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.

 

 

 

 

Tue, 29 Oct 2013
Tags: Wildlife

BC’s Wild/ Domestic Sheep Separation Program

A rare photo showing a bighorn ram amongst a flock of domestic ewes in Arizona’s Dome Valley. Photo Credit: Bob Henry

The November rut is a magnificent display of strength and agility, a refined ritual that has been practiced by bighorns for centuries. The sights and sounds of these iconic B.C. mammals vying for dominance evoke a sense of respect for the ruggedness of a species that Theodore Roosevelt referred to as “one of the noblest beasts”.

Yet the rut can be a treacherous time for bighorns, far beyond the risk of injury from their intra-species tussles. For these highly social animals, the real danger can lie with the company they keep.

Wild sheep share a number of similarities with their domestic cousins: they will use the same forage and water sources, and can even interbreed. Where bighorn range and domestic sheep operations overlap, it’s understandable that a randy ram might find a large flock of domestic ewes worth a closer look. Unfortunately, these forays can have deadly consequences. Even nose-to-nose contact between the two species can result in the transfer of a pathogen lethal to wild sheep. And because it takes time for animals to become symptomatic, an infected (but visibly healthy) bighorn that returns to its herd will spread the disease, potentially decimating an entire population.

 

For nearly a century, domestic sheep interactions were a suspected cause of bighorn die-offs, and the disease transfer mechanism was irrefutably confirmed through marked protein experiments in 2010. The culprit was found to be Mannheimia haemolytica, a pneumonia-causing bacterium commonly carried by domestic sheep. Domestics have evolved resistance to this particular strain and rarely show symptoms, but wild sheep are highly susceptible and often die within days of contracting it. In B.C., mass bighorn die-offs have been documented since the early 1900s, with the last major die-off occurring in the Okanagan in 1999. M. haemolytica-induced herd mortalities have occurred in the United States as recently as August of 2013.

Provincial wildlife veterinarian Dr. Helen Schwantje is no stranger to the issue: she began studying disease transfer from domestic to wild sheep as part of her Master’s thesis in the 1980s. Since then, she has witnessed many developments in the science used to pinpoint the pathogens causing die-offs, but says researchers still haven’t come up with a silver bullet. “We haven’t developed effective vaccines to prevent these deaths in bighorns, nor do we have an effective method of delivering vaccines to these wild animals,” Schwantje says. “In the absence of a medical solution, wildlife agencies in North America recommend that wild and domestic sheep populations be completely separated to avoid disease transmission.”

Schwantje was one of the original architects of the B.C. Sheep Separation Program, developed in response to pneumonia die-offs in the East Kootenay. The program aims to achieve effective separation between the two species through education, stakeholder consultation, policy development and on-the-ground action. The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation has supported the Sheep Separation Program for nearly a decade, and in more recent years, the Foundation has funded the program’s provincial coordinator position. Jeremy Ayotte took on the role in July, and is already working hard to move the program forward: “Shortly after I started the job, I put out an invitation to bring together some of the stakeholders, both to introduce myself and to provide a forum to exchange ideas. The response was amazing. The Wild Sheep Working Group is made up of a real diverse bunch of participants: domestic sheep producers, regional biologists, hunters… a great group of passionate, knowledgeable people wanting to work towards a solution.

“We really want to take a positive approach- a collaborative approach – rather than running around placing blame.”

Ayotte is already exploring innovative ways to allow and encourage sheep farmers to provide effective separation between their flocks and wild sheep. Traditional management plans have focused on creating buffer zones and the use of non-contact fencing, but these methods have drawbacks: buffer zones require large tracts of land (impractical on smaller agricultural properties), and double-fencing entire pastures is expensive and can interfere with wildlife migration patterns.

