Fri, 19 Sep 2014
Tags: Wildlife

Out of the Ashes

Each spring, BC’s fire crews brace themselves for the intensity of the fire season ahead. At the time of writing, 2014 was on track to become a record year. Since the beginning of the season in April, more than 330,000 hectares had burned, only ~8,000 HA shy of the 30 year record. News coverage of evacuations and threats to human infrastructure have shaped our perception of forest fires. We think of them as catastrophic forces of destruction: unpredictable disasters to be suppressed or extinguished at all costs.

There is, however, another side to forest fires, one that would suggest this year’s increased fire activity – if kept away from human settlement and infrastructure – is actually beneficial. Ecologists have confirmed empirically what First Nations have known and practiced for centuries: fire is as much a force for renewal as it is of destruction.

After a forest fire, what appears as scorched wasteland is actually an ecosystem ready to begin anew. Under the charred earth, roots and seeds lie waiting to capitalize on the nutrients provided by the ashes of their predecessors. Sunlight, once scarce under the thick canopy of mature trees, now reaches the ground, allowing grasses and berry-producing shrubs to flourish. Burned trees still standing provide habitat for many species of insects and birds. Fire is nature’s own highly effective method of ecological restoration.

Block_22_on_fire.jpgWe live in a province shaped by fire; the plants and associated animals found in a particular location are a product of that area’s fire regime. Before the introduction of modern fire-suppression techniques, scientists estimate that around 500,000 hectares of forest burned in BC each year, a figure that dwarfs the sum of even the most prolific fire seasons of recent years. Just as fire shaped BC’s landscape, an absence of fire is shifting it again. In the many areas where the natural fire cycle has been interrupted, trees have invaded grasslands, forcing wildlife to look elsewhere for forage. Fuel, in the form of dead wood and debris, has built up on forest floors, creating the potential for more intense, more dangerous fire events than would have occurred under the natural fire regime. Perhaps one of the most graphic unintended consequences of fire suppression is the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic. Historically, areas of pine forests would have burned down and regenerated roughly once every 100 years, resulting in multi-aged forests that were more resistant to insects and disease. Modern fire suppression has led to vast, interconnected stands of old pines- a favourite food of the beetle. Add to this increased temperatures that allow the beetle to survive through the winter, and you have the worst insect epidemic in BC’s history.

Jordy McAuley has witnessed first-hand the effects of fire suppression on lands where burning was once an integral part of the forest lifecycle. His outfitting territory in the Williston area of BC includes large stands of mature aspen and pine-beetle affected forest. The encroachment of trees on previously open areas, combined with flooding caused by the creation of the Williston reservoir, has severely reduced the amount of winter range available for ungulates such as moose. They have begun to travel beyond their traditional range to higher elevations. With them come the wolves, and that’s bad news for the caribou who overwinter there.

“The caribou are easy targets… they’re really struggling,” says McAuley. “If we can improve range conditions for moose and other ungulates at elevations lower than where the caribou are, it would hopefully lure the predators away and give them a chance.”

Since purchasing the territory nine years ago, McAuley has been keen to bring fire back to the landscape after witnessing the improvements to range conditions following prescribed burns in other regions.

Block_22_Understory_Before_burning.jpg“Once you burn, everything comes back new,” McAuley says. “The canopy opens up, and there’s this rejuvenation of forage for all kinds of wildlife. Moose do well, same with elk and goats. The berries come back, providing food for bears – even birds seem to benefit.”

McAuley’s observations are consistent with research showing increased species use of habitats after burning. Properly executed, prescribed burns create a mosaic of habitat types that can support an increased number of species, and provide the resources necessary to sustain their populations. Indeed, the broad scale restorative properties of prescribed burning make it an attractive land management tool, but conducting burns is expensive, and some of the Province’s burn programs are reliant on external funding. Using hunting licence surcharge revenue, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) has supported prescribed fire projects, such as the Peace-Liard Burns, for thirty years. In 2014-15, the Foundation invested over $350K in prescribed burning programs across BC, including McAuley’s moose habitat enhancement project.

