The Alberta Wildlifer August 2019 Volume 30 Issue 3

To inspire and empower wildlife professionals to engage in science-based management and conservation of wild animals and their habitats

In This Issue

  1. Executive Director's Update
  2. President's Message
  3. Canadian Section of the Wildlife Society Update
  4. ACTWS Mission Summary
  5. Canada-Alberta Section 11 Conservation Agreement for Woodland Caribou
  6. Alberta's Wild Boar Problem
  7. The Plight of the Burrowing Owl in the Canadian Prairies
  8. Edmonton Wildlife Festival
  9. Family Nature Night
  10. 2019 ACTWS/CSTWS Conference Recap
  11. Mystery Wildlife
  12. Upcoming Events

Executive Director's Update

There is a lot going on in wildlife management these days and Chapter members have been very good at bringing issues to our attention.

Last winter we were alerted that the proposed federal Fisheries Act was ignoring some important research regarding offsets and habitat banks. So, we joined forces with the Canadian Wildlife Federation to recommend important amendments to the new Act. Recent research has shown that 1:1 offsets were insufficient to restore habitat and that third-party offset banking could be an effective restoration tool. The Senate was listening but, while Parliament approved a new Fisheries Act in the spring, none of the Senate’s amendments were included. A surprising response to science by the government, but we continue to work with the CWF to improve fish habitat offsets in Canada.

At our conference in Canmore, Dr. Ryan Brook of the University of Saskatchewan attracted a lot of attention with his presentation on the spread and impact of feral pigs in western Canada. The attention was apt; his research shows a disturbing trend of rapid spread and accelerating damage from these difficult to manage escapees. Since then his work has gained a lot of media attention too, and the ACTWS Conservation Affairs Committee weighed options for engaging the Alberta government on solutions. Over the years, the Chapter has been vocal on negative impacts of game farming and this issue presented itself as relevant for ACTWS action.

But, as those of you close to this issue will know, game farming legislation in Alberta only covers cervids. Wild pigs are taxonomically identical to domestic pigs, so policy concerning their farming is a livestock / agricultural issue. As you can read in the article below by Perry Abramenko, Alberta’s lead hand in feral pig management, new regulations on fencing wild pigs and active efforts to manage feral populations are helping the situation in Alberta. The Chapter is satisfied with this approach, and continues to follow the issue.

More recently, the threat of Chronic Wasting Disease spreading from farmed deer to wild deer to people has been renewed. This echoes the concern raised by the Chapter in its first ever CAC campaign back in 1992. Now that it appears that venison from farmed deer may have been infected with CWD made it into the human food stream, The ACTWS will be raising its voice again. Stay tuned.

We’re also urging Parks Canada to step up research, monitoring and reporting of wildlife management in the mountain national parks, supporting member Larry Roy as he engages the Alberta Game Management Advisory Council on managing motorized access to crown land, commenting on the federal Bear Management Plan and on the caribou conservation agreement between Canada and Alberta. There’s a lot going on, and it has been you, the members, who have alerted us to opportunities to engage.

The ACTWS thrives on issues brought forward by its members. Thanks to those of you who are reaching out to me, the Executive and the Conservation Affairs Committee. Keep ‘em coming.

John Wilmshurst, PhD, P.Biol. ACTWS Executive Director

President's Message

With a temperature of only 10° degrees outside, it’s hard to believe it’s August. This summer has been a sharp contrast to 2018 where soaring temperatures and wildfires covered much of the province. On the upside, the frequent rain has meant that the hills around my home are far greener than they typically are this time of year; the wildflowers and saskatoons are abundant. I relish summer and have been spending my free time hiking in the mountains and hanging out at the Castle River. Our son is now one year old, and it’s been a wonderful experience to share the outdoors with him. He loves splashing in the river and eating lunch in alpine meadows, and it is a joy to see him take pleasure in these new experiences. I hope all of you have also been enjoying the beauty of our province!

The executive has continued to meet throughout the summer months. I’m pleased to share that after much discussion, we have revised our mission summary statement. As best as possible, it reflects what ACTWS works to achieve: To inspire and empower wildlife professionals to engage in science-based management and conservation of wild animals and their habitats. As you may have noticed, we are now using this mission summary in our communications.

The executive has also been hard at work planning next year’s conference. Alex Beatty, our president elect, has been busy leading the conference planning team. I am pleased to share that the conference will be held in Camrose, Alberta March 13-15, 2020 – save the date! Please mark your calendars and plan on attending what is sure to be a great event. Keep an eye on your e-mail and the ACTWS website for more information as the conference plans develop.

The website also has a new feature that our executive director, John Wilmshurst, has been working on – “Where are They Now?” John has been following up with past scholarship winners and sharing updates on the great work they are now doing across the world. I encourage you to check out these updates. Also keep an eye on the website for other changes as our webmasters Luc Habib and Layla Neufeld have been hard at work behind the scenes. We will be launching a brand-new website by the end of the year. I’ve had an opportunity to see their preliminary work, and it is fantastic. The new website will provide a fresh face for our organization.

