Executive Director's Message
What a crazy journey the past few months have been! I don’t know about you, but I am missing hugs from my friends, going out for a meal, and a plethora of things that I took for granted everyday. Times like these help me focus on what I am profoundly grateful for, and right now that is nature – all of the plants, fresh air, and critters. Every day, I get out for a walk or bike ride in my neighbourhood and I feel so blessed to live where I do. The birds have been amazing this past month as they flit, flutter, and fly about looking for mates and setting up nests. There are more deer and elk in town than I’ve seen before, which always keeps me on my toes. Finally, the summer sun is shining through and I’m loving that too. I hope wherever you live, you’ve been able to find gratitude and joy in your local nature scene.
When we canceled the conference, I made a personal resolution to not let it get me down. Over the past few months, I’ve been exploring ways to take all aspects of our conference to a virtual setting. I had an absolute blast filming the award and scholarship videos, which are now housed in our members area. If you haven’t checked them out, you should. I laughed, I cried, and I applauded our amazing members and the incredible work they do. This month, we also launched our monthly lunch and learn webinar series with the Cumulative Effects on the Eastern Slopes research report. Each month we will feature speakers whose abstracts were accepted into the conference’s open paper program. I am pleased to give our members the opportunity to share their work with us all. On May 25, we launched the Larry Norman Comin Photo Contest online (go to our members area for details). Later this summer, we’ll host an online auction. The hardest thing is finding a virtual way for our members to network like they do at the conference, but I’ll find a way! I’m looking into discussion platforms where we can share articles, research, and discuss ideas in a private and safe online environment. Stay tuned for that! Ain’t no virus gonna keep me down!
Our member survey garnered 73 responses! Thank you to those who participated. The results reinforce how important outreach is to our membership and how you value our various forms of communication. Over the next few months, I’ll be working on translating the survey results into action. One thing I noticed is that our emails and social media posts could be more valuable. I continue to refine our communication tools to make them useful and interesting for you. If you have ideas of content that you would like to see in our emails or social media, please let me know.
One thing that has become exceedingly apparent to me over the past couple of months is how amazing and awesome our members are. Your work is inspiring, and your dedication and support of the ACTWS warms my heart. Whatever the next few months hold, I hope you and yours stay healthy, happy, and safe. May you find opportunities to breathe that sweet, fresh Alberta air, hug a tree, and admire our biodiversity in whatever way makes your heart sing.
From the Canmore woods to you,
Your ED, Sarah Elmeligi, PhD
It is unreal that the 31st annual conference was cancelled two months ago due to a global pandemic. On the conference’s start date, with heavy hearts, we cancelled mere hours before new government policies would have made it impossible to continue. We were unable to meet in person this year but hopefully people are still connecting virtually across the province. Even though the 2020 conference in Camrose did not go forward, the hard work and time commitment it took to organize deserves recognition. I want to acknowledge the incredible people who planned the conference. We had 24 people involved in conference planning, 23 sponsors, over 50 volunteers, more than 75 presenters, and 275 people registered to attend. To everyone involved with the conference - thank you, you have my heartfelt gratitude! We will try again for a conference in Camrose in 2021!
Due to the cancellation, we missed out on some annual traditions: celebrating award recipients, announcing student scholarship winners, goodbyes to previous board members and greetings to newly elected executives. In an effort to maintain some of the festivities, we are moving some of the celebrations online. Our new Executive Director, Sarah Elmeligi, arranged for members to recognize our professional award winners virtually by creating videos of the awarded presentations. These videos are located in the members’ section of the ACTWS website. If you haven’t watched them yet, I encourage you to take a look. The five award winners are very deserving, and the videos will entertain during self-isolation! Our three student scholarship winners are still to be announced. Look for their award presentation videos on social media soon!
As we weren’t able to give our outgoing executive a proper send-off, let me do so now. First, I want to acknowledge Everett Hanna – thank you is simply not enough to express our gratitude for your three years of dedication to the Chapter. Your guidance and leadership as President will be greatly missed. Cindy Kemper – you stepped into the role of Director two years ago and did a phenomenal job from the get-go. Your fundraising efforts were integral and your ability to bring new people to the organization was a real asset. Nikki Paskar – thank you for your time as Student Director. I speak for the whole board when I say I’m glad you will continue your involvement with the Outreach Committee. Finally, Chuck Priestley – what can be said about someone who just finished a two-year term as Director, then signed on for another two years? Thank you! It’s fantastic to maintain some continuity on the Board and continue to benefit from your experience. Stepping in to fill the vacant board seats, I’d like to welcome Nikki Heim, Fauve Blanchard, and Jenny Foca. It’s great to have you on board! Thank you to all who submitted their names as nominees for the ACTWS 2020 election. You better believe we are going to get you to re-enter in the 2021 election!