“One of the new management techniques we’re exploring is the idea of a refuge pasture: this would be a smaller, fenced field within a larger pasture that farmers could place their sheep in if bighorns are spotted nearby, or during times where there’s a high risk of contact, such as during the rut,” Ayotte explains. His team is also looking at potentially starting a certification program to recognize lamb producers following separation management guidelines, along the same lines as dolphin-friendly tuna. “A positive marketing angle such as “bighorn-friendly” lamb would also be a great way of increasing awareness of this issue,” says Ayotte. “I think the program’s done a good job of educating commercial producers, especially in high-risk areas, but there’s still some work to be done with small-scale landowners, who might want a couple of lambs for vegetation control or 4-H purposes. Even a single sheep in a high-risk area can pose a danger to bighorns”.

Ayotte is also working to consolidate data on program projects, sheep farming operations, and bighorn herd information so that it is kept accessible and current.

“There’s a lot of valuable data out there, collected by regional wildlife biologists and through citizen science: we’ve got great Rod & Gun Club support in many areas, where folks are annually conducting on-the-ground counts and recording any observation of sickness in the herd. Prior to receiving the funding for this coordinator position, the program didn’t have the capacity to consolidate that data and use it effectively. Now, we’re looking at ways of utilizing it to improve effective separation. We’ve had a wonderful tool donated to us by the US Forest Service that has been specifically designed to identify the highest risk areas based on knowledge of sheep habitat and behaviour, so we can focus our resources on them.” Ayotte expects these areas will coincide with ones already identified, but he thinks having a science-based tool might go a long way in getting policy in place to prevent additional domestic sheep operations from starting up in bighorn territory.

 

a1sx2_Original1_Map_From_Wild_Domestic_Sheep_Report.jpg

Achieving any sort of protection through policy has so far proven a difficult road: in the Okanagan and the Kootenays, sheep farming is well established, and previous attempts at using covenants and by-laws to restrict farming activity have had little effect due to ALR rules and the Right-to-Farm Act. There is, however, one area where Ayotte and his colleagues feel legislation could play a very important role: B.C.’s North, home to a significant portion of the world’s thinhorn sheep populations. “These sheep have never been in contact with domestics,” says Ayotte. “It’s chilling to think how potentially devastating this disease could be if that contact occurs.

“It’s a tough question: how much time and resources should we put into southern areas of the province where the disease is already established, versus working on preventative measures for the untouched populations of North?”

Stone_Sheep.jpg

Managing livestock/ wildlife conflicts on private land is a daunting task, and the program will need to continue to foster innovation and collaboration in order to find effective solutions. But with challenge comes opportunity. “One of our goals is to monitor the different strategies we’re trialing, and then share our success stories, within the province and beyond,” Ayotte reflects. “Historically, the program’s had its ups and downs, but now that we’ve got some stability through funding, there’s a perceivable buzz: you can really feel the momentum starting to pick up.”

Additional Resources:

For more information on the BC Sheep Separation Program, contact Program Coordinator Jeremy Ayotte on 250-804-3513 or email jeremy.ayotte@gmail.com

Websites:

Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agency’s Wild Sheep Working Group: This joint US-Canada association is a partner of the BC Wild/Domestic Sheep Separation Program, and their site provides information and links to resources about wild sheep management.

Wild Sheep Society of BC: an organization dedicated to promoting and enhancing wild sheep and wild sheep habitat throughout British Columbia.

Publications:

Domestic and Wild Sheep: Reducing the Risk of Disease Transfer Note: This brochure is currently undergoing a refresh, and the updated copy will be posted when available

Managing Wild and Domestic Sheep: A detailed report on Managing the Risk of Disease Transfer between Wild and Domestic Sheep in the Southern Interior of BC

To report a wild and domestic sheep/goat interaction, use the RAPP line.

 

Fri, 9 Aug 2013

BC’s Breeding Bird Atlas

As a follow-up to last week’s bluebird post, we thought we’d feature another HCTF wildlife project that BC birders can get involved in. The BC Breeding Bird Atlas is an ambitious project that unites the bird-watching community with biologists, management agencies, industry, academics and conservation organizations to create a comprehensive record of the status of breeding bird species in BC. Once complete, the atlas with serve as a key information source for both the wildlife management and wildlife viewing communities.