I’d also like to highlight the work of our student director, Nikki Paskar. Nikki has been busy with a few different outreach events. She participated in the Edmonton Wildlife Festival where she had the opportunity to connect with a wide variety of people including wildlife professionals, new Canadians, and students interested in wildlife. She also participated in the Nature Alberta Family Nature Nights where she shared information about birds in the city of Edmonton and how ACTWS biologists study them. If you have ideas for additional outreach events that you would like to see ACTWS involved in, please feel free to get in touch.

I want to wish all our members an enjoyable last few weeks of summer and a great fall season. No matter where in the province you live, I hope you find an opportunity to get into the wilds and enjoy all that Alberta has to offer.

Andrea Morehouse, Ph.D. ACTWS President

Canada Section of the Wildlife Society Update

It's hard to believe it is almost fall! Where did the time go? The joint meeting of The American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society from September 29 – October 3, 2019 in Reno, NV is fast approaching. The main hotel, the Atlantis, is sold out and others are filling up quickly so make your reservation. TWS Registration is already over 1500. The conference promises to be a smashing success given the number of symposia, talks, and other gatherings. Reminder that the CSTWS Reception is Monday, 30 September 4:30-6:00 pm in Peppermill Hotel - Capris 3. This is always a great networking event. Students who have applied for CSTWS travel awards should be hearing soon, so stay tuned. We look forward to meeting successful Awardees at the Reception.

As most of you may know by now, CSTWS has completed their Incorporation under Canadian Law. Kudos to the crew led by Erin McCance who pushed onward with great patience. A copy of the approved Bylaws and PowerPoint presentation explaining the changes resulting from Incorporation are now on the CSTWS website. The first full CSTWS meeting was held on 13 August. One of the next big steps now is to develop an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with TWS, which will be an agreement on how CSTWS will integrate into TWS. The effort is led by TWS but includes legal councils on both sides. We are hoping to have a first draft in early September to coordinate on so it can come before TWS Council at the Annual Meeting in Reno, and possibly be completed sometime in the fall. The relationship between CSTWS, Provincial Chapters, and TWS is all to be worked out in this process. As soon as there is a MOU draft, we will consult with Chapters within the Canadian Section and keep them up to speed as the legal document evolves. The Canadian Section is only the second Section to be Incorporated (the Western Section has been incorporated for several years), but my understanding is that there is the intent to have other Chapters and Sections in the USA incorporated following a much more direct route under American Law because of their direct Affiliations with TWS.

As the dust is settling, CSTWS has been busy getting back to business. We are refining our Standing Operating Procedures to accommodate changes in Bylaws, holding a CSTWS Logo contest to update the logo, updating the website, starting up our Educational Webinars, sending out membership surveys to assess priorities for membership and get fresh ideas for new benefits, building a solid financial and strategic plan, and starting to plan for a super Annual Meeting next spring. CSTWS continues to address aspects of TWS Certification as a follow up the symposium at last year’s Annual Meeting and is focusing on how to integrate TWS Certification into the Canadian scene. The Conservation Committee also never stopped working this past year on supporting efforts to address issues like CWD, engaging Indigenous Peoples in Wildlife Conservation and Management, and outlining concerns for more resources and their investment in Human Wildlife Conflict in National Parks.

Finally, if you have enjoyed your time with Chapter or Section activities and are looking for other opportunities to stay involved with TWS, please consider contacting Erin McCance about heading up a CSTWS committee or Rick Baydak to put your name into the hat to run for a board member or officer. Contact information is on the CSTWS website.

If you have any questions about any TWS issues, please feel free to contact me.

See you in Reno next month!!

Evelyn Merrill - Canadian Section Representative to The Wildlife Society Council

Photo courtesy of Evelyn Merrill

ACTWS Mission Summary

Everyone needs a mission in life. Mine has changed over time. As a kid, my mission was to irritate my brothers until they went screaming to our parents. In graduate school, it was to survive. Now, with a growing family, it is to work towards a future with opportunities for the same amazing wilderness experiences I’ve been privileged to have had.

The ACTWS has had a mission for almost as long, and that mission has been far more consistent than mine. From Chapter establishment, we have stood behind The Wildlife Society Mission.

“The mission of The Wildlife Society is to represent and serve the professional community of scientists, managers, educators, technicians, planners, and others who work actively to study, manage, and conserve wildlife and their habitats worldwide."

ACTWS supports this goal, adapted to the Canadian management context, in which the professional community can play a role in wildlife management through legislated planning processes, various professional interactions, post‐secondary education and public outreach. This year, TWS released a 4-year strategic plan that included a one-sentence mission to which the organization aspires. We, at the ACTWS, are fans. To reflect this mission and our unique Canadian, and Albertan, context we have adapted TWS' mission to represent what our Chapter has achieved in the past 30 years and will work towards in the future.

