To inspire and empower wildlife professionals to engage in science-based management and conservation of wild animals and their habitats.
In This Issue
- Executive's Director's Message
- President's Message
- Canadian Section of the Wildlife Society Update
- Licensing and Affiliation Agreements between ACTWS and the Canadian Section of The Wildlife Society
- Cumulative Effects on the Eastern Slopes Report Impact
- Caribou Captive Breeding in Jasper National Park Interview with Dr. Stan Boutin
- WildLift Interview with Melanie and Mariana
- CWD: Why Wildlife Managers are Concerned
- An Interview with Don Stiles, President of Calgary Area Nestbox Monitors Society for Nature Alberta
- ACTWS Habitat Hot Topic!
- Mystery Wildlife
- Upcoming Events
Photo courtesy of Barry Trakalo
Executive Director's Message
As the snow flies past my office window and the winter wonderland takes shape in my local forest, start to cozy up, read books, write papers (hopefully), and reflect on the past year. Like you, I am looking forward to turning the page on 2020 and welcoming a new year. When I became your ED in January, I had no idea what lay in store. I am so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish and how we have worked together to make the ACTWS even better through these challenging times!
This past year has highlighted the need to be nimble and adaptable in an unpredictable and changing world. As a behavioural ecologist, I often think about how animals adapt to changing habitat conditions, human activity levels, or climate realities. While the ACTWS is not an organism, many of the same principles apply. Our habitat has changed to an online one and we’ve adapted by offering virtual workshops and sharing videos of our award winners on our website. With changing human activity patterns, our monthly webinars have offered our members an opportunity to share their work from their home office. The overall climate has changed how we raise money to keep our operations moving forward. Through our online auction and sweepstakes campaign, we’ve raised money and broadened our reach to Albertans outside of our membership. Through various symbiotic partnerships, we’ve distributed the Cumulative Effects on the Eastern Slopes report and put it in the hands of decision makers and advocates for sustainable land use management. We have also become a leader among TWS chapters across North America with the creation of our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee and our free BIPOC memberships.
With your support, we have been resilient to change, adaptable to our new habitat, and have thrived in our new landscape. There are no words to express how grateful I am to each of you for embracing change and coming together to support our new virtual programming suite. You all make being an ED easy!
Looking ahead, I will be spending the winter updating our strategic plan and planning our 2021 programs. As always, I am here to serve you; if you have any ideas, I want to hear them!
2021 Conference – Our March conference will be online and after attending the TWS conference in my sweatpants, I can tell you there are perks to conferencing at home! This year’s conference will still feature an amazing series of talks, posters, panel discussions, and social events to get your creative research and management ideas flowing.
Webinars - Our monthly webinar series has been amazing and will continue beyond the 2021 conference. A call for abstracts will come every quarter.
Workshops – We’ve had two virtual workshops so far and they have been great! Virtual workshops offer anyone from anywhere in the province a chance to participate in an interactive discussion and improve their skills. Details about our next workshop, Writing Science for Non-Scientists, will be coming soon.
Committees – Our Conservation Affairs Committee continues to represent the ACTWS in discussions about species at risk, caribou recovery, land use planning and more. Our EDI Committee is defining additional supports for underrepresented groups and I can’t wait to see what they come up with for 2021. If you want to volunteer on any committee, we’d love to have you.
Getting to know you – This month, we launched an EDI Member survey. The survey focuses on gathering critical information for us to create programs that help diversify our membership and meet your needs. Fill out the survey before the end of January and you could win a great Patagonia hat!
I know we’re going through a tough time in Alberta this Holiday Season. There are days when the world feels heavy and I feel disappointed with COVID-related restrictions and realities. I honestly believe, however, that we are stronger when we support each other. I am buoyed when I am reminded of the work that we do and how we work collaboratively to further research and conservation of Alberta wildlife and their habitats. I hope that wherever you are, you and your family are staying healthy and safe and finding the joy in our inspiring landscapes this holiday season. Enjoy time in your own winter wonderland. Breathe our beautiful fresh Alberta air, say hello to your local wildlife, and play in the snow.
Wishing you all an enjoyable holiday season filled with love, laughter, cookies, and outside time.
From my family to yours,
P.S. This photo is of my new Great Dane puppy, Max, which some of you have met on Zoom. He is so good at getting me to giggle and enjoy the outdoors right now.
To all members of Alberta Chapter,
I hope this newsletter finds you healthy, enjoying newly fallen snow. Colder weather brings a change to outdoor activities, and I envy everyone able to get outdoors right now – because I can’t! Unfortunately, I won’t be enjoying activities outdoors for a while – I fractured bones in my foot! I am grateful for the support I’ve received from family, friends and colleagues during this downtime. With any luck, when I see you all at the virtual conference in March, I’ll be hopping in excitement (on both feet)!
Speaking of the conference, as many of you are aware, ACTWS will be hosting the 2021 conference over the week of March 22-27 virtually. Conference planning is well underway! The planning committee is working under the direction of the Conference Chair and President-Elect, Nikki Heim. Although a virtual conference is new to ACTWS, I have no doubt the elements that you love from in-person conferences will be translated virtually. Stay tuned for information about the conference closer to the new year.