With funding for his project secured, McAuley began working with a team of biologists on the burn planning and consultation process. In an era of multiple (and often competing) uses on the landscape, accommodating the perspectives of all stakeholders can be a difficult task. It’s a delicate balancing act between protecting everyone’s interests and still accomplishing an effective burn. Biologist and Wildlife Infometrics’ staff member Stephanie Rooke agrees that the burn approval process can be daunting.

“There are many, many factors to consider, and some real constraints on what we’re able to do,” says Rooke. “Often, the lands we’re working on are next to forestry plantations, and there are First Nations communities nearby… safety is always our number one concern. We can’t afford to lose a fire.”

Rooke says there are a number of precautions that are used to make sure that burns stay in control and away from human settlements. “The Wildfire Management Branch has indices that we use to determine when it is safe to burn: factors such as temperature, moisture, and relative humidity all have to line up before we’ll start a fire. But our biggest control mechanism for spring burns is high-elevation snow load: because we’re burning uphill, we try to have the edge of where we want burned bordered by snowpack.”

Despite challenges in the planning process and narrow windows for burns, the project team persevered and managed to get their first burn done this May. McAuley was on site for the big event, excited to finally see his idea become reality.

“It was such a big build up: in the beginning, it was like running into walls. I’d tell people what I wanted to do, but with all the merchantable timber up here, they’d say it can’t be done. But I just kept pecking away, and found some folks that knew the benefits of fire on the land,” recounts McAuley. “To see that helicopter show up, ready to go… well, it was pretty exciting to see that smoke start coming out of the bush”

a1sx2_Original1_Moose_HCTF_Meeting.jpgOver the next few years, the project team will monitor this and other planned burn sites to determine what effect fire has had on forage availability and use by ungulates.

“Our hope is that the herbaceous plants and shrubs that recolonize burned areas really make a difference for moose populations in the area,” says Rooke. “Shrubs are particularly important in winter, when the deep snow makes it difficult for moose to access other forage.”

If the project proves a success, the team is hopeful they can share their experiences with others interested in using fire to enhance range conditions.

“There was a steep learning curve for everyone, but now that we’ve done it, I think there’s the potential for others to follow in our footsteps, and maybe initiate their own projects,” encourages McAuley. “I think getting fire back on the land, when done properly, has the potential to benefit everyone.”

In addition to HCTF funding, this project also received financial support from the Peace/Williston Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. For more information on projects made possible by angling, hunting, guiding and trapping licence surcharges, click here.

Thu, 7 Aug 2014
Tags: Wildlife

Project Evaluation: Bringing Back the Bluebirds

A few times a year, HCTF staff get to escape from the office and check out some of our projects in the field. We conduct project site evaluations as an accountability measure, and to gain a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing our proponents. These evaluations include a financial review and a site visit, where we get to see firsthand the important conservation work being done by our proponents. This summer, HCTF Biologist Lynne Bonner and Finance Officer Katelynn Sander were excited to spend some time with the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) and get the inside scoop on their Bring Back the Bluebirds project.

 

Though once plentiful, Western Bluebirds have been extirpated (locally extinct) in southwestern BC since 1995. They like to make their nests in Garry Oak meadows, but these ecosystems have become increasingly rare due to human development. As their habitat was lost and fragmented, Western Bluebirds eventually stopped returning to Vancouver Island to nest and raise their young. In their Bring Back the Bluebirds project, GOERT is aiming to re-establish a breeding population of Western Bluebirds on Vancouver Island. This project took flight in 2012, and has hatched an international partnership which allows Bluebirds from a healthy population in Washington to be re-located to Vancouver Island. There are currently multiple nest sites in the Cowichan Valley where pairs of Bluebirds have nested and are tending to their fledglings.