Though unfortunate, the cancelled conference hasn’t slowed us down. It has proved an interesting challenge to ensure our members receive the same benefits throughout the year that would normally be provided at the conference. Take advantage of our new learning opportunities. Attend our monthly “Lunch and Learn” webinars to hear about the current research going on in Alberta. Submit your research poster to highlight your work on our website. Enter a wildlife photo in the online Larry Norman Comin photo contest - details to come shortly. Check out our website to see the Conservation Affairs Committee’s recent work. They drafted three letters to the government regarding the sale of native grassland, optimizing Alberta Parks and commending the decision to ban 2% strychnine for control of Richardson’s ground squirrels. Stay tuned for more exciting ventures to come.
I hope everyone will take advantage of the nicer weather and get outdoors! During these uncertain times, fortunately I am still able to go camping. My partner Ryan and I, along with our two dogs, Anna and Ginny, spent the May long weekend at our property on Sylvan Lake. It was a beautiful weekend and I’m excited for more warm days in the coming months. I wish everyone a great, safe, and healthy summer!
Canadian Section of The Wildlife Society Update
What a spring! From moving teaching on-line, to Zooming with the grandkids, to FB’s hilarious jokes and amazing music, to widening the garden spot, to finding nooks to hike without others near within the city, to the sadness of those we lost, it will be spring we will not soon forget.
I had just got back from The Wildlife Society (TWS) Council in Omaha, NE as things started shutting down. Self-isolation!! Then, there were the first waves of TWS Chapters and Section cancellations and resurrected digital AGMs (well done, folks!).
The early March TWS Council Meeting was one of discussion of the budgets, funding for activities that invest in wildlife conservation and paths to tackle wildlife policy issues across North America. Council approved a new TWS working group (WG) under the banner of Nutritional Ecology (see so many other noteworthy WGs). The Annual TWS meeting planned for Louisville, KY is not yet cancelled but contingency plans are also underway.
As of the March submission deadline, there were more symposia and submitted papers than two years ago (last year was the big Joint TWS- American Fisheries Society (AFS) meeting in Reno). In that vein, TWS has opened their resources to provide online resources in the Live Learning Center to wildlife educators and students. The Live Learning Center contains presentations on a wide variety of wildlife topics from The Wildlife Society’s joint conference with ASF last fall. If you are interested, browse the TWS website.
Bret Collier from Louisiana State University stepped in as the new Editor-in-Chief of the Wildlife Society Bulletin. He has a great background with many years of experience as an Associate Editor and is beaming with enthusiasm and new ideas. Canada now has one new TWS Fellow, Erin McCance… congrats! The Leadership Institute (LI) class of 2020 has been selected and the Canadians among them are Julien St-Amand from Parks Canada and Mariana Nagy-Reis from Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. LI is an annual course established for 10-15 promising TWS members who participate in intensive activities and mentoring that prepare them for leadership positions, both in their workplace and in TWS. If you are applying for TWS certification, there is a big push to try to turn around the application process.
Summaries on TWS demographics are completed. Did you know that based on self-reporting in 2019, 42% of TWS’ 10,877 members were students or new professionals, which is up almost 10% from over the last few years; the female to male ratio is 41:59% - a shift of 4% toward more women; Hispanics, Asian, Native/Indigenous, African-American each are <1-4%; University is the top employer (27%) followed by state/province (19%) and Federal (16%); MSc is the most common highest degree (36%); Canadian members make up 5.2% (593) with BC having the highest number of TWS members, followed by Alberta and Manitoba (but other Chapters are growing!)
On the home front, the Canadian Affiliation and License Agreement was signed between CSTWS and TWS on 24 January 2020. CSTWS is now trying to facilitate how Canadian Chapters and Student Chapters might go down that road either directly or in alliance with CSTWS; but there is much to discuss and many decisions lie ahead. I have been charged putting together a geographically diverse committee of long-term Canadian TWS members to help compile information for these efforts. We will be talking to you further, in the near future, in the hope we can find a coordinated path forward that builds upon the rich history of TWS in Canada.
Cumulative Effects of Land Uses in Alberta’s Southern East Slope Watersheds – Final Report
The ACTWS partnered with ALCES to create a Cumulative Effects Analysis on Alberta’s Southern East Slope Watersheds. Two of researchers who worked on the report, Sarah Milligan and Lorne Fitch, were kind enough to discuss the report and its implications.
What’s the one piece of information from the report that you would want people to take away?
The important thing for people to take away is that although the simulations suggest (using trout as an indicator of watershed integrity) that current land management in the East Slopes is leading us to an undesirable and unsustainable future, they also show that there is hope through conservation. The report demonstrates that cost-effective conservation strategies exist for the East Slopes, and that there is potential to make real change.
