2019/20 Research Projects

ASugarstick (Allotropa virgata) Vaseux Protected Area American pika (Ochotona princeps)

Citizen science to monitor biodiversity in BC Parks and BC Landscapes

Brian Starzomski, University of Victoria and John Reynolds, Simon Fraser University

BC Parks is responsible for the management of one of the world’s premier protected areas networks, with over 1,000 protected areas covering all of the biogeoclimatic zones of Canada’s most biodiverse province. Knowing what is in each park, what threats might be present outside parks, and how species distributions may be changing with climate are key questions that cannot be answered with limited staff resources and budgets. Collecting biodiversity data within BC Parks is a priority. Citizen science initiatives can play a key role because of the large size of the BC Parks network, the relatively small amount of staff time that can be allocated to long-term monitoring, and the multivariate ways that ecosystems are likely to reflect climate-driven changes.

This project proposed to enhance citizen-science monitoring data for BC Parks to more rapidly respond to the above issues. In particular, researchers proposed to enhance BC Parks' capacity to monitor and better understand species and ecosystems through the citizen science tool called iNaturalist. The platform uses citizen-collected species observations to create large databases of observations in geo-referenced locations. A crowd-sourcing component that secondarily checks the observation by other observers confirms the identifications within the platform. Since this project was launched, more than 100,000 observations of 5,034 species were made by 2,550 people. These observations were further verified by 2,800 people. Incidents of threatened and invasive species were also recorded providing important park management information. Several first iNaturalist records were made for B.C. (e.g., striped coralroot) and some first iNaturalist records were made for Canada, (e.g., Nuttall’s quillwort).

To learn more about the BC Parks iNaturalist Project, please visit the project site, download the app and join the BC Parks iNaturalist citizen scientist community.

An approach to mitigate climate change-induced Yellow cedar decline in the Great Bear Rainforest; identification of survivors for reforestation and selection stocks

Jim Mattsson, Simon Fraser University and Barbara Hawkins, UVic

Yellow cedar decline (YCD) has reached epidemic proportions in Southeast Alaska and is now rapidly increasing in the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR), the Skeena and Haida Gwaii. Recent aerial surveys identified 52,349 ha affected by YCD in the GBR and 3,228 ha in the Skeena Valley. Extensive research has provided evidence that the root system, typically growing close to the surface in water logged areas, dies when spring cold snaps occur in the early spring. This in turn is attributed to climate-change induced warmer temperatures resulting in early snow melt and a lack of the insulation that snow provides against extreme temperatures. In addition, Yellow cedar regeneration in affected areas is slow or absent. However, in affected areas, there are some survivors indicating that they may have better than average freezing tolerance. This project worked with BC Parks and First Nations to sample foliage from such trees, root cuttings, and screen roots for cold tolerance relative to each other as well as clones from hitherto unaffected areas. This approach allowed researchers to identify possible tree lines that are more tolerant to cold temperatures than other lines and explore whether these lines can in turn be used for crosses to generate offspring that are more resistant to cold temperatures. These offspring could be used for future reforestation efforts. A summary of the project work to date is available for those seeking additional information.

Evaluating historic imagery for landscape-level change: first steps in the Muskwa Kechika

Mary Sanseverino and Eric Higgs, University of Victoria

The Muskwa Kechika/Finlay River study area comprises a huge zone draining landscapes that form the northern Rocky Mountains. Known by many as the “Serengeti of the North”, it is a landscape that has experienced direct human-induced change at an ecosystem level. Forestry and some mineral resource extraction are also practiced here. An examination of the study area also shows wilderness zones with few roads and little large-scale infrastructure. This is an area where landscape change, if detectable, might be more unambiguously examined for signs of climate change at work in mountain environments. This project examines 2,900 photographic negatives generated by land surveyor work completed from 1939 to 1941. Historic mountain photographs can be used in many ways such as showing the direct effects of climate change and augmenting remotely sensed data. More information about the project goals and outcomes can be viewed at the Mountain Legacy website.

Calcareous fen surrounding a mineral spring in the Ancient Forest/Chun T'oh Whudujut Provincial Park and Protected Area.  This site supports many regionally rare and unique wetland species due to the inflow of nutrient rich water. (Photo by D. Coxson)

Climate change resilience and sensitivity of key wetland ecosystems in the Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park

Darwyn Coxson and Stephen Dery, UNBC

The Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area is British Columbia’s newest park. Nestled in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh, the park protects a portion of a rare inland temperate rainforest ecosystem. Thousand-year-old western redcedars and a rich biodiversity of plants, mosses, lichens and fungi are found at the site. Initiated in 2018, the Living Lab project assessed the park’s plant biodiversity (lichens, bryophytes, vascular plants) in wetlands (along with other areas in the Robson Valley). Monitoring sites were established in 28 wetlands and inventories of these sites were conducted, documenting rare species data against which the effects of future climate change can be tracked over time. In 2019, additional work was done to curate collected samples, conduct further tests to verify species identification where required, and to ensure that database entry and management meet provincial standards. Several species found in the studied wetlands have special conservation significance for being regionally or globally rare, or rare regional endemics. A second component of the project was to conduct hydrologic surveys to quantify dependence of Ancient Forest wetlands on groundwater flow and their sensitivity to climate change. Work extending from 2018 into 2020 estimated local water balances and patterns of groundwater flow. Local climate data was used to relate these data to long term trends.