ACTWS delivered many exciting programs this fall, including: continuation of our monthly lunch and learn webinars, the introduction of virtual workshops, the online sweepstakes fundraising campaign from November 9-30 and the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee introduced complimentary ACTWS memberships for BIPOC individuals.
Other exciting news, ACTWS has begun new collaborations with the Fish and Wildlife Historical Society. The society has joined ACTWS as part of the ACTWS Historical Committee. Also, we have been involved in recent meetings with other Provincial Chapters. I hope this relationship will continue to evolve and grow. Opportunities for inter-chapter collaboration and chapter-section collaboration are positive and exciting.
Enjoy all those winter activities: hunting, ice fishing, snowshoeing, skiing, and skating for me. I hope the rest of 2020 is positive for everyone despite COVID-19! Take good care. Hope to see you soon.
Canadian Section of The Wildlife Society Update
In these crazy times, I hope everyone’s fall has had at least a few highlights. For me, it was filling our freezer with my first (and likely last given the work! ) moose. We will not starve this winter… or likely next.
The Wildlife Society (TWS) under the auspices of our new president, Carol Chambers, remains on the fast track. In the fall, Council members work within subcommittees (e.g., Bylaws, Position Statements, Publications, Policy Priorities) to address the tasks given them by President Chambers. These efforts result in a range of reports and recommendations to Council at the beginning of the new year to approve or refine. This year, Sections and Chapters will be asked to provide feedback on two items. First, are the proposed modifications of the Bylaws related to removing procedural items, clearing up some operational details, and distinguishing between Sections (because Incorporation fixes Section boundaries) and voting districts for representatives (to match shifting membership distribution in time) are among others that the full TWS membership will eventually vote on. However, Sections and Chapters Executives are being asked for prior feedback. Sections and Chapters will also be asked for input on TWS Policy Priorities for the next 2-3 years.
Within other subcommittees, current position statements on Feral and Invasive Species and Energy Development and Wildlife are being revised, and new Position Statements on Fire and Forest Management and Categorical Exclusions to NEPA (USA) will be drafted. The Publications committee is discussing issues of new Journal of Wildlife Management formats (article format and early view graphics), how to maintain the printing of Journals, scope of the Wildlife Monographs, and future expectations on data sharing policies. TWS is now an official member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and how petitions and resolutions will be addressed is still being worked out. There also has been considerable discussion around the tough choices regarding holding a virtual, in-person, or hybrid meeting next fall. Stay tuned on that.
To end, I want to compliment the Canadian Section and Chapters for all the great webinars that you have been holding. I make many but not all. To me these are the small jewels coming out of the Covid-19 times to be excited about. Great job!!
Best wishes for the holidays ahead.
Cumulative Effects on the Eastern Slopes Report Impact
The Cumulative Effects of Land Uses and Conservation Priorities in Alberta’s Southern East Slope Watersheds report was completed this past spring. Throughout the year, we’ve worked diligently with our partners to distribute it broadly, as well as advocated for the utilization of the results in land use planning processes.
Sharing the report
The summary of the report and a link to download the full pdf were posted to the ACTWS website in late April. The report was also the subject of our first lunch and learn webinar in May, a video recording of which can be accessed in our members area. ACTWS members and members of partner organizations were invited to attend the webinar; 41 people attended the webinar and over 95% of them found the webinar useful.
At the end of June, the report was sent with a cover letter summary to Premier Kenney; the Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry, Energy, Coal, Tourism, and Red Tape Reduction; all MLAs with constituencies in the study area; Leader of the Opposition, Environment and Parks critic, Energy critic; and the Alberta Energy Regulator. The report was then emailed to all Alberta Environment and Parks Directors and Planners with a working interest in the landscape associated with the report. A copy of the cover letter can be found in the members area of our website: Members Documents/Position Statements and Letters/2020 Conservation Letters and Position Statements.
Representing the ACTWS, Lorne Fitch shared the report with the Livingstone Landowners Group and the MD of Ranchlands to assist with their submission for the Grassy Mountain Mine public hearing and land use planning efforts. He also wrote an article for the Nature Alberta blog.
Working with partners
There were several organizations who required the information contained with the Cumulative Effects report to frame their own recommendations for land management on the Eastern Slopes. As such, there was already a high level of interest in the scientific information the report contained in order for our partner organizations to further advocacy for evidence-based decision making. CPAWS, the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), Department of Fisheries and Oceans were all part of a discussion regarding rolling out the report. AWA sent the report to their “Fish and Forests” mailing list to follow up on a workshop that Lorne and Sarah Milligan conducted in the fall of 2019. Y2Y, AWA, and CPAWS Southern Alberta have been participating in the recreation advisory group for the Castle, Livingstone-Porcupine Hills, Bob-Creek and Black Creek. They cited the report in their detailed proposals for the region, and the report has been helpful in supporting their requests for the completion of cumulative effects planning and protection of Westslope Cutthroat Trout critical habitat. Fisheries and Oceans Canada appreciated the cost-benefit analyses and see the report’s models as a valuable output that provide managers with more informed choices in regard to decision-making in the C5 area. The report will likely be considered when prioritizing future trout recovery actions in the C5 area.
