2020/21 Research Projects

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

Darwyn Coxson, Stephen Dery (UNBC) and Curtis Bjork (UBC)

Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Provincial Park is one of the newest provincial parks in the B.C. parks system. Since 2018, this project has assessed land use values and sensitive ecological sites within the park. Preliminary findings from 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 project work identified sensitive ecological areas and made recommendations for a zoning framework in the park. This work also supports co-management of the Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Provincial Park by B.C. Parks with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation.

In 2020, project researchers learned that shallow groundwater is likely a mixture of seasonal snowmelt and rainfall, and that rainfall only accounts for roughly 25% of the mixture with snowmelt accounting for the remaining 75% of the groundwater input. Floristic exploration of the wetland has resulted in the documentation of 488 plant and lichen species in the long-term monitoring plots. Special-significance species include provincially rare species such as Carex lacustris (known in British Columbia only in the project area), and Castilleja purpurascens (a rare regional endemic.)

Project findings suggest that the Robson Valley wetlands have major provincial significance, 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. This input is timely as BC Parks is currently working on the first management plan for the combined Slim Creek and Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Provincial Park and Protected areas. 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 first park management plan.

For more information about this project, see the final report [PDF].

Lazuli Bunting, photo by John Reynolds

The BC Parks iNaturalist project: biodiversity across the BC Parks system

Brian Starzomski, UVIC and John Reynolds, SFU

The BC Parks iNaturalist Project uses the iNaturalist citizen-science platform to collect observations of species occurrence in all provincial protected areas around the province. Each provincial park, conservancy, protected area, and ecological reserve has its own collection project, such as, Strathcona Provincial Park. Results from these protected areas are automatically gathered together under the iNaturalist umbrella project. Benefits include large numbers of photos of a variety of species, engagement with people both in and outside of B.C. who may not have visited the park but who have species ID expertise (the so-called “identifiers” on the iNaturalist platform), and the automatic creation of species lists and guides for each protected area (see Naikoon Agate Beach as example.)

Anicia Checkerspot Butterfly, photo by Thomas Barbin

Any park visitor can contribute their observations to the project, using a phone or other camera to take photos of species encountered. Observers can often find species that have been overlooked, including early detections of species in new regions. People can learn about species in protected areas before they visit. Through the iNaturalist platform and GBIF.org all observations are available to BC Parks managers to examine patterns of biodiversity, including threatened and invasive species, in protected areas. These biodiversity observations add to knowledge of biodiversity collected by taxonomists through time, and provide a platform for citizen scientists, as well as experts, to collect species data that helps to track connectivity and species' response to climate change. The data also shed light on the social dimensions of protected area use by highlighting the park locations and species that are most important to people.

The 2020 field season saw a large increase in observations made by both the research team and the public. At the end of the season, there was a 55% increase in observations or a total of 272,700 observations of 6,690 species by 4,731 people uploaded to the BC Parks iNaturalist Project.  These observations were verified by 4,572 people. The project has grown by more than 250,000 observations since its start in May 2019. As part of the project, the BC Parks iNaturalist team and collaborators produced a guide to using iNaturalist and making better observations.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].

Coastal Plant Phenology Research and Monitoring Project

Pam Shaw, VIU and Jessica Pyett, Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute
BEC Zone

The Coastal Plant Phenology Research and Monitoring Project was initiated to evaluate the vulnerability of plant species and ecosystems on Vancouver Island to climate change. Studying plant phenology, the timing of cyclic biological changes and the relationships between climate and phenological development builds our understanding of how individual species and ecosystems respond to climate now. Additionally, this study provides data to evaluate potential shifts in this response with future climate projections. Ultimately, the project team is evaluating the impacts of climatic change to plant phenology across multiple climate regions on southeastern Vancouver Island. This project aims to fill the site-level knowledge gap to assist site and stand level management planning. Additionally, it is understood that mid-latitude, highly seasonal, temperate regions like British Columbia have the most potential for “long-term shifts in phenology” due to climate variability.