More recently, we have added that Canadian management context with a thorough narrative around the statements that “we talk wildlife, we walk the talk and we cultivate new biologists”. If you haven’t read these statements, you should as they describe very much what the Alberta Chapter of the Wildlife Society is all about. This is important. As an organization we must be very clear about what we stand for and what we do.

Today’s communications ecosystem challenges us to do more though. No doubt you’ve heard of the elevator conversation; pitch your organization in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator. For better or worse, this is our world.

Taking up this challenge, the ACTWS Executive has crafted a Mission Summary that goes far enough to describe our organization in as succinct a statement so that a listener or reader is intrigued to learn more. It doesn’t describe all that we do, of course. No single sentence could. But in one breath it captures our spirit.

Today, we present the new, ACTWS mission summary. As best as is possible in one, clear statement, it reflects what the Chapter works to achieve, and is the best way to describe our goals to your colleagues, partners, the public and stakeholders.

Here it is. What do you think?

To inspire and empower wildlife professionals to engage in science-based management and conservation of wild animals and their habitats.

We'll be using it on our web site, and in our communications, presentations and of course in The Alberta Wildlifer. We invite you to do the same.

John Wilmshurst, PhD, P.Biol. ACTWS Executive Director

Canada-Alberta Section 11 Conservation Agreement for Woodland Caribou

The Canadian and Alberta Governments have drafted an agreement that sets the path forward for Woodland Caribou conservation in our province. The opportunity for comments on this Species at Risk Act, Section 11 agreement is open to the public until October 6th. Contributing your experience and knowledge as a wildlife biologist could shape the future of Caribou in Alberta. As members of the Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society, we encourage you to make your voice heard. To read the draft agreement and fill out a comment form, click here:

Alberta’s Wild Boar Problem

Wild Boar in a coral trap. Photo courtesy of Perry Abramenko

Interview with Perry Abramenko with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (Interview by Ian Buchwald)

What is the history of wild boar in Alberta?

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Government of Alberta was encouraging farmers to diversify livestock, but with little oversight. There was no planning or regulation for wild boar (Sus scrofa, also known as wild swine or feral pigs) as there was thought to be no risk of the boars escaping their farms and becoming feral.

What is the natural history of wild boar?

Wild boar are taxonomically identical to domestic pigs, but differ physiologically by having longer legs, a thick undercoat of fur and longer snouts and tusks. These physiological traits allow them to survive in Alberta’s harsh climates and habitats. In Alberta, they nest in deep cover, deep within the forest, and usually travel at night to forage. Wild boars have two litters a year and each litter averages 5 to 6. This high fecundity allows them to increase their populations quite rapidly and spread out over Alberta. This also allows groups of wild boar, called a sounder, to rebound from losing members. A sounder is usually made up of 10 to 30 individuals, made up of a group of females and 2 age categories of juveniles. The two age categories are the result of 2 different litters born each year,

Why are wild boar a problem in Alberta?

Wild boar are a non-native pig species that escaped from farms. Pigs do not have functioning sweat glands so they need to wallow, which results in riparian damage and water contamination. Like all other non-native species, they can have varied impacts on the habitat they invade as well as degradation of fish habitat and livestock on farms, especially domestic pigs.

The impacts on the farms are that wild boar are numerous, including but not limited to consuming feed meant for livestock, eating or destroying crops and damaging equipment on farms, including fences, which could allow livestock to escape. They have also been known to spread diseases that could be transmitted to wildlife, livestock, pets and people.

The impacts of wild boar on native species can be severe and they will eat any organic material, plant or animal. This was observed in Moose Mountain Provincial Park in Saskatchewan where wild boar completely eradicated a nesting season of ground nesting birds. It is likely that wild boar prey on the young of other species as well, including deer.

The negative impacts to agriculture include crop and pasture damage, risk of disease spread, stored feed damage and the harassment of livestock. Soil disturbances from rooting and water source contamination from wallowing are also concerns for agricultural producers.

In 2008, wild boar at large (not confined to a farm) were listed as a pest species, the same classification as rats in Alberta. With the new classification also introduced new containment standards for the remaining boar farmers.

A wild boar working group was created to get a better understanding of the wild boar population and to eradicate wild boars at large in Alberta.

In partnership with the municipalities, Alberta enacted a bounty where $50 was paid for proof of kill.

After 2008, some counties banned farming wild boar as a preventative measure. There are approximately 14 known wild boar farms active in Alberta.

What’s the Pilot Program goals?

The pilot projects main goals are to:

Build public awareness of the wild boar problem. Wild boar are not a very visible species and the signs of wild boar can be easily missed or misidentified. By raising awareness, hopefully there will be more sightings and reporting.