Male_House_Sparrow.jpgBluebird_Family_GOERT.jpgThe first two years of the project enjoyed remarkable successes with 9 nestlings fledged in 2012 and 32 nestlings fledged in 2013. This year saw some challenges for the nesting bluebirds. While some bluebirds were lost to predators (likely suspects: domestic cats, mink or raccoon), the most harm came from depredation from the invasive House Sparrow. These small birds are highly territorial and aggressive, attacking any birds (adults and nestlings) within their breeding territory. This year 6 nestlings were lost to House Sparrow attacks. Thanks to the determined efforts of the GOERT Recovery Team, volunteers and the Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre, several injured nestlings were rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the wild. You can read more about this on the GOERT website’s July 2014 news article. Despite these losses, there have been more successful nests this year than in previous years and by early August 2014, four nests had fledged successfully and four currently active nests are expected to fledge by mid-August.

We would like to extend a big thank you to GOERT Conservation Specialist Kathryn Martell, summer student Reanna Schelling, and bluebird translocation expert Gary Slater (Ecostudies Instutite, Washington) for taking the time to show us around the nest sites, and introducing us to some adorable baby Bluebirds. If you are interested in learning more about the Bluebird Reintroduction project and the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, check out their website at http://www.goert.ca/

 

See other Bluebird Project Posts >>

Fri, 27 Jun 2014
Tags: Wildlife

Catching a Glimpse

A radio-tagged female Sooty Grouse on Haida Gwaii. Tagged grouse will provide researchers with information that will help determine the effects of forest conversion, fragmentation or hunter harvest on juvenile recruitment and nest success. Photo courtesy of Barry Wijdeven

The following story was submitted to us by Berry Wijdeven, a biologist working on HCTF project 6-235, Juvenile Sooty Grouse Dispersal and Winter Survival on Haida Gwaii. Berry works for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) as the Species at Risk Coordinator for Haida Gwaii.

The radio receiver, though dialed way down, squeaks loudly, insistently. Somewhere, within 10 meters or so, a radio collared female grouse is hiding. Possibly nesting. We want to find that nest and put a camera near it to see whether the chicks fledge successfully or whether the nest fails. But we don’t want to disturb the bird, potentially flush her off her eggs, so we proceed with great caution. The radio signal originates from a nearby stump, which is surrounded by a dense growth of salal. Entering that growth would surely alarm the grouse, so here we stand, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird that is likely watching us.

Inventory studies have suggested that the number of Haida Gwaii Sooty Grouse has declined substantially. That’s a problem for the grouse population, but also of concern to the Northern Goshawk, a species listed as threatened, which is having a tough go of it on Haida Gwaii, and for whom grouse is a major prey item. Figuring out why the grouse population has declined could help manage both species.

Thanks to a partnership including MFLNRO, Haida Gwaii District and Coast Area Research, Parks Canada and the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, we have been studying grouse for the last three years, looking at habitat use, seasonal movement, juvenile dispersal, survival rates and causes of mortality. As part of this research, we are monitoring nesting success where motion detection cameras have proven to be a cost-effective method of determining what happens at the nest site. But first we have to find the nests. Over the last three years, we have caught some 70 female grouse and equipped them with radio transmitters, each with their own radio frequency. We monitor these transmissions year round to see where the birds are and what habitat they use.

Grouse move between breeding and winter home ranges, so in spring, we increase our monitoring efforts to pinpoint their breeding home range. When the signal stops moving through the landscape, it could indicate that the female has started to nest. For our research, we have chosen an area which is dissected by logging roads, which makes getting around the rugged Haida Gwaii landscape somewhat feasible. Sometimes the hens are kind enough to locate their nest close to one of those roads. At other times we are not so lucky, and a serious crosscountry slog is required. Cedar stands with boggy soils and chesthigh salal stands which suction your boots or tangle them in a web of branches remain my favourite hiking destination. As we follow the radio signal through the forests, trying to compensate for signals bouncing off trees, hills and rocks, we become increasingly vigilant, for the birds have some creative methods to hide their nests.

Grouse are the Rodney Dangerfield of the bird world, often getting little respect. Stupid and tasty are the two adjectives heard most often when discussing grouse. Truth be told, people generally don’t pay much attention to a grouse they see them standing by the side of the road, or worse, in the middle of the road. But once you see a mother hen, mostly defenceless, guard her chickens throughout the summer from a multitude of dangers, you start revisiting your thoughts on grouse, and what she is potentially guarding as she stands motionless in the middle of that road.