Was there any part of the work going into this research that surprised you?
I was surprised by the seriousness of the motivation behind the project – namely that the situation in Alberta’s East Slopes was dire enough, and current research lacking enough, to prompt the ACTWS to fund a research project under its own name for the first time. Even knowing this, I was still shocked to see the high level of risk to native fishes in the East Slopes after linking AEP’s cumulative effects model to the landscape simulation, especially when climate change is considered.
What do you see the next steps taken with the knowledge of the report in hand?
Armed with our science-based assessment of cumulative effects and conservation priorities in the East Slopes, the next steps are to advocate for informed watershed planning and work with our partners to put the science in the hands of the decision makers. Alberta is seeing a lot of environmental policy and regulation changes as of late (e.g., cuts to protected areas, increased AAC, rescinding the Coal Policy, suspending environmental monitoring, etc.), so a timely and effective communication strategy is critical.
Are there lessons learned in the eastern slopes that can be applied to other locations or habitats in Alberta?
I think a general lesson learned through this project is that the process – i.e., cumulative effects analysis (CEA) of the status quo of land use management against other possible scenarios – works. Using landscape simulation, CEA works to help organizations like ACTWS understand trade-offs associated with land use options, and it can be applied to other locations, land use challenges, and species of interest.
Since this report was released, the Government has rescinded the Coal Policy. What are the potential impacts of rescinding the Coal Policy in the area?
- Alberta can’t meet its obligations for native trout recovery and likely other species at risk.
- Downstream water users will be affected and additional water treatment costs might be required.
- Environmental effects will linger long after the active life of the mine is over and the owners disappear.
- Alberta taxpayers may foot the bill for reclamation.
- Coal royalties are so low, they may not provide the fiscal backstop for reclamation costs.
- We will sacrifice other, sustainable land use options (e.g. recreation, agriculture, tourism).
- We continue to contribute to excessive CO₂ levels globally, with implications for further climate change.
Whether it is the Coal Policy or increasing the annual allowable cut or temporarily suspending environmental monitoring programs, it speaks to why we need a CEA for land use in Alberta. Otherwise, we do not have a tool that allows us to understand the implications of resource development. There are problems with approaching land use from a single wellsite or a single stream crossing or a single clear-cut logging operation as opposed to a review at a larger scale. When looking at the larger landscape scale, complete with all other land uses, that’s where CEA really proves its worth to provide an evidence-based assessment of the implications and the consequences of proposed development. Our failure to look at the larger scale has gotten us into our current dilemma with decreased water quality, species at risk and conflicts . In our reductionism, when we take it down to a single entity, we forget that everything is connected to everything else.
This project taken on by the ACTWS gives the chapter an opportunity to have an adult conversation about land use in the province. There were a number of funding partners, mostly with conservation and environmental backgrounds, and this gives them the opportunity to enter those discussions with a fair degree of information available to them. This levels the field and allows a discussion of past, present and future land use and their footprints. Without the data, it is easy to brush concerns aside. With the CEA at our disposal, it creates a bigger choir of people who have reviewed the report, and it is harder to brush aside concerns.
My hope for this is that there will be an opportunity to provide long term solutions to the cumulative effects of land use. A strong CEA helps us see where the key thresholds or tipping points are, which can help with planning and can also provide industry with certainty. Having standards based on science would help benefit everyone.
What this initiative does is provide a template to apply this across all of Alberta. If a small group like the Alberta Chapter can undertake a CEA and provide the promise of it to future planning endeavours, should not that be an incentive for the Alberta Government to do it? When CEA hit the streets around 30 years ago, even though the science was there, a lot of people, including the Alberta government, did not want the answers. This did not constrain us from taking on the initiative and it showed it can be done and what is in the realm of the possible.
Where would you like to see this technique applied to next in Alberta?
I think this should be applied to all the eastern slopes region in Alberta because they are busy landscapes that are valued by different groups for a variety of reasons. That tells me that this area cries out for this initiative to help us understand if we have exceeded some of these critical ecological thresholds already. Are we in a position where a lot of the indicators of an ecologically intact landscape have slipped through our fingers. Of course all of our native trout species are at risk—which answers the question. If you look at the Alberta landscape where conflicts are at there most, its in the eastern slopes. This is clearly an opportunity to start dealing with all those issues by instituting a CEA on the eastern slopes.
The boreal forest is probably ripe for this as well. The boreal forest has been called the lungs of the earth, which would suggest that globally, boreal forests have some values we should start paying attention to within the province of Alberta. There is also an opportunity for industry to step up to the plate to help with this. If industry and conservation groups worked together, it provides an opportunity to get over the hump of arguing over the results after the report is released. At this point, that is a dream. I would hope that to get to that type of partnership, we do not lose the opportunities that we might have for protections and management that a CEA would show.