Ask the public to assist with surveillance of the wild boar population to get a better understanding of the population characteristics and spatial displacement.

Test equipment for trapping and population monitoring while consulting with other jurisdictions, including the US Department of Agriculture.

Increase the knowledge base in Alberta as there is currently no research being done in Alberta on wild boar. A lot of the work is being based on work done by the USDA and by Ryan Brook at the University of Saskatchewan.

Use all data collected to develop an integrated management plan to eradicate wild boar in Alberta.

Where is the pilot project being conducted?

The pilot project is being conducted in Lac St. Anne County and in Woodland County. These counties were chosen for the pilot project because they had the highest returns for the bounty program. The bounty program in these two counties was stopped upon commencement of the pilot project as hunting activities that do not remove whole sounders actually conflicts with eradication. Animals that escape quickly disperse to infest new areas, become nocturnal and learn to avoid humans. Given their high reproductive rate, hunting has no impact at reducing populations.

What can landowners and the public do to help with the wild boar population?

The best thing people can do to help is to call in any sightings of wild boar at large. The more data collected, the better understanding of wild boar population data and habitat requirements including diet and population trends. You can call 310-FARM (3276) to report wild boar or get more information.

What techniques are being used to monitor wild boar populations?

A combination of public reporting, trail cameras and now drones. The trail cameras are placed on large tracts of land, near game trails.

How are drones being deployed?

Drones with FLIR cameras are able to track the animals and sounders movements. The infrared drone allows for improved tracking of sounder movement and forage patterns particularly in winter.

What are the current trapping methods being tested?

The current method that’s being tested with the most promising results is the corral trap. The trap is made up of 16 foot long wire 4 gauge panels set up in a circle. The corral has a video camera and an app controlled gate.

A corral trap with the door open. Photo courtesy of Perry Abramenko

What are the steps for setting up the corral trap?

Once an area is identified as having wild boar, the area is pre-baited and monitored. If there is enough activity at the site, the trap is set up without the gate and has bait placed in the corral. Once the sounder has become habituated to the trap, the gate is installed and the trap is monitored. Every time the camera detects motion in the trap, an alert is sent to the team running the pilot program. When an alert is sent, the camera is monitored and once the entire sounder is within the corral, the gate is closed.

Why is it so important for the entire sounder to be caught?

It’s important to catch the whole sounder because if any portion of the sounder escapes, they will become better at avoiding humans and traps, and they can re-populate very quickly. And if any members of the sounder escape from the trap, they will avoid any future corral traps and make themselves even harder to eradicate.

What happens after the gate is closed?

The sounder is humanely euthanized and each animal has a necropsy to test for health and any potential diseases that may affect humans or livestock.

Are there other methods that can be used to control the wild boar population in Alberta?

There are other techniques, but they are not as effective as the corral trap because an entire sounder must be eradicated. That’s what makes hunting them so ineffective, because hunting can only get 1 or 2 boars at a time, while educating the rest of the sounder. Once a sounder is partially hunted, they learn and become harder to hunt. They achieve this by becoming nocturnal and begin to avoid the areas they were hunted. This learning makes tracking, hunting and eradicating them next to impossible. Wild boar are very intelligent and will avoid the area where they were hunted. That is also why the native predators probably do not impact wild boar populations. An example of this is a landowner who had a trail camera set-up that saw wild boar for several days, after which a cougar was spotted on the camera. The wild boar were not observed on the camera for several weeks after the last cougar sighting. Another difficulty Alberta’s natural predators have with wild boar is that they did not evolve together, so they have not evolved to hunt them. There is also anecdotal evidence that wild boar will avoid predators, such as wolves and cougars. There’s no direct evidence of predation of wild boars in Alberta.

What’s the current population of wild boar in Alberta?

We currently don’t have a population estimate, more research and monitoring is required. The population is likely growing and we are continuing to receive reports of wild boar occurring in new areas of the province.

What’s the future plans for the pilot project?

The pilot project has 1 more year left to run, after which it will report its findings and make recommendations on a permanent project. It is best to get the wild boar population under control before it gets out of control. We will also fine tune the trapping techniques and collect more data.

What’s the key points you would like to get across?

A key point is that hunting wild boar is an ineffective means of control and eradication. New York state enacted legislation that made hunting and killing wild boar illegal, even to landowners defending their property and livestock. This allowed their eradication plan to work without the wild boar learning and spreading out, making themselves harder to capture. While the legislation was controversial, it allowed New York to completely eradicate wild boar from the state. We presently don’t have plans to enact similar legislation, instead working to get the message out through public outreach and education.

While some people value wild boar for recreational hunting opportunities, it is important to realize that they are a destructive invasive pest and the negative consequences to our natural ecosystems are huge and will only get worse unless eradication is achieved.

