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.

 

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fri, 19 Apr 2013
Tags: Wildlife

HCTF Staff Visit Delta Farmland Project

A flock of snow geese land in Ladner.

HCTF staff may be coming to a project near you!

On April 12th, Lynne Bonner and Jane Algard visited Ladner to do a project site evaluation on the “Provision of Waterfowl and Raptor Habitat within Managed Grasslands on Lower Fraser River Farmland” project. Christine Terpsma of the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust took us on a tour of farmlands that are under stewardship agreements in the Ladner/Delta area near Vancouver. HCTF funding ensures local farmers plant winter cover crops (for waterfowl) and grassland set-asides (for raptors) to provide a diversity of habitats for wildlife.

We saw the evidence of success: some winter cover crops were eaten down to bare ground, we spotted a number of hunting northern harriers in the set-asides, and hundreds of snow geese landed in a field next to us. As an added bonus – we sighted three snowy owls! Thanks Christine, for your time and your enthusiasm for wildlife conservation.

 

Fri, 16 Nov 2012

Why did the frog (try to) cross the road?

Although roads are vital transportation corridors for humans, they often have the opposite effect on wildlife, cutting off their normal routes to and from food and water or blocking their seasonal migrations.But, efforts are underway to connect amphibian habitats across roads without the carnage.

With the help of funding from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program, coastal ecologist Barbara Beasley of the Association of Wetland Stewards for Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds, has been spearheading a project to create tunnels for safe passage under roads.

She is hopeful that will reduce mortality among five species including the red-legged frog, which is listed as a species of concern.They have also identified northwestern salamanders, rough-skinned newts, western red-backed salamanders and Pacific chorus frogs.

The test project is underway on Highway 4 south of a four-hectare wetland called Swan Lake near the Tofino-Ucluelet-Port Alberni junction, but she’s optimistic the results can be applied elsewhere in B.C. where amphibians are being killed crossing roads that have been built through their habitat. Swan Lake is an important breeding ground for red-legged frogs.

It all started when she was doing amphibian inventories in the Clayoquot Sound area in her role as a biologist, and she discovered that a lot of animals were being killed on highways in the area. She began volunteering to find out where the worst carnage was happening, and found that hundreds were being killed annually, especially in the fall when they’re disbersing from the Swan Lake wetland, which is just 500 metres from the road.

In the spring, other adults also move across the road. A peak crossing area was identified and work began, with the cooperation of the highways ministry, to construct an underpass system and fence barriers to guide amphibians through it.

A mark and re-capture study has been part of the monitoring to judge how successful the tunnel has been, and Beasley says it show some frogs and salamanders move through the tunnel, but not as many as expected. That work is continuing to see if the numbers increase. The fences definitely reduce roadkill, she adds.

Since amphibians use a variety of methods to guide their migration, including sunset, electromagnetic fields, celestial cues and olfaction, she had some concerns that the underground passage may block some of them out. However, over time, she’s confident that scent marks will help guide them through the passageway.

The highways ministry is looking at two other potential sites on the east side of the island, which are hotspots for vehicle collisions. A population model is also being done to see what impact roadkill is having on the wetland’s population. “Traffic is bound to increase, so we need to plan for that future,” she commented.The project continues this year.

Beasley has been keeping up a blog about the project, called SPLAT project amphibian tunnel, at splatfrogtunnel.blogspot.ca

The HCTF exists because hunters, anglers, guides and trappers contribute money towards projects that maintain and enhance the health and biodiversity of this province’s fish and wildlife and their habitat—and toward education about those natural resources. Since 1981, they have contributed more than $130 million through surcharges on their annual licences, with this funding administered by an independent foundation board of volunteers from around B.C. However, anyone can contribute toward the HCTF and support projects like this one with their donations.