The Alberta Biodiversity Conservation (ABC) Chairs program (2013-2018) is a multi-stakeholder applied research initiative focused around conservation and management of biodiversity within oil sands (primarily around in situ developments in northern Alberta). Overall there are 4 integrated research themes or broad topics covered by the Chairs. These themes include:
- Rare and endangered species monitoring and conservation;
- Cause and effect assessment of biodiversity change for effective management;
- Improving monitoring, modeling & management of biodiversity for land use planning;
- Integrated restoration: from sites to landscapes
The Alberta Biodiversity Conservation (ABC) Chairs will form the nucleus of a broadly-based, scientifically credible, solution-oriented research program to tackle biodiversity conservation issues in Alberta. The Chairs, and their collaborators, will focus on key biodiversity challenges related to the energy sector in the first 5-year mandate. The intention is to not only understand the effects of human footprint and activities on biodiversity but to also understand the effects of mitigation strategies applied locally and how these scale up to regional situations (the cumulative effects challenge), as well as how broad regional landuse planning (Lower Athabasca Planning Region (LARP)) can be used to achieve desired objectives. The Chairs will focus on organismal to landscape scale applied biodiversity conservation research specific to: (1) understanding cause-effect relationships between disturbances, landscapes and biodiversity; (2) predicting biodiversity responses to these disturbances; and (3) developing restoration methods and tools to recover site biodiversity and landscape processes using mechanistic understandings of biodiversity decline.
More specifically, the Chairs will:
- Provide arm’s length objective scientific assessment and analysis of biodiversity conservation issues in the Province of Alberta that will lead to innovative solutions.
- Link first-class monitoring information to mechanistic understanding (cause-effect) of human effects (including mitigation and management strategies) on biodiversity.
- Increase research capacity in the Province to meet the challenges of providing scientifically credible assessment of human activities on biodiversity.
- Provide a forum for the exchange and discussion of scientific information relating to the effects of human activities on Alberta Biodiversity.
- Develop effective research partnerships between government, industry and academia to set priorities, develop research teams, produce results and translate these into solutions.
Develop the next generation of Biodiversity Conservation practitioners who will be prepared to work effectively in the complex interplay between biodiversity conservation, land use and government policy
Background and Rationale
Alberta’s landscapes are busy places. Oil and gas activities, as well as forestry, mining, agriculture, recreation, and housing and infrastructure developments have resulted in competition for land, water, and air resources. This has placed an unprecedented amount of pressure on ecological goods and services resulting in a wide range of land-use challenges. These pressures, if not appropriately addressed, could threaten the integrity of Alberta’s ecosystems upon which all our social and economic values depend. This is no more apparent than in the Alberta Oil Sands. This important resource has attracted international attention with a growing perception that government and industry have failed to live up to their responsibility to develop the Oil Sands in an environmentally responsible manner. This perception is now jeopardizing access to international markets. Federal and Provincial Governments and Industry have responded to these pressures by developing, among other programs, the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) Bilateral Agreement, the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency, and the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). There is broad agreement that these initiatives require a sound credible scientific basis to the measurement of impacts and as a basis for management recommendations. If these initiatives are to gain public trust and facilitate a social license to operate, it is important that the science from those assessments be viewed as independent and objective.
Fortunately, Alberta does not have to look far afield to find evidence of the benefits of an independent arms-length scientifically credible approach to the challenges outlined above. Biodiversity is a fundamental measure of ecosystem integrity and refers to “the variety of life, as expressed by genes, species, and ecosystems that is shaped by evolutionary and ecological processes.” Biodiversity is not just an ecological concept; it is intrinsic to maintaining social and economic values. Demonstrating that Alberta is providing a solid scientific basis for the maintenance of biodiversity will become increasingly important for industry’s access to international markets. In anticipation of this need, The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) has established an operational monitoring program that collects information throughout Alberta on a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic biota, habitat and landscape elements, as well as the footprint created by human land-use. This information is synthesized to report on the status of the ecosystems, species, and habitats, as well as change in these measures over time and relationships between human land uses and biodiversity intactness. The governance structure of the program is a not-for-profit arms-length entity reporting to a Board of Directors. ABMI has built its program around a set of core values that includes world-class scientifically independent design and analysis of biodiversity which has garnered an ABMI “brand” that has broad respect both in the scientific community and public at large.
ABMI’s mandate is to report on the status and trend of Alberta’s biodiversity. ABMI provides this information to managers and the public but it is careful to remain value-neutral and, although the information collected is highly relevant to management, ABMI does not engage in management decisions. Trend information from the ABMI allows inferences to be made on the impact of natural and human disturbance on biodiversity using statistical associations. These relationships can be viewed as potentially causal in nature but require further testing to confirm relationships and better understand mechanisms. Without such cause-and-effect research, it is difficult to develop decisive mitigative strategies to address declines in biological diversity due to development. Preliminary consideration draws our attention to areas in the province that are most heavily disturbed (e.g. mineable oil sands areas in north central Alberta) and surrounding areas that are affected by virtue of the fact that they are a contiguous part of the landscape.