Presenting the report
In the summer, the Conservation Affairs Committee submitted a letter of concern to the Grassy Mountain Coal Project Joint Review Panel. One of our concerns was the inadequacy of the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted by the proponent, and in particular the inadequate cumulative effects assessment. We were invited to present our concerns for one-hour as part of the public hearing associated with the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine. Andrea Morehouse, Sarah Elmeligi, and Sarah Milligan conducted the presentation. Sarah Elmeligi stated overall concerns regarding the EIA and Andrea Morehouse spoke to the mine’s impacts to carnivores and connectivity. The bulk of the presentation, however, was delivered by Sarah Milligan who detailed the results of the Cumulative Effects report as an example of an appropriate cumulative assessment for the area. Sarah’s presentation of the Cumulative Effects report in this process was an integral part of our presentation and included as an essential piece of science for consideration in the decision-making process. Our presentation was well-received and several hearing participants emailed us to share appreciation for the work we had done in providing in robust, credible science to the discussion. Being a part of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project Joint Review Panel provided the ACTWS with valuable exposure to new partners, decision makers, and processes. We positioned the ACTWS as a credible organization that can be relied on to contribute valuable scientific information to important land use decision making processes.
We know that this project was a different way for the ACTWS to conduct our work and some of our members were concerned. We have worked hard over the past few months to ensure that this project was worth our financial and staff capacity. The board is pleased with the exposure the report has received and its inclusion in the Grassy Mountain hearing process. Our involvement in the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine public hearing would not have been as effective without this work. This has proven that projects like this can be useful for furthering the ACTWS mission, but they should be considered on a case by case basis moving forward.
Caribou is an iconic Canadian species and most herds in Alberta are at risk. Even the caribou residing in Jasper National Park are hurting. The Maligne herd in Jasper has recently been declared extirpated. In response to this terrible news, Parks Canada looking at breeding pens for the remaining two herds. We spoke with Dr. Stan Boutin to get some perspective and to get his opinion on the plan.
Caribou Captive Breeding in Jasper National Park Interview with Dr. Stan Boutin
Interview by Ian Buchwald on November 13, 2020, @ 15:00
What are your initial thoughts on the plan?
It is desperate times, which require desperate measures. Captive rearing is a desperate measure. Parks Canada does have a mandate for keeping the herds in Jasper National Park (JNP) around, and they have limited options at this point. The numbers are so low that it is crisis territory with one herd being extirpated, and with no action now, the other two herds will likely meet the same fate.
What has been the cause of the reason for the sharp decline?
It is most likely death by a thousand cuts. The park is quite large, but it is impacted by its surroundings and does not exist in a vacuum. The park has likely been impacted by human activity and development outside the park's boundaries, such as forestry, oil and gas. And the park is not immune to climate change as well. Parks Canada is limited to the park boundaries for what they can control.
With the number of caribou left, what are the plan's chances of success?
There are approximately 10 to 20 females left in the three herds left in JNP. This is an extremely low number and leaves little room for error. With numbers that low, there is a higher probability that a chance event could wipe out the remaining females.
Are there alternatives to the plan?
There are no local herds with numbers that would allow translocation of individuals into these herds. Parks have done work cutting back access during the calving season to areas and managing alternate prey species, such as elk.
Are there any caribou herds in Alberta that would have a greater chance of success for active management working?
No, I am afraid I am quite negative on captive breeding programs. The reason for this is that you are rearing these individuals in unusual conditions at high densities, making them prone to disease issues. Having them in these breeding pens for multiple years leads to domestication issues, making it difficult to take those individuals to be transplanted back to the wild. In addition, there is the fact that you're putting these captively reared caribou into new situations. They have tried in BC without much success, which leads me to believe that Parks Canada has its work cut out for them.
The first obstacle will be finding the individuals for the captive breeding program to get started. They do have the option of putting all the remaining individuals in the pens and supplementing the herd with individuals from BC. The trouble is that they do not yet have a source for additional individuals as the herds in BC are also in trouble. And the problem with pulling all the individuals out of JNP and penning them is they lose their historical memory if removed from the area for long enough. I think it is asking a lot of the caribou to be re-introduced into an area with no maternal history, no migratory history or anything else of that nature. From the literature, the release is where other captive breeding programs run into problems, and it does appear to be hit and miss.
For a captive breeding program to be successful, there needs to be ongoing habitat restoration so that there is somewhere for the captive-bred individuals to be released. From what I have read of Parks Canada's plan, they believe they can get the habitat acceptable for caribou. They have the wolf population down to a number that will allow for high adult caribou survival rates. They are also planning on reducing human activity during critical times of the year, which can help by not having more trails for wolves to travel along.
What are the public perceptions of the project?