I have worked in the eastern slopes for most of my career and having grown up on the edge of them, I wonder if we have already reached too many of the critical thresholds and exceeded them. I had the opportunity 10 years ago to do some aerial photography for Public Lands. I flew portions of the upper Clearwater, north and south Ram, North Saskatchewan and Brazeau rivers, and they were unrecognizable to me compared to my earlier memories, with roads, well sites, pipelines, gas plants, clear cuts, quarries and gravel pits. I hope someday soon we are wise enough to realize this is not an inexhaustible source of resources and that continuing to think of the eastern slopes as a frontier ripe for exploitation disappeared 100 years ago.
Wildlife Take Back the Streets
Written by Sarah Emeligi, PhD
As a behavioural ecologist, I often catch myself staring out to space wondering what the animals are doing and how their behaviour may be influenced by human activity. With Covid-19 forcing more people to stay at home, my imagination has been running wild as I imagine bears frolicking freely in our National Parks and deer wandering the streets with a newfound confidence. My imagination may not be exactly reflected in the data, but wildlife are changing how they use habitats during our Covid-19 isolation.
Typically, wildlife select the highest quality habitats in their home ranges. High quality is defined by several factors including availability and quality of forage, type and intensity of human activity, and relationships to conspecifics. For many species, habitat quality is negatively correlated with human activity. Covid-19 has changed how, when, and where people use the landscape in both urban and non-urban settings. Wildlife adapt to these changes in human use remarkably quickly. During the flood of 2013, the entire Bow Valley between Canmore and Banff was dramatically affected as both ends of the TransCanada highway were severed and traffic ceased. My colleagues who biked on roads adjacent to Banff remarked at the volume of wolf and bear scat along the roadside within 2 days of the highway being closed. The Covid-19 isolation has now lasted nearly two months and wildlife are changing how they use habitats in and around human use areas.
From the City to the Park
In the city of Edmonton, Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair and her lab began the Edmonton Urban Coyote project in 2008. This multi-faceted study aims to provide information that promotes coexistence between people and wildlife, minimizes the need for lethal management of coyotes, and maintains a sense of security and enjoyment of nature for people. Although data pertaining to coyote behaviour since the Covid shutdowns are yet to be analysed, preliminary observations suggest an increase in the number of sightings where people expressed high levels of concern about coyotes being bolder in residential areas. Some coyotes have even created dens under houses! Dr. St. Clair cautioned that more sightings may stem not only from increased coyote activity in neighbourhoods, but also from the higher number of people walking around their neighbourhoods while non-essential travel is restricted and many businesses across the city are closed.
With more people working at home, vehicle traffic in Edmonton has decreased considerably. Many previous studies have shown that traffic volume impedes wildlife movement and so Covid restrictions have likely caused an increase in wildlife movement. In the past two months, there have been multiple reports of deer and even moose in Edmonton’s residential areas. When restrictions are lifted and traffic volume increases, Dr. St. Clair predicts an increase in wildlife-vehicle collisions.
During these times of restricted vehicle traffic, but higher foot traffic in cities, coyotes and other wildlife may have an increased risk of habituation and food conditioning, in which animals learn to associate people with food. Food conditioning almost always increases human-wildlife conflict, particularly for carnivores, which may actively defend new food sources or residential habitats. This effect can increase over generations if wildlife produce young in residential areas. Research has shown that animals not only imprint on their parents but also on their natal habitats.
There are several ways that people can be part of the solution. For residential coyotes, Dr. St. Clair is encouraging people to apply “community-based hazing” by actively chasing coyotes out of residential areas when they are sighted, especially during the day. She recommends throwing a tennis ball with flagging tape wrapped around it, which creates a funny image in my mind but mimics the centuries old technique of fladry. Managing attractants on private property is also crucial. This includes making food sources (e.g., compost, garbage, fruit trees) inaccessible to coyotes, avoiding the attraction of prey species (e.g., to spilled bird feed), and ensuring there aren’t any attractive sheltering spots for a coyote to hide.
In our Provincial and National Parks, human activity in all forms has come to a near standstill. Kananaskis Park Ecologist, John Paczkowski, hasn’t noticed as much change in wildlife behaviour as he expected but an in depth review of camera data might reveal difference in animal behaviour. To take advantage of the potential baseline data set that a park closure could generate, he deployed a series of remote cameras along the road to see if wildlife activity increased. It is still early days, but so far there hasn’t been more animal activity roadside than normal. With the late spring, much of Kananaskis Country is still under several feet of snow. As more snow melts and more habitat becomes available, John hypothesizes he may see more wildlife roadside. One potential change is an increase in the number of moose using road side habitats, which has provided a couple of grizzly bears with predation and scavenging opportunities. Now that parks have opened, people should take extra care when driving and watch for wildlife.