Major wetlands in the three parks studied were previously unknown to science. The project’s findings suggest that they have major provincial significance, both as rare ecosystems in the region, for their diverse species assemblages, and for their role in sustaining ecological processes in the upper Fraser River watershed. Identified areas should be zoned to receive full protection from any disturbances that could impact biodiversity. Project findings have been included in the newly drafted Ecosystem Overview Assessment for Slim Creek, Ancient Forest / Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area, informing the public consultation process for the park management plan. Additional details regarding this project can be accessed through its 2020 final report or from this BC Parks blog post.

Planning for Resilient Mountain Goat Populations Using Indigenous Knowledge and Science

Tyler Jessen and Chris Darimont, University of Victoria

More broadly, this project serves as a case study in integrating multiple types of data for assessing threats to species of concern. Applied ecologists and wildlife managers are frequently confronted by data shortages, especially in the case of rare or elusive species such as mountain goats. In addition to providing important new data synthesis on mountain goats in the region, this work will also serve as a case study for how multiple data sources (Indigenous Knowledge, harvest data, and aerial surveys) might be united to generate insights into animal distribution and abundance that are applicable to wildlife and parks management systems of different species. Preliminary findings noted that mountain goat density in the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Territory and the Fjordland Conservancy is low relative to other coastal and interior population density estimates. Reductions in coastal mountain goat summer habitat is expected to decline as temperatures rise. Coastal mountain goats are sensitive to human disturbance – including park visitors’ presence, helicopters and low flying drones. Project details are available within this final report or at this BC Parks blog post.

Consequences of Didymo Blooms in the transnational Kootenay River basin

Jeff Curtis, UBC – Okanagan, Niall Clancy and Janice Brahney, Utah State University

Didymosphenia geminata or 'didymo' is a nuisance algae found in many provincial park streams. This project assessed the impacts of didymo on fish in the Kootenay River basin. A variety of metrics were determined for community composition and fish condition to determine at what threshold didymo blooms affect fish. Researchers focused on blue and yellow-listed, as well as culturally and economically important fish species, such bull and westslope cutthroat trout and Gerrard rainbow trout, torrent Sculpin, and slimy sculpin.

During the summer of 2019, didymo bloom severity was measured in 28 Kootenay basin streams with varying levels of Didymo bloom severity (0 – 80% streambed coverage) and fish diets and condition were compared. Ten of those streams were located in provincial parks. Results revealed that Didymo abundance was correlated only with the percent of aquatic invertebrates in cutthroat and rainbow trout diets and did not affect diets of bull trout, brook trout, torrent sculpin, or Columbia slimy sculpin. Variation in fish condition was low across study streams. Thus, Didymo blooms may impact trout diets to a small extent, but the researchers found no evidence this impact translates to changes in condition or growth. For more information, a comprehensive manuscript is available as well as a BC Parks blog post.

Investigations into Determinants of Vegetation Change at Nisga’a Memorial Lava Beds Park

Phil Burton, University of Northern British Columbia

This project allowed researchers from the University of Northern BC to document and explain vegetation patterns in Nisga’a Memorial Lava Beds Park with the goal of understanding the differences between normal successional patterns and those related to climate change. Public perceptions that tree cover has been increasing on the Nass Valley lava plain likely reflect the absence of wildfires in recent decades. Evidence indicates widespread recurrence of such disturbances over the last 90 years, not all of which have been documented by provincial agencies. Fires consume vegetation that had developed to date, leaving bare lava rock that is then slowly colonized by snow lichen and then by hoary rock moss, especially on rough lava surfaces. Microclimate monitoring and repeated moisture content monitoring of lichen and moss blanket samples confirmed that these fuels dry out more rapidly, making them very susceptible to human ignitions.

Information on natural disturbances, infrastructure development and other human activities on the lava beds was compiled from multiple sources, including literature searches, government databases, and local informants. Combined with a recent geological map, structural differences in the vegetation visible on 1947, 1982 and 2010 aerial photographs, the mappable boundaries of those disturbances were used to define 13 relatively homogenous strata for ground-based inspection and sampling in 2018 and 2019. More than 500 plant taxa (species, subspecies, and varieties) were encountered on the lava plain, including 15 rare species (mostly lichens).

Vegetation development on the lava plain does not follow the “textbook” description of primary succession on volcanic substrates. Rather, the plant community composition and distribution seen today reflects a complex history of substrate differences and forest edge effects (through the contribution of plant litter and seeds), altered by a history of repeated wildfires and (in some locations) subsurface flooding and overland flow associated with silt deposition. Although the incidence of fires, floods, and tree recruitment did not show any strong relationships to basic meteorological data, conditions suitable for fires and floods are expected to increase at a regional level under a changing climate. The human impact of greatest concern is the presence of several dozen exotic plant species primarily associated with roads and other activity centres. A final report and blog summarizing more details of this project is available.