It is a dilemma for Park's Canada because if we are living in a world with climate change, which we are, it will lead to changes in species distribution. And this may mean that JNP is no longer in the caribou's climate envelope. If this is the case, it will be close to impossible to get a self-sustaining population. If Parks Canada's mandate is to keep everything as it was in the past, it becomes an impossible task to do without a lot of intervention. You could say that situations change and that caribou are no longer part of the parks system. The public would probably not notice any changes if caribou were no longer in the park as caribou are not present in the areas most frequented by the public. So, is it worth such a massive investment for a project that the public would not notice? And it is a long-term, multi-year endeavour to get caribou populations back up possibly. If the park is no longer in the caribou climate envelope, this is a never-ending project. This is a huge investment that is high risk with very little tangible reward. But with their mandate and the public disappointment if caribou were completely extirpated from the park, they have no alternative. Caribou are an iconic Canadian species that the public has a soft spot for. I think most Canadians want caribou to exist somewhere in Canada but does that have to include Jasper National Park?
What are the other options for protecting caribou in Alberta?
I have always been an advocate of caribou conservation in the more industrial parts in the northeast. Apart from wolf control, there is an opportunity for caribou "safe havens" that are 20 to 30 km2 fenced enclosures that would be predator-free. There is a plan to trial this for the Little Smoky herd and would not involve removing all the females from the herd. The larger size would allow them to remain semi-wild, and the offspring would be exported as yearlings back to the herd. These safe havens are like captive rearing but with much less intervention than captive rearing; it does allow for a higher chance for long term success. While some may not like the plan as it does not feel natural, we are at the point that we need to resort to these high intervention plans. A successful caribou sanctuary could also become a source of caribou to supplement other herds. If the sanctuary program had been started sooner, we would already have individuals to export to other herds.
What are other factors to consider for these caribou sanctuaries?
These sanctuaries could produce up to 20 to 30 individuals a year, you need a place for them to go and a habitat to support them. So, you need active habitat restoration to increase the survival rates of the caribou herds. This will require a lot of investment for all the seismic lines and disturbances in the area.
Are there other advantages to using caribou sanctuaries?
Another advantage with the sanctuary system is that you are exporting yearlings, which have higher survival rates versus the young released from captive breeding. Part of this higher survival is because yearlings are better at avoiding wolves than calves are. And the sanctuaries are designed to have at least 20 km2, whereas captive breeding pens are in the range of 10 ha. This gives a better sense of reality for the caribou inside the fence because the larger enclosure has a higher resemblance to their natural habitat.
Are there potential drawbacks to the sanctuary system?
Conservation groups might be worried that by creating these sanctuaries, we are giving industry a carte blanche outside of the sanctuaries. There is an excellent example of the sanctuary system working east of Edmonton in Elk Island National Park (EINP). The park is completely fenced and has been in existence for years without anyone batting an eye at it now. But it is the same concept with a high level of human intervention but does require further protections for the habitat outside of the sanctuary.
Are there any additional learning opportunities from a caribou sanctuary?
The sanctuary system would also be a fascinating experiment to have a large area free of wolves, coyotes and lynx. Beyond protecting caribou, it would be interesting to see what other side effects might happen and give us a better understanding of how our systems work. But the size is small enough that if things go haywire, its impacts will be minimal on the system as a whole.
What are the stumbling blocks for getting a caribou sanctuary running?
The cost is the big hurdle because it has expensive start-up costs. The industry was interested a few years ago, but the potential funding has dried up, and the provincial government likely will not have the money to fund it. The province and the federal government are discussing plans to protect caribou. The province is still focused on economic development and wants to avoid being slapped with a section 11 order. But without any action, it's just window dressing at this point.
Is there a chance that the public will try to access the pens for viewing opportunities?
I do not think right away, but I think in time, you could set up limited viewing towers that people could pay for access for viewing. It would take a lot of work to set up as not to disturb the caribou in the maternal pen, but it would allow for some amazing views and opportunities. Seeing these animals going about their business and the appeal of a cute caribou calf is huge, so there will definitely be interest in the public being able to see things unfold. And in fact, if the plan starts to pan out, they could use this to show some success, but I do not think they want that as a starting point. And they know that they're going to have to control access very, very, very carefully because you just can't afford to slip up with somebody disrupting what's going or vandalizing the fence.
What are your final thoughts on the project?
It is heartening to see that Parks Canada is taking steps to help caribou populations recover, whereas the provincial government is trying to solve the problem by culling wolves only. No one wants to have caribou disappear on their watch, and there is almost 100% certainty that if you do nothing, they will disappear. Parks Canada is stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are going to catch hell if caribou do disappear, and they have done nothing. And they are going to catch hell if they fail at the captive breeding program. They basically have two outcomes that will not be good for them and one unlikely outcome that might give them a way through this whole mess. So high risk for sure. But they've clearly considered their options carefully and are willing to take the risk. I think it will be interesting to see how this all pans out. And I think it's definitely going to be something a lot of people will be watching intently.