Up close grouse are beautiful birds, with delicate and intricately patterned feathers. Males, generally a dark blue, puff themselves into magnificent creatures during the mating season, showing off their bulging yellow air sacks, fanned tail and (when inflated) orange combs. Their size and appearance at this time of year contrasts sharply with their usual look and provide a rare splash of colour amongst the multitude of forest greens.

 

But it’s a hen we are trying to locate, and the females, mostly shades of brown, are blessed with impressive camouflage. We circle the salal, trying to determine from which side the radio signal is strongest, but fail to determine the bird’s location. So we stand there, staring intently at the growth. And then we see something, through a small opening between some leaves. An eye. Staring back at us just as intently. There she is! We quickly determine that the hen is indeed nesting, note the location and deploy the camera. Then we retreat, leaving the grouse to do her thing. Hopefully she’ll be successful in fledging her young. We’ll see.

 

Fri, 14 Feb 2014

Biologists and Winter Recreationalists Team Up to Save Telkwa Caribou Herd

 

Northern_Edge_Of_Telkwa_Range_HCTF_6-236.jpgIn the Telkwa Mountains near Smithers, BC, a small herd of Mountain Caribou persists after nearly disappearing from these ranges only two short decades ago.

With their rich colouring and impressive antlers, Mountain Caribou are striking animals, highly recognizable as the local cousins of the legendary reindeer. They are also among the most endangered animals in Canada, and have been reduced to a fraction of their historic range. Over the last half century, the Telkwa herd’s population has undergone a steep decline, hitting a low of six herd members in the mid 1990s. Recovery efforts have helped increase their numbers to around thirty animals, but this still leaves them at high risk of becoming locally extinct.

Since 1996, HCTF has invested in Telkwa herd monitoring projects to provide data essential to recovery programs. The most recently-funded Telkwa Caribou project is a collaborative effort between biologists and local winter recreationalists to determine the effect that activities such as snowmobiling, skiing, and ATVing could have on the survival of the Telkwa herd.

The Impacts of recreation and wolves on Telkwa caribou recovery project uses satellite technology to collect data that will eventually be used to inform management practices. The project team has fitted herd members with GPS collars that email researchers their locations twice a week. Researchers will use the data collected to track caribou distribution and response to different levels of recreational activity. As the project name suggests, the project will also examine how collared wolves use the Telkwa mountains and interact with caribou.

Telkwa_Caribou_Collared_HCTF_6-236.jpgThe recreation portion of the study will incorporate citizen science, asking locals participating in activities such as snowmobiling, backpacking and backcountry skiing to use hand-held GPS units to record the location of their activities. Data collected from these volunteers and the collared caribou will help researchers determine the relationship between herd and human activity. Project leaders hope that involving local user groups in data collection and management techniques will inspire ongoing stewardship by participants. Already, the Smithers Snowmobile Association has created a page on their website providing updates on the location of collared caribou so their members can avoid disturbing them. Ideally, the result of this research will allow for development of a solution that provides protection for the caribou while still allowing opportunities for winter recreation.

Telkwa_Caribou_Tongue_HCTF_6-236.jpg

You can keep up to date with the latest news on the Telkwa Caribou project by visiting their facebook page

 

Tue, 7 Jan 2014
Tags: Wildlife

Video: Roosevelt Elk Recovery Project

Roosevelt Elk departs truck as part of Lower Mainland Elk Recovery Project

Today’s Globe and Mail features the following video of the HCTF-funded Coastal Mainland Roosevelt Elk Recovery and Management Project. This highly successful project relocates Roosevelt Elk from areas along the Sunshine Coast Highway to remote watersheds in southwestern British Columbia where the species was historically found.

 

By the 1900s, the number of Roosevelt Elk in BC had been severely reduced, and they were all but eliminated from the southern mainland coast. Since 1997, HCTF has provided approximately $750,000 to fund the translocation (and monitoring) of over 450 elk to 22 different mainland locations. The resulting population from these transfers is estimated to be 1,400 animals.