Both John and I have noticed more elk and deer in and around the Town of Canmore. It is too early to say if there have been more reported sightings than in previous years, but we both have observed elk in parts of town where they aren’t usually seen during the day. Although this makes my walks around town more interesting, it could be challenging if these elk decide to birth their calves in town to avoid wolves. Parks Canada has also noticed more elk in the Town of Banff this spring. As Banff is quieter, elk are likely feeling a little safer to use freshly green lawns. Parks Canada staff are hazing elk out of town and has closed the west slopes of Tunnel Mountain to give elk a safe place to calve away from people. The next few weeks will be important for our mountain wildlife in and around Kananaskis.
Alberta Parks has hired bear aversion technicians to keep people safe, but John will be watching how campgrounds at 50% capacity influence bear and deer use of habitat in and around campgrounds. In our provincial parks, it may be even more important to take extra precautions to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Help pick up litter if you see a parking lot turning into an attractant; as many facilities are still closed in parks, carry an extra garbage bag in your car for this purpose. Don’t forget your bear spray and be prepared. Remember that wildlife has spent the last two months in a relatively human-free environment and they may be surprised to see you. Give wildlife extra space as you recreate and allow them to re-adapt to the return of people to the landscape.
As we mourn our field seasons and wonder what to do with our time, there are great ways to contribute to the covid-19 data sets being generated right now. Here are some citizen-science initiatives where you can report wildlife sightings in your neighbourhood or town from the comfort of your home office:
• Report coyote sightings in Edmonton.
• NatureLynx by ABMI is a great website and app where you can share sightings of all kinds of local species.
• eBird is a whole new way of birding by sharing sightings across North America.
• Report bear, cougar, and problem wildlife sightings to local land managers.
• Calgary Captured gives you an opportunity to classify remote camera images from Calgary’s urban parks.
• iNaturalist is a Canadian wide species data sharing community.
• GrizzTracker is an app that invites to share any grizzly sightings around the province.
COVID-19’s Impacts on Wildlife Researcher Jenny Foca, U of A Master's Student and ACTWS Student Representative
What is the background of your project?
I’m a MSc student at the U of A and my research is taking place in Elk Island National Park and Cooking Lake – Blackfoot PRA. I’m using trail cameras to estimate ungulate densities for bison, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, and mule deer. I’m also looking at how the different species partition space. I’m especially looking at how changes in bison density affect how the other ungulates are distributed. The research is interesting because the density is higher within the parks compared to other areas, which leads to a higher than average capture rate on the trail cameras.
Photos courtesy of Jenny Foca.
How has COVID-19 impacted your project?
My field research this summer has been delayed. I have updated my field activity plan to include COVID-19 precautions and its now going through an evaluation process at the university. Once I have approval to proceed, I can hire field techs and begin work. It’s the final field season so we need to take down all the cameras and retrieve the final SD cards. This work must be done, so as long as we get approved eventually, things should be okay.
There are some additional hurdles for techs and site access. In person training sessions aren’t currently available, so the 2 techs I plan to hire won’t be able to drive university vehicles. Currently there is no vehicle access to Elk Island, so until that changes we plan to bike into the park.
What are the precautions being taken if project is going forward?
Our field crew needs to make sure we continue to meet the criteria from the university COVID-19 self assessment. If someone has COVID-19 symptoms, if they’ve been out of the country recently, or if they’ve been in contact with someone with COVID-19, they can’t go to the field. We can have no more than 2 researchers per vehicle, and we have to practice social distancing while in the field. Additionally, we’ll be disinfecting vehicles daily, as well as any shared equipment. All data entry will be completed remotely, and we’ll have meetings over zoom.
What do you see as the consequences if project/field work is delayed or cancelled?
With field work being delayed, it is taking longer for me to finalize my dataset and progress. I’m also concerned for my techs because I wanted to hire them by May. Both were volunteer photo taggers on this project during the winter semester. One of them had their original field position for the summer fully cancelled, so I really hope this opportunity will happen.
This field work can’t really be cancelled. We have a total of 78 cameras deployed in the 2 parks right now and they need to be retrieved sooner or later. I’m hoping for sooner.
What advice do you have for other students who have had their research impacted?
I think it can be difficult to stay motivated and excited about your research when things are on hold and largely out of your control. I’d say to focus on pieces of your project you can control, stay connected with your research community, and be prepared for when things start moving again.
COVID-19’s Impacts on Wildlife Researcher Grace Enns, U of A Master's Student
What is the background of your project?