WildLift Interview with Melanie Dickie and Mariana Nagy-Reis
WildLift is an open source tool developed by the ABMI to help make informed decisions for wildlife conservation Melanie Dickie and Mariana Nagy-Reis were kind enough to discuss the app and the paper. For more information on the tool and the paper, click here.
What was the reasoning behind the app and the project as a whole?
Melanie: Caribou are in decline across much of Canada, and the populations in Western Canada specifically, are not doing well. There is lots of work going into innovative solutions to try and stem those declines. The project started a while back now, where we specifically wanted to predict the costs and caribou-population response to a predator exclosure and how that compared to other management options. We didn't really have a whole lot of information to go on, other than doing some simulation work. Then the project evolved into a bit more of a larger story of using structured decision-making to compare the various management options we have for caribou. The project started largely with a project with the Canada Oil Sands Innovation Alliance and then matured into something more with the support of the government of British Columbia. We didn't want this project to simply outline the information to folks; we wanted people to be able to apply the information. So, we also developed a tool, a shiny app, that folks could use easily on their computers to play with the models and test different assumptions that we made or examples that we gave, and tailor them to their situation. We wanted the web-based app to be approachable and allow anyone with any kind of computer expertise to go in and click around. For the folks who are a little bit more technical savvy and experienced in programming in R, they can also go into the fine details and play around even more. That's kind of the general idea of why the project came to be and its goals.
This is a great way to tackle caribou conservation because they are an iconic species in Canada.
Melanie: The problems that caribou face is huge; ecologically, socially and economically. I think this project has great potential to pull in interest from a variety of different people and can help understand the implications of management options.
If the species went extinct in Alberta, or Canada in general. I think a lot of the public would be very upset and wondering how we let this happen.
Melanie: Yes, it's a really tough spot because the populations are declining very rapidly. There is a lot of value to those populations, both culturally and emotionally. But then, on the flip side of that, what we need to do to keep them on the landscape is also going to be very impactful to a lot of people.
Having a dollar value for the conservation efforts is useful for managers, but what is the cultural value of caribou? Could you even put a dollar value to it?
Melanie: You cannot put a dollar value on the cultural side of things. But the best we could do so far was provide the economics and the ecology in a decision-making tool that people can take and use and ask questions with. Anyone can take this tool and ask any caribou conservation type questions with it, as far as the current management strategies that we have in our pockets go.
Mariana: By quantifying the costs and benefits associated with each recovery action, this tool provides the outcome in a transparent way. It facilitates discussions with decision-makers and the public in a manner that's easy to visualize the different outcomes. Because we provide the economics and the ecology, the cultural value can be brought in at the onset with engagement.
This issue of The Alberta Wildlifer is also going to discuss the caribou subpopulations in Jasper National Park. Do you think this tool will be beneficial for their recovery planning?
Melanie: We do not have much data to go off for conservation breeding as far as wild mountain or boreal caribou populations go. But we can use the information that we have gathered from other efforts, like maternity pens, conservation breeding in other populations, and the simulations of predator exclosures to predict the outcomes. For example, the Klinse-za caribou maternity pen has been very successful and is the biggest good-news story so far. And that was primarily First Nation lead, which has been fantastic. The application has conservation breeding in it, so yes, I think it can help inform planning. One thing we learned when creating that part of the application is that there have to be quite a few reproducing individuals exporting calves into the wild population before you see a demographic response from that wild population. I think planning any kind of conservation effort like this can only benefit from more information and simulations, but we always have to be careful about expectations.
The best-case scenario is what everyone is aiming for, but the worst-case scenario was pretty grim. With caribou listed as threatened in Canada, there are not many individuals you could bring in to supplement your population.
Melanie: Especially not those that live under similar ecological conditions. But, if they do not do something drastic, the outcome will be negative, right? We might have to throw every emergency measure that we can at these populations, especially when they're really low. The tool gives an excellent way for folks to be able to contrast those emergency measures. I'm not sure that conservation breeding necessarily comes out at the "top" as far as the number of caribou per dollar, but there are also social constraints that these decisions are operating under.
Was there a reason that the east side Athabascan River caribou subpopulation was chosen for the case study example?
Melanie: The paper does use ESAR as an example, but the tool itself provides specific parameters for a variety of different populations or subpopulations of caribou. We used ESAR in the paper, mainly because that's where we first developed the simulations and ideas behind the predator exposures. But you can go through the tool and use any one of those herds to do the same thing.
Mariana: What is nice about the software is that you can actually change all the parameters yourself as well. For example, you can either choose from one of the sub-populations provided in the software or manually adjust the parameters if you have data to support those decisions. We want to highlight that the software gives users a lot of flexibility to run the simulations.
Was this app tied to the proposed Caribou sanctuary project for the ESAR herd?
Melanie: We first started this project to support decisions around the predator exclosure being considered in Alberta's northeast. Then the project continued to evolve to include all the other management actions that it has now. We maintained ESAR as the primary example but included all the different herds that we have data from.
Are there other sub-populations of caribou that would benefit from this tool?