Map showing South Coast Roosevelt Elk Recovery Status

The restoration of this big game species to its former habitats not only has ecological benefits, established populations resulting from translocations also provide some limited-entry hunting opportunities, which benefit local First Nations, resident and non-resident hunters.

Roosevelt Elk departs truck as part of Lower Mainland Elk Recovery Project

To find out more about the Coastal Mainland Roosevelt Elk Recovery and Management Project, visit the following links:

Up Close with Roosevelt Elk: YouTube Video of Canada in the Rough episode featuring project leader Daryl Reynolds darting and collaring a bull Roosevelt elk to collect information on their habitats (helicopter action starts at 9:32).

Elk Herds Repopulate Sea to Sky: Article in Pique Magazine.

Squamish-area elk population boosted The Chief news article and video of relocated elk coming off the truck.

Want to read more about HCTF-funded projects? Visit our project profiles page.

Mon, 30 Dec 2013
Tags: Wildlife

Bringing Back the Sharpie

 

For an animal whose survival depends on being inconspicuous, the Sharp-tailed Grouse has developed quite a following. That’s because once a year, the males of this cryptically coloured species gather together for a dramatic display of dueling and dancing. If you’ve never seen these birds in action, it’s worth a look: though an increasingly rare sight in the wild, a quick Google search will turn up multiple clips of Sharp-tails stomping, vibrating, clucking and chirping at each other, all part of a dance of dominance designed to capture the attention of Sharp-tailed hens.

Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek in Snow (HD) from Dawson Dunning on Vimeo.

Starting at dawn, the males gather to establish territories on the dancing grounds, known as leks. Birds return to these sites year after year to perform their animated mating ritual, which provides an excellent opportunity for researchers to do bird counts to determine if their populations are changing – or if they’ve disappeared.

When it was first described by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s, the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse was considered to be the most prolific game bird in the Northwest. Historically, the Columbian subspecies of Sharp-tail was found across nine of the Western United States and British Columbia, but changes to its habitat have reduced it to a fraction of its historic range. While the forest ecotype occupying the north of the province has held its own, the grassland Sharp-tails remain in serious jeopardy:the birds have been extirpated from the Okanagan and are virtually extinct in the East Kootenay.

The story of their decline is a familiar one. Sharp-tails became less prolific as the open grasslands they depended on disappeared through development, over-grazing, conversion of range to crops, and the encroachment of forests that would have previously been suppressed by fire. In recent years, there has been increased recognition of the importance of protecting what remains of these rare grassland ecosystems, and restoration techniques such as prescribed burning have been used to reduce ingrowth and return them to their natural state. The establishment of protected areas combined with habitat improvements have made conservationists hopeful that extirpated grassland animals such as the Sharp-tail might be returned to their historic ranges. One of these people is East Kootenay biologist Penny Ohanjanian.

Like many, Ohanjanian became captivated by the small grouse species after witnessing their memorable mating ritual. In 1990, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) funded her inventory of Sharp-tailed Grouse on selected grasslands in the East Kootenay, where the bird had once been a common sight. Ohanjanian’s field surveys only turned up two individuals. She repeated the inventory in 2005, and this time failed to locate a single Sharp-tail. The bird that had once been an integral part of the East Kootenay landscape seemed little more than a memory, but Ohanjanian was hopeful that they could be returned. She sought out the advice of her colleagues both in B.C. and the United States, where Sharp-tail reintroduction programs had been going on for over 10 years. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Ohanjanian wanted to learn from their experiences in terms ofwhat factors made for a successful reintroduction and the pitfalls of programs that had failed.

Ohanjanian recalls sitting in a truck at dawn in Idaho, carefully watching the lek some 30 meters away. Drift fences shaped like stars and other various configurations decorated the dancing grounds, designed to steer unsuspecting suitors into carefully placed traps “You sit there silently in the dark, and eventually one of the males walks into one of the funnel traps. The minute you sense distress, you run out of the truck to grab him, and of course everyone flushes,” Ohanjanian chuckles. “Meanwhile you’re trying to count birds while avoiding tripping over the traps- it’s exciting.”