The project was initiated by Bird Studies Canada (BSC) in response to the lack of data available for many of BC’s bird species. Without current information on bird population numbers and distribution, it’s difficult to make informed decisions about their conservation and management. The task of collecting data for a province the size of BC would be insurmountable for a single organization, but by combining the enthusiasm of local birders, the expertise of professional ornithologists and the back-country access of guide outfitters, BSC has done just that. The Atlas website now allows site users to access annual data summaries, print regional checklists, and view maps visually summarizing the results of their data collection. You can choose to display the breeding distribution of hundreds of different kinds of birds, or select additional options such as the number of species recorded in a particular area.

BC_BIrd_Atlas_Map.jpg

 

How to Get Involved

The Atlas in now in the publication phase, and they are looking for contributions of high quality, colour photographs of every breeding bird species in BC. For more information on how to contribute photos, visit the BSC website.

The BC Breeding Bird Atlas has been an HCTF grant recipient since 2009, receiving over $150,000 in funding to date. Earlier this year, Bird Studies Canada was presented with an HCTF Silver Award for the project’s contribution to conservation.

Sun, 28 Jul 2013
Tags: Wildlife

Bluebird Update

An adult female brings food to her 5-day old nestlings inside one of the installed nestboxes.

We received a great update on the HCTF-funded Western Bluebird Reintroduction Project. It seems July has seen a number of hatchings, including the second clutches of 2013 for two of the re-introduced pairs! The spring hatchlings are now fully-fledged juveniles and are doing great: they can now hunt for wild insects on their own, and will likely help their parents with the feeding of their newly-arrived siblings. GOERT’s Julia Daly and Species-at-Risk biologist Trudy Chatwin estimate that there are over 38 Western Bluebirds flying about the Cowichan Valley these days, which includes all the juveniles and nesting parents.

Thanks to GOERT for supplying the following photos to show us how the birds are doing.

1-538-bluebird-hatchling

 

 

1-536-bluebird-juveniles-feeding-station.jpg

 

 

Sun, 28 Jul 2013
Tags: Wildlife

Bringing Back the Bluebirds

 

 

The Western Bluebird was once a common site on Vancouver Island. This brilliantly-coloured bird species thrived here and on the neighbouring Gulf Islands until the 1950’s, when their numbers began to steadily decline. By the 1990s, bluebirds were no longer breeding in southwestern BC, and were soon considered to be extirpated (locally extinct).

What caused this once prolific species to disappear? The primary factor is likely habitat loss. Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning they rely on holes left by woodpeckers in standing deadwood to build their nests. If most of these dead trees are removed (either through logging practices or urban development), the birds are left with little in the way of natural nesting habitat. Bluebirds face steep competition for the few remaining cavities, as these are also sought after by introduced species such as starlings and house sparrows.

Human activity has undoubtedly impacted the bluebirds’ distribution, but there is good reason to believe that human intervention will help return the species to its former range. The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team is working to restore self-sustaining Western Bluebird populations on Vancouver Island and the Southern Gulf Islands through the HCTF-funded Bring Back the Bluebirds project. The project team has been translocating breeding pairs to the Cowichan Valley and creating habitat for them by mounting nestboxes in prime foraging locations. The first year of the project (2012) resulted in the successful fledging of the first bluebirds known to have hatched on Vancouver Island since 1995. The project plans to translocate a total of 90 adult bluebirds over the course of 5 years.

The following video by Shaw TV provides an overview of the project, including footage of a pair of bluebirds being released from their aviary at Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve.

Want to be involved in this project? Visit GOERT’s website to learn how to identify Western Bluebirds, report bluebird sightings, or get information about nestbox hosting or monitoring programs.