The Plight of the Burrowing Owl in the Canadian Prairies

Interview by: Erika Almasi-Klausz

Photo courtesy of Philip Brown (via Unsplash.com)

Dr. Geoff Holroyd and Helen Trefry, both retirees of the Canadian Wildlife Service, are on a mission and a race against time to help save the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) from extirpation in the Canadian prairies.

I had the pleasure of working with both Geoff and Helen at the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton some 25 years ago, while completing my Master of Science with the Swift Fox Reintroduction Program. However, their research on the Burrowing Owl began earlier than that, some 30 years ago, about the time the swift foxes were getting media attention for reintroducing the species back into the Canadian prairies, as well as the now successful reintroduction and captive breeding program of the peregrine falcon (carried out by Helen, Geoff and many others). Unfortunately for this little owl, the story is not so bright and promising, unless we step up now and lend a helping hand.

The Burrowing Owl is endangered in prairie Canada. These diminutive little owls only weigh 150 g and occupy the prairie grasslands using the burrows created by prairie dogs, badgers, coyotes, and foxes. They have a diet of mice, voles, grasshoppers, crickets and will even prey on small birds. On average, this little bird lays 9 eggs, but even 12 eggs can be found if there's lots of food available. Typically only 3 to 4 young fledge from the average clutch size of 9.

Helen and Geoff have been studying this elusive little creature for over 30 years. Since the 1990s populations have declined a whopping 90%, dropping from 1,100 pairs reported by Saskatchewan’s Operation Burrowing Owl members to just 19 pairs last year, 2018, even though a commendable effort has been put forth by over 700 landowners voluntarily protecting over 37,000 hectares of the owl’s grassland habitat.

What caused the drastic population declines, particularly in the 90s?

Here is what they had to say. There are several interconnecting factors. We really don’t know what caused the drastic population declines in the 1990s, they probably started much earlier than that. The 90s was just the tail end of the decline. Aerial insectivores have also experienced a similar decline since that time. There was a peak in populations in 1997 and 2005.

Why was this?

Conditions such as in 1997 occurred more frequently to favour populations. In 1996-1997 conditions were ideal because there was early deep snow, the ground was not frozen, and thus there was an increase in voles, specifically meadow voles, which can breed under the snow. Meadow voles are a common food source for the owls. Conditions were also favourable for other Passerines, shorebirds and insectivores due to abundance in prey. In 2005 there was also an increase in productivity, this was due to a favourable winter and migration conditions, and also likely owls came further north because it may have been too dry in the south. On the other hand, sagebrush voles like dry conditions, and are abundant in other years.

Are availability of burrows a limiting factor?

There are always burrows available, but the quality of habitat is very important. We have cultivated most of the fertile soils across the prairies. Areas that remain are rocky and gravelly have not been cultivated. In addition areas with clay soils are not suitable for digging mammals, the main source of nest burrows. Some productive sites for burrowing mammals have been recently in ditches, not ideal for Burrowing Owls. Other areas have hard pan that is not productive and hard to dig through.

What influences dispersal rates and distance?

Burrowing Owls live on the prairies where conditions vary from year to year: precipitation, fire and bison were key. Owls love burned areas and they spread out over the landscape finding ideal and suitable conditions. Herds of bison were key to long-term sustainability of some food sources. Dispersal patterns of Burrowing Owl are highly variable in Canada. Banded birds often do not return because of the highly variable and unstable weather patterns and habitats in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In this way, dispersal is sometimes beneficial because there is a need for short and long grasses for feeding, and a need for grazing and wildfires to increase the productivity of land.

Is there a lack of available suitable breeding nesting habitat?

Historically, yes since we have cultivated and paved over 80% of the prairies. There are always burrows. Available habitat is no longer the limiting factor, it is quality of habitats available. High-quality soils have been cultivated consequently the owls are forced on low quality habitat, which results in decreased productivity. Fortunately, the poor grasslands are grazed creating a mosaic of tall and short vegetation that benefits the owls. Disturbance is everywhere, as an example, you can even find crested wheat in Grasslands National Park.

What percentage of owls return?

On average, 50% come back to Canada. The rate of return is a function of the study site area, with a larger area you will get more returns.

This is an indicator species for grassland health. In Grasslands National Park 22 years of surveys show that there is an increased chance of burrowing owls coming back where there is remnant populations of prairie dogs. California and Colorado have the core ranges, but there has been a retraction of range following the trend of grassland birds as well, as they face increasing dangers, such as getting hit by cars on more dangerous routes.

Have you seen an increase in population since supplemental feeding in 2014?

Supplemental feeding of owls in Grassland National Park in Saskatchewan resulted in an increase in productivity. Consequently the severe decline appears to have leveled off since the feeding started in 2014, but it is a small sample size. The impact of the availability of burrows research is limited because of the small sample sizes to make any concrete conclusions.

What are some factors that have contributed to their decline?