With support from the Living Lab Program, the project team established two more research sites. Due to COVID-19, the project team was unable to install the equipment at the research sites in time to capture the entire 2020 growing season. However, the equipment is already deployed for the 2021 season. The research team completed an initial red huckleberry fall phenology comparison between the BC Parks sites and non-BC Parks sites. Preliminary results suggest there is a difference between both the timing and the intensity of phenophase development across sites and across biogeoclimatic units. Further investigation into phenophase development and the corresponding relationship with microclimate will facilitate evaluation of climate change impacts across the study area.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].

Camera trap monitoring to assess wildlife responses to environmental change in BC Parks

Cole Burton, Wildlife Coexistence Lab (WildCo), University of British Columbia (UBC) et al.
Camera trap monitoring to assess wildlife responses to environmental change in BC Parks

Protected areas represent a fundamental strategy in efforts to protect threatened biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide. British Columbia has a large and diverse PA system, covering 15% of the province’s land area, but BC’s parks face increasing pressures from land use change, climate change, and recreational demands. There is thus a need for effective monitoring methods to inform management actions and ensure PA effectiveness. This project tests the use of camera trap (CT) monitoring to assess the status of terrestrial wildlife in BC Parks, and to understand the impacts of recreational activities and other stressors on medium and large-bodied mammals. CT surveys were conducted in five provincial parks and their adjacent landscapes: Cathedral, Garibaldi, Golden Ears, Joffre Lakes and South Chilcotin Mountains parks. To date, 214 CTs were deployed across these parks, and more than 2 million images were processed from approximately 100,000 camera-days of sampling effort.

As of March 2021, CT sampling is ongoing in all five parks, with a wide range of species detected in each (e.g. 29 mammal species in Cathedral, 32 in South Chilcotins), across a range of habitat types and recreational pressures. These include commonly detected species, such as mule deer, black bear, and coyote, as well as a variety of less frequently observed species (e.g., lynx and bobcat, wolverine, wolf, elk). Surveys have documented high variation in human recreational activity across space and time, and preliminary statistical models (with data collected up to fall 2020) were developed to test hypotheses about the relationships between focal mammal species, human recreational activities and environmental variation. In this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges in implementing research activities, but also an unprecedented opportunity to learn about wildlife responses to the significant changes in visitor use of provincial parks associated with the pandemic. The project will continue through the coming year, with CT checks commencing in the late spring/early summer, and data processing and analysis continuing through the year.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].

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

Example of rooted cuttings from foliage of one yellow cedar tree
Jim Mattsson, Simon Fraser University

Yellow cedar trees have considerable spiritual, cultural, and economic value to First Nations in and near the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR), and also fill a unique ecological role. Yellow cedar decline has been accelerating in recent decades and has particularly affected trees within the GBR. This decline is linked to warming temperatures and decreased snow coverage, which leaves tree roots exposed to later winter cold snaps. This project aims to discover whether it may be possible to whether trees with a higher freezing tolerance can be identified. If so, it may be possible to blunt the impact of climate change by artificially selecting hardier varieties for reforestation projects.

Over the past two years, the Living Lab team visited more than 25 parks, conservancies, and protected areas in the GBR to sample yellow cedar trees and collected cuttings from nearly 300 trees. The first year of the project focused on the GBR, while the second year focused on areas in southern BC at higher altitudes. Samples collected from the field were then rooted in greenhouses. Testing these trees revealed a wide range of cold tolerances, with the most cold-tolerant types being 40% more resistant to freezing damage than the least resistant types. The next steps for this project are to continue testing the most cold-resistant variants and to attempt breeding of these variants to produce seed stock for possible reforestation projects.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].

Sample "report card" for the Garibaldi park complex and surrounding ecosystem.