Ohanjanian found her experience in the United States to be hugely informative. “I learned so much: from the little things, like they’ve found the best way of transporting birds for relocation is using a liquor box, to big things, like what habitat factors are crucial for a successful reintroduction.”

Armed with information, Ohanjanian set out to do a feasibility study of two highly-ranked potential reintroduction sites in the East Kootenay. HCTF provided Ohanjanian with a grant to evaluate if the Wycliffe conservation lands (which were previously secured with Foundation funding) and a reclaimed tract owned by resource company Teck could successfully support a reintroduced Sharp-tailed grouse population. Ohanjanian’s study included a thorough evaluation of site vegetation to see if it could provide suitable winter cover, nesting and brood rearing habitat for the birds.

Sharp-tail_hen_nesting_Paul_Burr.jpg


Sharp-tailed_Grouse_Nest_Paul_Burr.jpg

At first, things looked promising. Range conditions had actually improved over the last 30 years, and there seemed to be adequate summer and fall vegetation for brood rearing. But when Ohanjanian returned to the sites in the spring, she found a crucial component of Sharp-tail habitat was missing: residual nesting cover. Before the new season’s growth is established, Sharp-tails rely on small shrubs and dried bunches of grass such as fescue to provide cover and structure for their nests. Unfortunately, this particular grass species also happens to be a favourite food source for elk in the winter, and they had removed a significant portion in the area.


“It’s one of those unfortunate circumstances where two species are (incompatibly) using the same element of the habitat,” says Ohanjanian. Historically, there may not have been a conflict, as elk distribution patterns are believed to have changed. After sharing the photos of the spring range conditions with Sharp-tail experts, the group came to the disappointing conclusion that the reintroduction should not go ahead.“We thought, if we try it and it flops, it’s unlikely we’ll get funding to try it again,” says Ohanjanian. “It’s not necessarily impossible, just not for the immediate future. It might work, but the difficulties inherent with any transplant means you really want to have your ducks in a row before you go ahead. We really want to dot our i‘s and cross our t‘s with this one.”

Given the challenges inherent in this type of project, one might ask the question “if there are viable populations of these animals elsewhere, why reintroduce at all?Despite the fragility of grassland populations, forest eco-type Sharp-tails appear to be doing well, exploiting a new niche in the form of clearcuts resulting from mountain pine beetle infestations. The stability of these northern Sharp-tail populations has allowed them to be used as a source for reintroduction programs south of the border, and may even allow for increased hunting opportunities in the near future.

Nevertheless, Ohanjanian cautions against having all your Sharp-tail eggs in one basket. “If you’ve got populations spread out throughout the historic range, if something catastrophic happens in one area, there may still be the genetics to allow the species to persist elsewhere.” With the potential perils of avian disease and climate change looming, it would seem prudent to preserve both ecotypes, both for the stability of the species and maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem as a whole.

Perhaps the impetus for returning these birds goes beyond biological reasons and to the heart of our own engagement with a place and the species that formed part of that experience, the human connection that motivates us towards conservation. “These lands at Wycliffe were acquired to preserve what was historically therethe ecosystem in its originalityand the Sharp- tailed grouse was definitely a part of that.” Hopefullythe birds will one day return to Wycliffe as more than just a memory.

Additional Video Links:

Columbia Sharp-tailed Grouse: this video by Colorado Parks & Wildlife contains lots of lekking footage and pop-up information on Sharp-tails

Sharp-tailed Grouse Battle: a video by the Cornell lab of Ornithology showing the rougher side of Sharp-tailed Grouse leks.

Thank you to Paul Burr for supplying the Sharp-tailed grouse nesting photos for this story. Paul is a M.S. student at the University of North Dakota, working with Dr. Susan Felege on Sharp-tailed Grouse research examining the impacts of development on sharpies and other grassland species. Their Wildlife@Home project uses citizen science to examine sharp-tailed grouse nesting habits and ecology.