These species have a high dispersal rate, and essentially all prairie birds have been affected because of the disruptive ecology, destruction of the food base, insecticides such as neonetics and avermectins, the decrease in habitat quality, more congestion and development of land in Canada, US and Mexico and in their key overwintering habitats.

Have Burrowing Owl Reintroduction Programs been successful?

Burrowing Owl reintroduction efforts in Canada has thus far been unsuccessful, that is they have not resulted in a self sustaining population. Re-introductions in British Columbia has been ongoing since the 1990s, and has not re-established the owl population. There is no self-sustaining population in the Okanagan due to loss of habitat, attributed to the increase in wineries and other developments. Captive breeding in Manitoba has failed to reintroduce the owls there.

Photo courtesy of Ray Hennessy (via Unsplash.com)

In contrast, why has the Peregrine Falcon reintroduction been so successful?

The peregrine falcon reintroduction was successful because the main problem was DDT. Once DDT was banned captive bred falcons were released and reoccupied their historical habitats. Also they can nest in urban settings on buildings. For the Burrowing Owl, we are still losing one percent of Prairie each year. Prairies continue to be ploughed up for agricultural land. The key will be to save existing native lands and restoring those that have been disturbed.

What can be done to help?

Nature Conservancy of Canada and other land trusts will be key players to acquire and protect key native prairie habitats. Supplemental feeding could be a key in success and can be done for as little as $200 per nest. The key will be to obtain legal permits for this from Fish and Wildlife agencies. Landowners are keen to be involved, and if done properly, by shoving the prey into the burrows without attracting predators, this will be a key component to success as shown by research. The cost of raising captive owls is prohibitive and does not create sustainable populations. There needs to be a champion of burrowing owls. Clubs, such as 4H, can get involved in fundraising for mice and there is land owner interest to purchase lands, although it needs to be shown that the lands are still grazed, and management costs for taxes, fences and livestock include up to an endowment of 20% of the value of land. No more ploughing of prairie should be allowed. An increase in public awareness is required; the burrowing owl needs to be a positive example, it is a cute and charismatic species. Once there is enough protected habitat with ample food, reintroduction to the prairies will be a key factor in the success of conserving owls into the future. International cooperation across borders will also be important. Future bison reintroductions (more on this in our next ACTWS issue) should be considered to rebalance the prairie ecosystem. Gifting of PFRA pastures to private landowners with no government control is also discouraging. Raising their profile in the media will also be key to success.

The Burrowing Owl is at the brink of extinction in Canada and if we do not step up to help, we could see this endearing little owl fade away from our Canadian prairies forever! With the help of determined and committed individuals like Dr. Geoff Holroyd and Helen Trefry, they may still have a chance. Although retired from the Canadian Wildlife Service in Environment Canada, they are still going strong to help raise the profile of this owl and ensure its continued survival in the Canadian prairies. Time is running out for this charismatic and charming little creature. Please do all that you can to help.

Background Information from the Native Prairie Speaker Series 2019:

Geoff and Helen’s 30 years of continuous research, along with their students, into the breeding biology, migration and dispersal of this species in Canada, Texas and Mexico sheds some light on this conundrum. The main reason implicated in low survival has been inadequate wild food supply, while the second, has been annual dispersal into the US. Although a temporary peak in population occurred in 2005, the overall trend has been an extreme decline. On average, only 3 young survive from a nest of 9. Mortality rate is mostly influenced by predation and the availability of food. Troy Wellicome, a PhD student in 2003, found that supplemental feeding of young greatly increases the chances of survival of young, especially in the first three weeks of life. Interestingly in 1997 (coincidentally when I was completing the live small mammal trapping in the Canadian prairies for Swift Fox prey availability), another population increase of Burrowing Owls occurred. At that time, Wellicome found that there was no difference in young survival between the supplemental fed chicks versus those that were not fed. This was due to the extremely deep snow conditions where the ground did not freeze even though temperatures dropped to -40°C, consequently voles breed under the snow and more food was available in the summer of 1997. This also correlated well with an overall increase in raptor indices in 1997. Unfortunately this was only to be an exception to the norm and Burrowing Owl numbers continue to decline to this day.

In order to get at the gist of the problem, Helen and Geoff conducted population surveys from Texas to Mexico to determine if net habitat loss in winter was an issue in Burrowing Owl survival. Migration and dispersal using stable isotope analysis, banding, VHF telemetry, geolocation, and satellite transmitters verified the data. It was found that in Texas there was a lot of habitat disturbance due to cotton fields and other agricultural practices. Through these studies, it was established that annual dispersal was very high; only 1/3 of birds came back to the breeding grounds in Canada within 250 km, 2/3 of birds moved farther away, and the mean dispersal distance was 400 km. More Burrowing Owls failed to return to Canada each year and instead, remained in the USA to breed. This represented a net loss of 20% per year. It was also found that in the spring owls were short stopping to breed. On migration they tended to travel large distances, at least 350 km per day, and sometimes stopped 1000 km short of Alberta, Canada, which is at the northern edge of their range. The breeding core areas were found in Colorado and northern Texas. However, there was low productivity in both the US and Canada. Supplemental feeding in these areas resulted in owls producing more young, and survival went up to 100% and resulted in about 7 fledglings/nest. Ultimately, it was determined that this action would help slow population declines and keep populations stable throughout the Owls’ range. The largest loss of nesting survival occurs in the first three weeks after the chicks hatch. Supplemental feeding greatly improves the chicks’ survival rate because less time is spent by the parents away from the nest and thus the parents are able to protect the young from predators. It will eventually result in more pairs surviving overall.