Documenting structural land cover change and disturbance across provincial BC Parks for Biodiversity Assessment

Nicholas Coops, University of British Columbia

Understanding the current land cover and vegetation structural conditions (such as vegetation height, canopy cover, and biomass) is critical for mapping and monitoring the BC Parks system. In addition, understanding the impact of changing disturbance regimes, (such as fire, harvesting where permitted, and non-stand replacing disturbances) on these parks is also of paramount concern. Due to limited resources, consistent mapping of these conditions across the entirety of the terrestrial parks system has been elusive. Parks have been mapped at different times for different purposes, resulting in inconsistent mapping approaches and classification systems. Additionally, with changes in the land base due to climate change, fire, and human development, maps are quickly out of date.

This project used data from satellite imagery and airborne laser scanning to derive a three-dimensional view of forest structure and allow the estimation of biomass and foliage cover in 533 parks and protected areas across the province. In areas where images have been taken repeatedly over the years, this allows the construction of a timeseries of change and disturbance. With province-wide coverage, this enabled the production of a report card for every park in the system, comparing it with the immediate surrounding area. These comparisons contain summaries of vegetation type, disturbance (including forest fires), and aboveground biomass.

Across the province, the dominant land cover in protected areas is coniferous forest. As expected, forest harvesting is significantly more common outside protected areas than within them, while disturbance from fire is not significantly different. Parks tend to have taller trees, more biomass, and larger forest patch sizes than the areas immediately outside them. Human development is also not common near most parks, with the exception of parks like Garibaldi, Cypress, and Mount Seymour. A follow-up to this project in 2021 will look at snow conditions in parks using similar remote sensing techniques.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].

Mitlenatch Island visualization in (A) first-person perspective mode, and (B) map view

Visualizing Climate Change Impacts and Environmental Change in Coastal Protected Areas

Rob Newell (Royal Roads University) and Chris Bone (University of Victoria)

The effects of climate change are often abstract and difficult for people to visualize.Using computer graphics and technology commonly used for video game development, climate change effects can be modelled and visualized to help management planning and climate change adaptation exercises. Once trained on how to use them, communities and stakeholders can use these visualizations to highlight cultural and ecological features in parks, guide discussions and examine the consequences of decisions without requiring experts on hand.

In cooperation with members and affiliates of local stewardship groups, First Nations, and provincial government, this project focused on developing an interactive visualization of Mitlenatch Island. Virtual models of the island were built using LiDAR, orthophoto, and provincial digital elevation models data, and the visualization was refined using data from a site visit and drone flight. The visualization was then tested in workshops to obtain feedback and gain insights into how similar tools may be developed in the future. Besides climate change impacts like the effects of sea level rise on beach area, the visualization was also able to show the effects of different management practices such as prescribed burning and native vegetation restoration. This year, work will continue to refine and improve the visualizations by collecting more data. A beta version of the tool is available at www.coraluvic.ca/sidneyspitviz/mitlenatch-island

For more information about this project, see the final report.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].

The team travelling up Kokanee Glacier. The snowline can be clearly seen, where the glacier transitions from losing to gaining mass.

Kokanee Glacier Climate Project

Brian Menounos and Ben Pelto, University of Northern British Columbia

Climate change is causing glaciers to retreat across British Columbia, with implications for water courses and water availability. There are about 2900 glaciers located within BC Parks, but few of them have been measured to see how they’re being affected. This project measured the amount of snow and ice in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park’s, Kokanee Glacier in spring and summer. The depth of snow across the entire glacier was also mapped and modeled so that we can forecast how long the glacier might persist. The glacier averages 42 metres thick, with a maximum ice thickness of 88m.

Smoke from wildfires in 2020 added another variable to the equation, as soot from the air is deposited on the glacier, darkening it. This darkening of the surface speeds up the rate of melt by retaining more heat from sunlight than the normal white surface would.

This research shows that Kokanee Glacier has lost, on average, 42cm of ice thickness between 2013 and 2020. At the current rate of ice loss, the glacier will disappear by the end of the century. The team will be returning in 2021 to gather more data. The data collection on this glacier is now approaching 10 consecutive years, and the longer monitoring is continued, the more valuable the dataset becomes.

For more information about this project, please see the final report [PDF].