are killed as they attempt to cross Ryder Lake’s Elk View Road in order to move between their foraging and breeding grounds. Among the casualties are a significant number of Western Toads (Bufo Boreas), a Federally-listed as a species of concern. In 2007, a concerned group of Ryder Lake residents contacted the Conservancy to see if anything could be done to stop the carnage. Initially, the Conservancy enlisted the help of volunteers to literally carry bucketfuls of the young toads across the road, but it was a far-from-perfect solution: in addition to requiring a lot of manpower, rescued toads would often become disorientated and end up hopping back into traffic. After identifying the primary crossing sites used by the toads, the Conservancy looked at implementing a more sustainable solution, modelled after another HCTF-funded toad migration project on Vancouver Island. This involved the strategic placement of a box culvert to act as a frog-friendly underpass, keeping the amphibians safely separated from vehicles. Thanks to funding from Environment Canada and the donation of in-kind materials and labour from the Langely Concrete Group and Lafarge construction, the toad tunnel became a reality on June 4th, 2015. A few weeks later, FVC volunteers and staff members installed over 350 meters of directional fencing to direct migrating Western toads towards the new crossing structure.

Staff members and volunteers from the Fraser Valley Conservancy install directional fencing to help lead amphibians to the tunnel.

While the completion of the tunnel was certainly cause for celebration, the project hasn’t ended there. After installation, it’s important to monitor how the passage is working, both to make refinements and help inform the design of future “ecopasses”. HCTF has provided a $10,000 grant for monitoring using video and time-lapse photography, as well as fence and road surveys. You can view a sample of the video monitoring below:

 

If you’d like to check out the toad tunnel for yourself, not head over to the Chilliwack Toad Fest on August 8. The Conservancy’s planned a ribbon cutting ceremony, games & activities, a wildlife walk, and refreshments. See the event poster for details, or email info@fraservalleyconservancy.ca for further information.

If you’re in the Kootenays, Toadfest is taking place Wednesday, August 12th from 4-7pm in Summit Lake Provincial Park, south of Nakusp. This free event offers a great opportunity to learn more about Western Toads, and get up close to the aquatic insects, amphibians, and reptiles on display. There will be kids’ activities, and information on invasive plants, bears and other local wildlife. For more information, contact the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program by calling 250 352 1300 or emailing fwcp@bchydro.com

 

Thu, 16 Jul 2015
Tags: Wildlife

The Secret Lives of Bluebirds

Summer’s in full swing, and so is the field season for many of HCTF’s grant recipients. Among these is the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) and their “Bring Back the Bluebirds” project. The project is an international partnership working within Vancouver Island communities to restore Western bluebirds to their native Garry oak ecosystems. By transporting pairs of bluebirds to the Cowichan Valley from a healthy population in southern Washington, the project hopes to ultimately re-establish a breeding population of the birds on southeastern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, where they have been extirpated (locally extinct) since the mid-1990s. The primary cause of their extirpation is thought to be habitat loss: bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, and historically have relied on the holes made by woodpeckers in dead trees for nest sites. As the number of potential nesting trees declined, so did the bluebirds, to the point where a local population could no longer be sustained. To mitigate this habitat loss, the GOERT project team has installed wooden nest boxes in suitable bluebird habitat as an alternative to traditional nesting cavities. Though it certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing for all of the translocated pairs, the project team has seen an increase in the bluebird population over the past three years: a mid-June count found 24 adults (6 translocated), and at least 24 juveniles.

This summer, GOERT managed to capture some footage of the pre-fledged juveniles in one of their nest boxes, offering a rare peak at life as a baby bluebird. Check out the video below to see a cozy pair of nestlings wait patiently for mom (or is it dad?) to bring them their dinner: you can skip to 1:21 to see the first adult arrive. They’re ready for seconds at 3:00, and by 3:50, you’ll see the other siblings (there are six nestlings in total) push their way into the frame for a chance at some grub. You can watch other videos from the nest box on GOERT’s website. The solar-powered “Bring Back the Bluebirds” nest cam was made possible by First Light Technologies and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

 

How can you help bluebirds?