The other important factor to consider is to conserve critical habitat and recreate habitat for insect prey by improving soil and quality of habitat. It is important to not cultivate critical habitat and keep it intact and native, so owls and their prey can thrive. There is currently a trans-national conservation plan in place between Mexico, the US and Canada. You can find more information at:

The major factor in food depletion is the use of insecticides, rodenticides and pesticides, killing insects and small mammals that owls depend on for food. Changes in land management practices have had a great impact on Owl survival. For example, the last outbreak of locusts, a significant food source for owls and other wildlife in the prairies, was in 1903 and 1904. Locusts were likely a primary food source reaching up to 4 inches. In the present, grasshopper outbreaks are less frequent, less intense and results in less significant prey sources. Other insect prey has also declined. It was common for insects to lay their eggs in Buffalo (bison) wallows and bare soil. Since the soils are sprayed, the eggs do not hatch. Because of this, the foraging habitat of the owls has changed due to fragmented and contaminated landscapes. In the late 80s, a class of insecticides was introduced that was also used on cattle, which resulted in the elimination of dung beetles, important in the decomposition and recycling of nutrients, carbon sequestration, as well as a food source for owls. Insecticides can be active in the cow patties for six months and decomposition can now take 2 to 3 years, thus decreasing valuable pasture lands available for grazing. If there is too much cultivation, owls have a tough time finding holes during migration. They need shelter belts for hiding along their migration routes. Along with this, the killing of ground squirrels on these cultivated lands need to stop, if we are to give owls a chance.

Edmonton Wildlife Festival

By Nikki Paskar

The Edmonton Wildlife Festival was fantastic! It exceeded my expectations for what I had hoped to get out of it. I displayed the two banners and our brochure at our table and talked to almost 100 people. As expected, many of the folks I talked to were members of the general public with an interest in wildlife, and I directed those people to our website for more information or to read our stances on wildlife issues in Alberta as well as our social media for wildlife news. What I hadn't expected was the number of interested wildlife professionals and students who hadn't heard about us. I chatted with a number of new Canadians and students with backgrounds in wildlife, conservation, and biology who did not know we existed but were searching for opportunities to network and get involved. I really emphasized our membership benefits and the conference as great opportunities to integrate into the professional wildlife field in Alberta. I would recommend this as an event for you to attend next year if you are able.

Photos courtesy of Nikki Paskar

Family Nature Night

By Nikki Paskar

This one was obviously a very different audience because it is aimed at kids and families and was intended to be more of a community outreach activity. The theme for this event was Wildlife in the City - Colleen St. Clair was also there doing a presentation on urban coyotes. Because she was talking about mammals, I developed a kids presentation on birds. I talked about three cool "superbirds" we have here in the city (owls, chickadees, and the peregrine) and what adaptations they have (I borrowed owl and peregrine feathers to compare), and the different ways that biologists study birds. I also led an activity about migration in the nearby green space where I set out three lines of flagging tape a fair distance apart, and they pretended they were birds that were migrating from central America to Canada. We talked about why birds migrate, how biologists with ACTWS study migration, and then I told them how many steps to take forward or back based on what obstacles/ advantages the birds encountered along the way. I also talked about the peregrine recovery efforts and how ACTWS biologists helped with their recovery, and how they could choose a career in wildlife ecology. The kids were incredibly smart, and 2 of them came up to me after and said that my presentation was their favourite one which was fun. There were 89 kids there in total, and many more parents.

2019 ACTWS/CSTWS Conference Recap

The 2019 joint ACTWS/CSTWS was a resounding success and here is a continued update on the conference.

The ACTWS Charter Gets a New Lease on Life

Back in 1988, The Wildlife Society presented the then new Alberta Chapter with its official Charter. It proudly hung on the walls of the many Chapter presidents in the years that followed, including Bill Samuel and Margo Pybus. But sometime in the 2000’s the charter went missing. Missing but not forgotten.

Never one to give up on an challenge, Margo took it upon herself to find this missing document that has such an important place in the ACTWS’ history. Of course she was successful. Not in the best of shape in the storage box that was its home for about a decade, Margo had it professionally restored and hermetically sealed in a protective frame. Here she presents it to ACTWS president Everett Hanna, who will pass it along to our new president, Andrea Morehouse for proud display, never to be lost again.