Melanie: All the sub-populations can benefit from more informed management – that's how Adaptive Management works.
The Little Smoky area is really going high on predator reduction. It is cheaper to start, but it does take money each and every year. Furthermore, I think if you stopped funding for a year or two, you'd been in some pretty big trouble because the wolf populations there have some pretty good habitat for them to expand quickly.
Melanie: For pretty much any of these population-management options, as soon as you lose your funding, you cannot continue them. You must work hard to improve the habitat while doing these population management actions, or you are stuck doing them for the long term. We need to keep in mind that these are short-term solutions, and we need to continually work at restoring the habitat to have it in a condition where it can sustain the population.
So these short term "fixes" will be ongoing costs until the habitats and populations are sustainable again?
Melanie: We don't really know yet exactly how long it would take to do the work to get the habitat back to where it needs to be, from an operational standpoint of actually doing the work, and ecologically for the habitat to come back after restoration activities have occurred. These habitats take a long time to recover, even when we are doing treatments to help them along. It's more than likely on the order of decades. So we need to be making these short term responses to keep the caribou populations around until the habitat is able to sustain populations.
Were there any surprises you were not expecting from this research in the app?
Melanie: For me, the biggest surprise was how much effort had to be put into conservation breeding to see a change in the wild population. There needed to be quite a few calves being exported. The results from conservation breeding are not as sensitive to fecundity rate in the captive breeding facility as we had expected. Perhaps that isn't surprising to others. I find this tab is one of the most fun tabs to play with. It gives you quite a bit of information and a sense of what might happen for something that we don't have a lot of data and experience with in the real world. So that one was the most interesting for me.
How long did it take from we're going to develop this application to having a finished product that would be able to give you consistent results?
Melanie: Well, the project happened in phases, so it's hard to answer that cleanly. The models that we use are pretty basic and by no means complex. But the goal was to keep it as simple as we could so it could be easily understood and widely applied. So, the first stage of figuring out what models to use and how to parameterize them was not all that much time. But the iterations of adding more management strategies and turning it into a user-friendly tool while getting input from the potential users took some time.
Mariana: It very much occurred in bursts of information that were driven by what would be most useful to stakeholders.
Melanie: I think making sure stakeholders have a better understanding of the options is an important part of conservation. Conservation doesn't just happen by itself, you need everyone to invest in it.
Mariana: This tool helps stakeholders visualize and understand math and population modelling. Making it easy and accessible is a fascinating way of explaining the concepts and engaging with people.
Melanie: We've had energy, forestry, and government stakeholders involved in various aspects of this project. So it's been necessary and wonderful to have that level of stakeholder engagement while creating this kind of tool.
Do you think the model would be useful for other populations of endangered species?
Melanie: The framework that we built it on can be applied to any species, really. The users would have to be careful about the assumptions of the simplified models we used. But then you can also see how sensitive that species is to changes in the adult survival or any other parameters. For example, if the Government of Alberta wanted to apply it to game species like elk or moose populations, they could very easily use this tool. Within the web-based version, you can just change a few sliders for the different age classes. And then, you can make it more "sophisticated" by going into the package itself and changing or manipulating anything you need to customize it to your situation.
Mariana: The conservation breeding tab, for example, could be applicable to several conservation breeding programs in Canada, like those run by the Calgary Zoo. It could be used to simulate how much effort it would need to put into reintroduction exports, for example, for Vancouver Island Marmot.
For more active management techniques, are there ways to get the public more on board with it? The public does not really see predator reduction. But if we are penning all the caribou in Jasper, it could be viewed as making it more of a zoo. I think there's been some concern with that, because you're going out to Jasper National Park, but all of the caribou are in like a pen.
Melanie: I think the key is just communication. The tricky thing is that not a single one of these management options will make everybody happy. There are pros and cons to each one. If you don't actively manage, that is a decision to do nothing and let caribou become extirpated. For obvious reasons, the public doesn't like that option. The most immediate tool we can use is to directly reduce mortality, i.e. wolf reductions. But that, of course, also has social issues. Nobody likes the idea of having to manage one species to benefit another species. And then even what I would expect to be the most socially acceptable options - taking these populations and keeping them safe - is not socially acceptable because it's viewed as a zoo. Even habitat restoration has social issues because it means scaling-back industry activity in certain areas, which affects people's livelihood. There is no single best answer, as far as the trade-offs between conservation, social aspects, and economics go.
I think the only thing that we can do is communicate as best we can. And I think that the tool is a good step because it allows different people with different levels of expertise to easily click around and see what this means for caribou and costs. If we make this trade-off, this is what we expect to see. There still needs to be just a lot of engagement, a lot of conversations, and a lot of communication with everybody involved. That takes a lot of time and effort on everybody's part. And we are unfortunately starting to run out of time.
Mariana: I would also stress that, implicit in what Mel is saying, is that we are presenting a tool to help inform the decision. The applications includes the trade-off between the economics and the ecological aspects, but it does not bring the social component. So that's where having discussions and communication can perhaps incorporate the social aspect to the decision making. We need to keep in mind that decisions are made based on three pillars: economics, ecology, and social component.