I am a 2nd year masters student and my research project is on Stone’s Sheep (Ovis dalli stonei), a subspecies of thinhorn sheep found in northern BC. My research is focused on habitat selection throughout the year and seeing if there are any seasonal differences. I am currently working on the lambing season and seeing where the ewe chooses to give birth and why. The reason we are looking into this is because not much is known about Stone’s Sheep and there are only a few papers and studies done on them, whereas lots has been studied on bighorn sheep. Stone sheep and bighorn sheep live in different habitats and do not overlap, and this project is to build a foundation of knowledge on their ecology and habitat selection. We are working with the First Nations in the area who hunt for subsistence hunting. Stone sheep are important for food, for spiritual reasons and for keeping the ecology of the area. We currently have GPS collars on 16 ewes and have been monitoring them since February 2018.
How has COVID 19 impacted your project?
The summer field season and lamb surveys have been cancelled completely to travel restrictions, especially to remote and northern communities where this research is to be conducted. The lamb survey was to determine which collared ewes had lambs and which did not. We were hoping to also determine if ewe’s habitat selection was impacted by having a lamb or not. We are looking into possibly hiring locals from the community to complete some of the field research to get the lambing data, but with a small community, finding qualified personnel is often difficult.
What do you see as the consequences if project/field work is delayed or cancelled?
The project can continue without this data and it shouldn’t impact the quality of the project. This summer would have been more supporting data, but we have all of our previous data and the GPS collars will continue submitting data every hour. I feel fortunate to have all of this data and that this isn’t my first field season collecting data.
There’s also the social impact on everyone doing master’s and PhD research because it is lonelier without the camaraderie of the lab. Even with research going forward, you are missing out on the research structure and community that goes into working in a lab setting.
What advice do you have for other students who have had their research impacted?
My advice for other students is to stay creative when faced with these challenges. Whether it’s adapting techniques, finding people local to your project to collect field data and stay in communication with your lab mates and supervisor. Be adaptable and create a supportive community around yourself as best you can. Reach out to lab mates and people that you know so that you have a social circle, not just for yourself but for your social group as well.
Photo courtesy of Krystal Kriss
COVID-19’s Impacts on Wildlife Researcher Erin Miller, U of A Masters Student
What is the background of your project?
My research is on polar bears in the western Hudson Bay and I am a Master of Science Student at the U of A. My focus is on the migration of this sub-population , specifically the fall migration when they go back out to the sea ice from the coast. I am studying polar bear migration phenology, seeing how where and when they migrate changes over time. I am also looking at hot spots in their migration and human wildlife conflict. A large number of migrating polar bears are often found in the Churchill area, where they come into conflict with humans while they wait for the fall sea ice. If we see changes in their phenology, this may correlate in changes in the rates and locations of conflicts, which might lead to insight into what environmental factors and individual polar bear characteristics affect the likelihood of bears becoming “problem bears”. “Problem bears” are often moved north during their migration and we want to see if them being moved impacts them being harvested when they cross over to Nunavut.
This is an interesting topic because there is a lot of variability between individual polar bears that leads to a lot of unexplained intra-annual variation. I am hoping to understand the influence of the small-scale sea ice factors and individual characteristics, such as body condition, on this variation. I am looking at data from 1991 to 2019 so hopefully, with this long dataset, we can start to understand this variation. Since 2016, we have been able to collect telemetry data from male polar bears with GPS ear tags. Previous studies have only been focused on females because that’s the only data available, but by adding in the male data, we have a better chance of understanding this individual variability.
How has COVID 19 impacted your project?
The spring field season for capture and collar has been cancelled. For my research, as of fall 2020, we will only have the 2019 collars remaining. The collars are designed to fall off after a year and the ear tags stop transmitting after 2019. This could mean that there will be no male or sub adult data for 2020 and possibly no female migration data for 2020 if the collars fail early and no fall field work can occur. We are hoping to get out this fall to capture and collar, but it is up to the organization of multiple groups . If there is no capture and collaring this year, we could still get data from “problem bears”. When “problem bears” are moved, wildlife officers tag them with ear tags in the fall. Although it would supplement my dataset, it wouldn’t give me the full picture regarding human-animal conflict because we wouldn’t have data on non-problem bears for comparison.
What do you see as the consequences if project/field work is delayed or cancelled?
In the worst case that no data is collected in 2020, I will still be able to work with the existing data set of 18 years with a few years missing in between. Although it would be unfortunate to not supplement the male and sub-adult datasets, missing out on 2020 locations won’t lead to having to redesign the project.
What advice do you have for other students who have had their research impacted?
My advice for other students is to be open minded to adjusting your research objectives and looking for data that is available. If your field research must be pushed back, look at learning the skills you will need to complete your project. For example, if you need to learn stats or GIS, work on that now until you can complete your field work so that when your data is collected, you are ready to analyse it. And make sure until things get back to normal, try to keep a schedule to help with productivity.