Photo courtesy of Chris Olsen.

William Rowan Distinguished Service

Distinction is something that we all strive for in our careers. The field of wildlife management is replete with biologists who have distinguished themselves throughout their careers. Bill Rowan wanted this award to honour the best among us.

Beth MacCallum has certainly had a distinguished career, dedicating herself to the protection of Harlequin Ducks and Bighorn Sheep in west-central Alberta. If you know Beth, you know how passionate she is about her work, and this year the ACTWS was proud to present her with the William Rowan Distinguished Service Award.

Photo courtesy of Chris Olsen.

Kristina Norstrom Dedicated Service Award

The Kristina Norsrom Award acknowledges Chapter members whose contributions far exceed the expectations of being a member and capture the spirit and essence of dedication to the Chapter.

If you’ve worked with Everett Hanna or been one of his students, you will immediately recognize his commitment to wildlife management and the ACTWS. New to Alberta, Everett immediately stepped up to take on a Chapter leadership role and outdid himself as the president. Here he is on stage, accepting his award from directors Glynnis Hood and Matthew Pyper. Thanks for your (ongoing) commitment Everett.

Photo courtesy of Chris Olsen.

Best Wildlife Publication – Technical

All wildlife professionals want to write that killer paper that uses iron-clad data to make a novel point that spans field and schools of thought. When this happens, the ACTWS steps up and acknowledges this achievement.

Anne Loosen, with her co-authors Andrea Morehouse and Mark Boyce has done this. Her paper, “Land tenure shapes black bear density and abundance on a multi-use landscape” published in the journal Ecology and Evolution shows how landscapes drive black bear density and abundance. Soon to be a classic.

Photo courtesy of Chris Olsen.

Best Wildlife Publication – Popular

Each year, the Chapter recognizes a member for an exceptional publication that is intended for the general public. This acknowledges writing that is relevant to wildlife management and conservation.

In January, 2019 Alanna Mitchell published a very personal article in Canadian Geographic entitled “For the Love of Pronghorns”. This was a story about her father, George Mitchell, who devoted his life to the study, protection and preservation of pronghorn antelope in Alberta. A great read on a compelling subject. Congratulations Alanna!

Photo Contest

Would you like your wildlife photo showcased on the cover of the next issue of The Alberta Wildlifer? Please send your photos to one of the new editors.

Mystery Wildlife

Can you identify this month's mystery wildlife? Check your answer on the ACTWS blog. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Melsted)

Upcoming Events

2020 ACTWS Annual Conference - March 13-15, 2020, in Camrose, Alberta

12th Waterton Wildlife Weekend - September 19 to 22, 2019, 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, Waterton Park, Alberta

Alberta Society of Professional Biologists

2019 ASPB Conference - Connecting Biologists to their Resources - November 20 to 22, 2019 in Lake Louise, Alberta

ASPB Ptarmigan Trek - Wednesday November 20, 2019, 9:00 am - 1:00 pm in Lake Louise, Alberta

Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP) Native Prairie Speaker Series

Swift Fox Recovery in Montana by Heather Harris (Webinar) - September 17, 2019, 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm

Bracing for a Catastrophe: White Nose Syndrome on the Canadian Prairies - August 14, 2019, 1:00 pm, in Eastend, Saskatchewan

Nature Conservancy Canada

Saving the Sage Grouse - September 14th, 2019, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

The Birds and the Bees (Nest Box Check) - September 14, 2019 2:00 pm to 4:30 pm at Gambling Lake (Lindbrook), Alberta

Bioblitz the Biosphere (Wildlife Inventories and Monitoring) - September 13, 2019, 9:00 am to 2:30 pm at Beaver Hills, Alberta

Bringing it Down at Birdseye (Wildlife Site Cleanup) - September 20, 2019, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, Birdseye Ranch, Waterton, Alberta

Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation Talks (Multiple dates in Madden, Alberta)

Master Migrators (On-Site Talk) - August 18, 2019 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm

Batty for Bats (On-Site Talk) - October 19, 2019 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm

26th The Wildlife Society Annual Conference (Reno, Nevada, on September 29 to October 3, 2019)

North American Duck Symposium - August 26 to 30, 2019, in Winnipeg, Manitoba

2019 Boreal Bird Banding Course - September 22 to 28, 2019, In Fort McMurray, Alberta

To inspire and empower wildlife professionals to engage in science-based management and conservation of wild animals and their habitats

The Alberta Wildlifer

August 2019 Volume 30 Issue 3

The Alberta Chapter of the Wildlife Society

P.O. Box 4990

Edmonton, AB T6E 5G8

How do you like the new Alberta Wildlifer format? Please let one of the new Editors know what you think. And if you would like to contribute a story, no matter how short or long, please feel free to reach out to any of the Newsletter Editors.

Created By
ACTWS Newsletter Team