One of the three Jasper herds is now considered extirpated, and not long after, active management plans were rolled out to conserve the other herds.
Melanie: Unfortunately, it takes some realism for the public to be open to more extreme measures. It is human nature to ignore a problem or not act strongly until the situation is dire or right in your face. But by ignoring a problem, you are making an active decision.
If we are innovative, there are solutions to caribou declines. Look at the Klinse-za herd as an example: it started with First Nations pushing for change. It shows how effective we can be if we are willing to put in the time and energy. In a perfect world, we would be able to throw all of the needed resources to all of these herds, but that is not economically viable. This tool will allow people to make more informed decisions.
If you would like to try the app, click here.
An Interview with Don Stiles, President of Calgary Area Nestbox Monitors Society for Nature Alberta. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Telephone: 403-271-4689
Interview By: Erika Almási-Klausz on August 30, 2020
Nature Calgary has over 70 nest box monitoring teams assigned to different monitoring sites throughout Southern Alberta. The teams are comprised of dedicated volunteers who monitor over 5000 nest boxes (2019) targeting primarily Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. The monitoring area extends from Nanton to Olds, Alberta and west and east of HWY #2. The primary goal of the Citizen Science project is to keep track of the number of hatchling and fledgling rates. About 1/3 of the monitors also band their Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows to keep track of longevity and local and long-distance recoveries during migration. Results from 2019 has shown a sharp decline in the monitored species due to extreme weather patterns with long stretches of cold and wet weather. Another cause was an increase of House Wren nests. House Wrens build several nests with twigs to discourage other species from nesting, then actually only occupy and lay eggs in one nest box. They will also peck the heads of incubating mothers to induce them to leave, and peck holes in eggs, and then push the eggs out of the box. Recent Annual Reports are archived with Ellis Bird Farm, www.ellisbirdfarm.ca, and can be found by clicking on the tabs: About, Resources&Research, Calgary Area Nestbox Monitors. It also has information on how you can join the monitoring team, a worthwhile, fun and educational endeavor for the whole family, while advancing science. Further information on results can also be found in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Nature Alberta, “Nature Alberta’s Newest Affiliate”, which gives some history of the Calgary Area Nestbox Monitors Society.
Photo courtesy of Barry Trakalo
When did the Calgary Area Nestbox Monitors Society (CANMS) form?
Formerly known as the Calgary Area Bluebird Trail Monitors (CABTM), it has been around since 1979, when Harold Pinel, former City employee and naturalist, had been monitoring 400 nestboxes along HWY 22 from Chain Lakes to Sundre for his research project, and no longer had time to continue the monitoring on his own. In 1980, a group of seven monitors took over and trails were gradually added in favourable bluebird habitat in the foothills. Bird banding began in 1981 with Don Stiles. Since that time (to 2019), 45,405 Mountain Bluebirds and 39,559 Tree Swallows have been banded and tracked. But the main focus has been on Mountain Bluebirds. Results can be found in various publications, including the Blue Jay, the quarterly publication of Nature Saskatchewan.
Photo courtesy of Bob and Barb Nelson
What have been some of the results and what can some of the trends tell us?
In the late 1980’s, conditions were much more favourable for Mountain Bluebirds and we have seen a steady decline in numbers since that time with some fluctuations. Weather is a big factor in influencing number of hatchlings, fledglings and survival rates. These include frequent and extreme weather patterns, such as freak snow storms and hail events, heavy rains, extreme heat, drought and smoke from wildfires, and fluctuating temperatures that can influence insect prey availability and exposure to the elements causing abandonment of nests, chick mortality and disease. Increased pesticide use has also played a role and the increase in acreage development, destruction of natural habitats, increase of manicured lawns and an increase in monocultures, such as canola fields, where biodiversity is decreased.
Photo courtesy of Veronica Reist
“Consider the following: An insect Armageddon is under way, say many entomologists, the result of a multiple whammy of environmental impacts: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. And it is a decline that could have crucial consequences. Our creepy crawlies may have unsettling looks but they lie at the foot of a wildlife food chain that makes them vitally important to the makeup and nature of the countryside. They are “the little things that run the world” according to the distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson, who once observed: “If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” Robin McKie, Observer science editor Sun 17 Jun 2018. Many areas of the world currently report significant declines in seasonal biomass of flying insects. The causes put forth include these: Overuse of pesticides, Global warming, Habitat change, Night artificial light pollution. One study in Germany recorded a 76% decline in biomass in the summer. Australia also reports a decline in insect biomass. This has a serious impact on our lives. We depend on some insects to pollinate flowers and plants, such as fruit trees. When smaller insect populations decline, those larger bugs who eat smaller ones, also decline. Birds who eat insects of all sizes also decline. In our area, many monitors have noted a lack of insects. This certainly could be one cause of abandoned hatchlings. Parents who can not find enough food for themselves, cannot hope to feed their young.”
Photo courtesy of Dianne Leonhardt
Do you work with other organizations or academia to analyze the data?