Conservation Affairs Committee Update – Alberta’s Park Cuts and Wildlife
There is no shortage of wildlife issues happening across Alberta these days and our Conservation Affairs Committee (CAC) has been busy trying to respond to the most pressing topics. One focus has been the recent announcement from Alberta Environment and Parks to Optimize Provincial Parks. This plan involves the full or partial closure of 20 Alberta Parks sites, including some provincial parks. An additional 164 sites, mostly provincial recreation areas (PRAs), have been listed as open for “partnerships” and for eventual delisting. This removal of 184 sites from the Alberta Parks system is unprecedented in Provincial and National history. The CAC is concerned about this plan and its potential impact on Alberta wildlife and their habitats for several reasons.
Lack of Data in Decision Making
The Alberta Government has stated these sites were chosen for delisting because they are underutilized and too expensive to maintain. There is no evidence for this claim and while this might be true for some sites, it certainly does not apply to many, e.g., the PRAs along the Red Deer River and in the Highwood Pass that are frequently full on summer weekends. The CAC requested to see the data that were used in selecting sites for delisting. The only data available contradicts the government’s statements and provincial data show camping and hiking are preferred recreational activities for Albertans across the province.
Economic data shows that in 2016, visitors to Alberta contributed more than $8.5 billion to the provincial economy, supporting 19,000 operators and employing 127,000 people. That economic contribution certainly outweighs the $5 million savings generated by these cuts. The CAC was not provided any data to demonstrate how these economic discrepancies were considered in selecting sites for delisting.
Lack of Clarity
The Alberta Government has yet to define what they mean by “partnerships,” although their website suggests that “sites removed from the system allow a greater range of uses that were not previously possible under government regulation.” This means that hotels, spas, and even industrial development will become possible on these lands. Those sites that are not picked up in new partnership agreements will be stripped of their current land designation, converted to vacant Crown Land, and then will be open for sale or any development proposals based on the Public Lands Act. Without knowing exactly what the future holds, we cannot anticipate what the impacts may be.
Changes to Human-Use Patterns on the Landscape
The PRAs opened for partnership are widely distributed throughout the province in all ecoregions (check out this map from CPAWS Southern Alberta that shows all sites included in this plan). PRAs are legislated through the Provincial Parks Act to “facilitate their use and enjoyment for outdoor recreation.” Although conservation is a secondary priority on these lands, they play an important role in the broader landscape by focusing overnight human use in areas that are designed for that purpose. Designated campsites with toilets, picnic tables, and firepits ensure people camp in areas that can sustain human use, so that they do not inadvertently damage sensitive habitats. Removing these PRAs from the landscape could result in more random camping on public lands, which can lead to habitat damage and human-wildlife conflict. This can reduce visitor safety and lead to increase wildlife management costs.
Species at Risk Affected
Several of the sites being removed are home to species at risk and there has been no mention of how these species will be considered in land-designation changes. For example, the CAC is concerned about how the critical Westslope Cutthroat Trout spawning areas in the Waiparous Creek PRA, bat populations in Gooseberry Provincial Park, and the Piping Plovers in Little Fish Creek Provincial Park will be addressed with new development proposals. The government has not explained how they will hold potential partners accountable to ensure that their activities do not compromise the ecological integrity of habitats for these critical species.
You Have a Voice
One of the most shocking things with this announcement was the absolute lack of public consultation. The Alberta Government did not discuss this plan with stakeholders, First Nations, or the people of Alberta before deciding to remove nearly a third of sites from the Alberta Parks system. A change of this magnitude is unprecedented, and we find the lack of consultation to be unacceptable. Albertans have strong linkages to the parks systems and their views of Albertans need to factor into decision making. The CAC wrote a letter to the Minister, which you can find in the members area of the website. We encourage you to write letters or call your elected officials; you also can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.
All of the photos in this article were taken in or near areas impacted by this decision.
Meet an Alberta Wildlifer: Our New President Alex Beatty
What’s your favourite Alberta species?
If I had to pick just one, it would have to be the red-winged blackbird. A common species, I know, but I was a natural history interpreter for over 10 years at the John Janzen Nature Centre and for Alberta Environment and Parks (interpretive life shown in the picture) and one of my absolute favorite birds to tell people about was the red-winged blackbird. It’s easy to identify a red-winged blackbird by its call. I don’t think anyone who knows the mnemonic “gon-or-RH-EA!” will ever forget it. Of course, when I taught programs for children, I used a more appropriate “eat my CHEEZIES!” mnemonic.
Where did you go to school?
I completed my B.Sc. with a Specialization in Animal Biology at the University of Alberta. I continued on to complete my M.Sc. in Ecology there as well.
What did you research for grad school?
My work involved terrestrial habitat selection, site fidelity, and movement patterns of polar bears in western Hudson Bay, Manitoba. As part of a long-term monitoring program, adult female polar bears are tranquilized by helicopter (seen in the photo) and tracked using satellite-linked GPS collars.