If you happen to live in the Cowichan Valley, you can contact the Jemma Green about volunteer opportunities for this or other GOERT projects. You can also make a donation to GOERT here. Everyone can do their part to help reduce songbird deaths by keeping cats indoors or in outdoor enclosures during the spring and early summer, avoiding use of toxic insecticides, and by placing decals on large, reflective windows to prevent collisions.

Want to stay informed about this project? Bookmark the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team’s project update webpage. You can view other HCTF blog posts on the bluebird project here.

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Fri, 10 Jul 2015

Wetlands Institute Coming to the Okanagan

A group of wetlands institute participants get hands-on instruction in soil testing.

The BC Wildlife Federation’s Wetlands Institute is coming to Kelowna and Vernon Sept 28th – October 4th. The Wetlands Institute is a 7-day environmental stewardship workshop that educates participants about wetland stewardship, restoration and construction skills. It is suitable for consultants, planners, environmental/conservation groups, government and First Nations representatives, and engaged community members with an idea for a wetland project or program that they wish to implement in their community. During this course, participants will have the chance to learn from world renowned Wetland Restoration Specialist Tom Biebighauser.

The best part? This course is being offered free of charge (worth over $1,000 per participant) for approved applicants who submit their application before July 31st! This special offer is as a result of the generous contributions from workshop funders, including HCTF.

The course is expected to fill up quickly, as there is only space for 25 participants. You can apply here: the BCWF will contact you to confirm acceptance after reviewing your application. For more information, please contact the BCWF’s Wetland Education Program at wetlands@bcwf.bc.ca or call 1-888-881-2293 ext.232

Wetlands INstitute Coordinator Neil Fletcher stands in a heavily-eroded stream bed while Tom Biebighauser speaks about restoration techniques.

 

Thu, 27 Nov 2014
Tags: Wildlife

Precious Waste: Using Woody Debris to Create Connectivity Across Clearcuts

An excavator builds a windrow out of woody debris after harvest is complete. Photo: D. Gossoo

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?

Red-backed_vole.jpgSullivan: 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?

Burning_piles.jpgSullivan: 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 Ltd. in Merritt helped fund this study, along with HCTF. In the course of doing research on the effects of clearcutting on small mammals, have you found a significant difference in the effort that individual forestry companies are willing to expend to preserve wildlife habitat?

Sullivan: You know, the individuals are crucial. The silviculturalist with Louisiana Pacific in Golden has been instrumental in thinking in a broad-minded way. He is interested in anything that they can do to make the forest more diverse. Initially, this began as a business concern: he had a serious problem with the Microtis species of voles (the meadow voles and long-tailed voles) feeding on newly-planted trees, so he was very interested in anything that would increase the number of predators on his clearcut units.

Windrows-Photo.jpgHCTF: So building windrows to enhance predator habitat could be advantageous for foresters, as well as ecosystems?

Sullivan: Definitely. If you’ve got Microtis voles in your harvest area, it can be a serious problem. They’ll eat many of the seedlings – enough to necessitate replanting. There’s been a lot of work put into preventing the damage done by these species. Re-creating habitat to help maintain predator populations seems a logical solution.

HCTF: What about cases that are not so mutualistic: is there an appetite within the industry to adopt practices that conserve biodiversity, even if they don’t provide direct business benefits?

Sullivan: I think so, but again, it is company- and even individual- specific. For example, at Elkhart (our study site near Merritt), Aspen Planers have provided financial and in-kind support for this research, and they don’t have a problem with voles damaging trees. They are simply interested in what they can do to improve wildlife diversity. Again, this could be attributed to certain individuals’ philosophies, though I would say that the company policies of both of Aspen Planers and Louisiana Pacific are pretty positive in this direction.

HCTF: In one of your recent studies, you suggest that a habitat credit system, similar to current carbon offsetting programs, might provide the financial incentive necessary to encourage companies who are perhaps less-ecologically inclined to change their current practices. Can you elaborate?

American_marten_rev.jpgSullivan: Like it or not, we are enslaved by economics. The concept of assigning a dollar amount to ecological values leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths, but I think we need to move there. Whether we call them habitat credits or biodiversity credits, it’s really about finding a way to recognize the importance of wildlife and habitats in an economically-driven system. We think of biofuel feedstocks as products from woody debris, why not small mammals?

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The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation invests money from angling, hunting, trapping and guide outfitting licence surcharges into conservation projects across BC. You can read more about surcharge-funded projects here.