We work with Olds College, the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, Ellis Bird Farm, Bird Banding Societies across Canada and the United States, North American Bluebird Society (NABS), researchers or students interested in the data.
Photo courtesy of Dianne Leonhardt
What do you hope to achieve from collecting the data?
By monitoring nest sites, we can gain a better understanding of the variability in time of return from migration, nesting onset and potential influencing factors, nesting success rates, death rates and reasons for them, extrapolating population number fluctuations and potential reasons for them, forecasting impacts of climate change and helping to be stewards for the future survival of these (and other) species.
By tracking recoveries of banded birds, we can gain a better understanding of migration patterns, migration routes and variability due to various factors, migration distances, possible causes of mortalities, re-nesting behavior, longevity, site fidelity, core wintering areas.
To offer an opportunity for people to learn more about nature and the value of conservation.
Photo courtesy of Donna Franke
Raison d’Être (from the Calgary Area Nestbox Monitors Society Annual Report 2018):
“Non-monitors often ask us, “Why are you banding birds?” and “Why do you check nest-boxes?” Here are some reasons:
1. The primary reason we place nest-boxes is to remedy the ravages made by the lumber industry prior to the early parts of the 20th century. Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows are cavity nesters. Their preference had been to use holes previously excavated by wood-peckers. Those holes were in large trees. With many large trees harvested for their timber, fewer cavities were available and the two species declined in number until someone realized what had happened and began creating nest-box trails. By placing nest-boxes we are helping return our two species to healthy populations.
Photo courtesy of Jack Borno
2. By closely monitoring the numbers of young fledged from our boxes, we can get a picture of the population trends of our target species. Organizations such as North American Bluebird Society (NABS) can compile results from the areas monitored and arrive at numbers for the three subspecies of Bluebirds (Eastern and Western Bluebirds are rarely caught in Alberta).
Photo courtesy of Karen Rice
3. By recording eggs, hatchlings, and fledglings we can observe the ratios of Hatchlings to Eggs; of Fledglings to Hatchlings and so on, and thereby have some idea of the breeding success rates of our two species each year. Year to year comparisons can be made. If a trend is downward, perhaps we can determine reasons for that decline, and consider options for reversing those trends. For example, if deaths seem to be the result of roadside spraying for weeds, we can speak to responsible people in the municipalities to urge more appropriate timing for the eradication procedures.
Photo courtesy of Karen Rice
4. Many monitors also band their birds. Recapturing of banded birds gives us an idea of several things. Longevity of birds can be estimated based on the knowledge of when a recaptured bird was first banded, or re-sighted. Migration routes can be determined by those recaps made in the winter at the birds’ winter habitats. We are helped in our banding and recovery operations by the fact that young tend to imprint on their native birth-box. Our banders can all attest to recapturing birds that have been banded in the same or nearby boxes in previous years.
Photo courtesy of Tim Osborne
5. We gain satisfaction from interacting with nature. It is healthy to be in the forests and fields, where terpenes and other beneficial aromatic elements are more common than in the urban environments. Some of these terpenes contribute to alleviating environmental stress. Walking a trail contributes to our cardio fitness. Nature can be a good contrast to the stress-filled lives some of us lead.”
Photo courtesy of Tim Osborne
Habitat Hot Topic
Alberta’s Crown Land Vision
In December, Alberta Environment and Parks released a Crown Land Vision along with a survey focusing on sustainable outdoor recreation and user fees on public lands. This is part of the UCP’s platform commitment to introduce an “Alberta Trails Act”, which will focus on recreation trail management on public lands (both inside and outside of protected areas). Crown Land covers about 60% of the province and contains an array of wildlife habitats. Crown Lands sustain Alberta’s economy and recreational activities but are also critical for the maintenance of provincial biodiversity. The ACTWS is interested in the development of a Trails Act and how the new Crown Land Vision will be implemented. Strong policies and legislation are critical to ensuring long-term protection of Alberta wildlife and their habitats. The new vision and associated legislation will directly impact use of lands where Albertans work and play.
The impacts of recreation on wildlife behaviour and habitat use, habitat quality, and ecosystem function have been well researched in Alberta. We are hopeful this Crown Land Vision and Trails Act will improve recreation management on public lands to grant Albertans’ access to outdoor opportunities without compromising wildlife habitat values. Ensuring that research is considered in the drafting of the new legislation and regulations in important. It is part of the ACTWS mission to inspire and empower wildlife professionals in evidence-based decision making. Current wildlife and habitat related research should be incorporated into this decision-making process to ensure that resulting legislation is effective in ensuring long-term protection of Alberta’s ecosystems while addressing recreational needs.
The Conservation Affairs Committee is currently considering a potential response to the Crown Land Vision and the proposed Trails Act. In the meantime, we encourage you to participate in the recreation survey. CPAWS Northern Alberta has also created a guide to completing the survey if you want to explore that. If you have further thoughts on the Crown Land Vision that you think the Conservation Affairs Committee should discuss, please email our executive director.