Turns out, on land, polar bears show selection for freshwater and riparian areas, possibly to reduce hyperthermia and dehydration while fasting. They return to the same general area off the Hudson Bay coast, but not to specific sites. Movement rates increased for younger and older bears, during the day, when bears were closer to the coast, as days since sea ice breakup increased, and during periods of low windspeeds.
Climate change is altering sea ice phenology, forcing polar bears to spend an increasing amount of time on land. Understanding movement ecology and terrestrial habitat use of the bears may become increasingly important for conservation planning.
Can you give a quick overview of your career?
I just completed my MSc degree and I am really an early-career professional. However, the road here wasn’t straight! I completed two years of my undergraduate degree, took five years off, eventually found my passion for wildlife and then returned to school to finish my BSc. During the last couple of years of my undergrad and the beginning of grad school, I volunteered on the board of the University of Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society. I then started working with ACTWS as Secretary-Treasurer. I held that position for just a year when I stepped into the role of President-Elect. During my MSc, in addition to fieldwork, I had the opportunity to go to Svalbard, Norway and tag seals, travel to South Korea as part of an Arctic Academy program, and work as a field tech for the Calgary Zoo capturing black-tailed prairie dogs. Now that I’ve finally finished my MSc, I can’t wait to see what other exciting opportunities await me!
What are your career highlights?
As I mentioned, I’m really just starting my career, but I’ve had some amazing experiences over the last couple of years, including researching polar bears! How many people can say they have touched a polar bear? I feel incredibly lucky to have gone up to the Arctic several times and when I tell people about my research I’m constantly reminded of how cool it is! Working with ACTWS has also been a highlight for me. I’ve been very fortunate to have been awarded the William Wishart Post-Graduate Award from ACTWS and also to have won the Conference Presentation Award in 2018. I appreciate the Chapter’s recognition and it is part of why I’m still so involved with the Chapter today.
What got you interested in working in wildlife?
I completed two years of my undergraduate degree, but at that time hadn’t found my passion. I took five years off, lived in France, then came back to Edmonton where I worked as an interpreter. I always loved animals and nature, but it wasn’t until I started working as a natural history interpreter for the City of Edmonton at the Edmonton Valley Zoo and the John Janzen Nature Centre that I realized I wanted to have a wildlife-related career. As a natural history interpreter, I found I could share my passion for animals with others and I got to work with like-minded people. Upon returning to school I conducted an undergraduate research project and that was when I discovered my passion for research.
Where do you see your work in the future?
I am motivated to contribute my skills, enthusiasm, and knowledge as a wildlife biologist in Alberta. I would love to stay and work in Alberta, although I do have a soft spot in my heart for the Arctic. My goal is to become an expert in the field of ecology and to contribute novel research that will aid in the management and preservation of native Alberta species. My current plan is to work for a few years and then possibly, (very tentatively at this point!) return to academia and complete a PhD. I have just a year and a half left on the ACTWS board and will have served for four years in different positions. I’d like to stay involved with TWS whether that’s with ACTWS or another chapter.
Who was a mentor or famous biologist who helped shape your career?
I credit Dr. Evelyn Merrill. She gave me my first research start as part of an undergraduate research project. She is the reason I attended my first ACTWS conference in 2015. I remember distinctly that I wasn’t very excited about going to the conference, but I’m sure glad I did! Besides the fun to be had at the conference, it’s amazing to see the variety of research and diversity of people you meet. Attending the ACTWS conference cemented a career in wildlife biology for me – and I haven’t missed a conference since!
Where’s your favourite place to visit in Alberta?
My family owns a little area of land near Two Hills Alberta. We call it Hawks Haven Farm – and it really lives up to the name. Just the other day we were out there shooting clay pigeons and a broad-winged hawk flew overhead with a snake in its talons! I doubt the surrounding area would be on anyone’s list of favorite places in Alberta, but the farm is secluded and nature is undisturbed. We often see wildlife, including black bears, coyotes, moose, white-tailed deer, amphibians, and of course birds. It’s the perfect place to get out of the city and enjoy nature.
Do you have any advice for students and young wildlifers you wish you’d known when you started?
My advice would be to foster your passion, persevere, and participate! You must have passion for what you’re doing, because it won’t always be easy or fun. But when working long hours in the field, at least once a day, I find myself saying “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” I think everyone should feel that way about their vocation. Perseverance is a requirement in this field. I submitted my name to be on the ACTWS board three times before on the third time it stuck – and now I can’t seem to leave! Finally, get involved with your student chapter, with ACTWS, or with other organizations! There is no better way to hear about opportunities, to make connections, and to learn, than to participate. Wildlife needs your commitment and talents.