Building on the core information collected by ABMI, the Research Chairs in Biodiversity Conservation will provide the fundamental cause and effect research around which new management and mitigation strategies can be built for areas of acute concern. Figure 1 below portrays the strategic position of a Research Chairs in the continuum of monitoring, research and management application. The Research Chairs will test hypotheses flowing from observed relationships or questions that arise from analyses of monitoring data or other sources of information. These cause and effect relationships will provide guidance for the development of remedial management strategies in the event monitoring confirms a real decline in elements of biodiversity. Application of experimental restoration treatments will follow with monitoring and testing of their effectiveness thus guiding future management strategies.
Figure 1. System diagram illustrating activities and flow of information from monitoring, to research, to management applications. Outcomes from monitoring can raise questions or support the development of hypotheses that can be tested by research. Understanding of cause and effect relationships provides the basis for the development of management strategies and decisions that address impacts of disturbance on biodiversity.
The Chairs will be housed at the University of Alberta and will build on that institution’s strength and reputation in Biodiversity Conservation and Restoration Ecology. This strength in conservation biology arises from a long history of research and investments in the study of ecology, land use, water management, and cumulative effects of energy, forestry and other resource extraction industries. The Faculties of Science and ALES (Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences) house over 40 faculty and 200 graduate students that study natural resource use and conservation biology. These faculties will combine efforts to produce a collaborative plan that further grows the expertise and international reputation of the University of Alberta in Biodiversity Conservation and Restoration Ecology. Development of natural resources in a manner that conserves species, maintains or improves water quality and minimizes harmful environmental impacts is a goal of conservation biology at the University of Alberta. University of Alberta scientists have been particularly active in the area of landscape ecology, land-use management and the development of research tools and monitoring approaches to guide land management decisions in a landscape heavily impacted by energy and forestry resource development. The ABMI Science Center is also housed on campus with a number of its faculty working directly with ABMI. Thus, the University of Alberta is well placed to host the Research Chairs in Biodiversity Conservation with a focus on understanding impacts of land use on biodiversity and testing mitigative strategies for restoration. This focus will ensure a comprehensive approach to building Alberta’s information base to inform decisions and support policy in an effort to conserve Alberta’s biodiversity.
- Rare and endangered species monitoring and conservation
Although they form only a small component of all biodiversity, rare and endangered species attract the lion’s share of public attention. Therefore, it is crucial that government and industry demonstrate real progress in conservation of these species. This research theme will focus on understanding mechanisms and critical limiting factors affecting population dynamics for select threatened taxa including understanding and predicting changes in ‘critical habitat’, experimenting with restoration actions and tools for population recovery, and the development of effective monitoring strategies for these challenging species. We will begin with studies of large mammals, birds, plants, and butterflies.
1.1 Woodland caribou conservation and monitoring. The Federal Government recently released its Recovery Strategy for Woodland caribou with a target of 65% of each caribou range being maintained as critical habitat. Most ranges in Alberta are well below this threshold requiring innovative approaches to caribou conservation. Given that our core understanding of the cause of caribou declines is well-understood, the important next-steps need to involve design and monitoring of actual implementation of conservation strategies. The next phase of caribou research in Alberta must focus on the effectiveness of recovery strategies to be implemented on a herd by herd basis by the Provincial Government in collaboration with industry. Depending on the circumstances, this will involve one or more of the following 3 complimentary components to woodland caribou conservation: (1) predator reduction; (2) habitat restoration; and (3) caribou protection. It will be important to learn as much as possible about the effectiveness of the management actions through a well-designed adaptive management and monitoring program. The caribou program will address the following information gaps:
- Population estimation techniques. Although Alberta has some of the best information on caribou population trends, there has been no measure of actual herd sizes. New mark-recapture methods using DNA collected from pellets and mark resight surveys will be tested.
- Monitoring of the effectiveness of government-led predator and primary prey management programs.
- Assessment of “critical habitat” including methods to facilitate recovery (see linkage to restoration theme), criteria for “recovery”, and monitoring of range scale recovery.
- Implementation and monitoring of innovative industry strategies for caribou recovery. This would include predator exclosures of various sizes and types.
- Exploration of alternate predator management strategies such as diversionary feeding of predators and chemical camouflage of caribou calves.
The above research will be conducted in collaboration with ABMI staff (Rob Serrouya), government staff (Dave Hervieux, AESRD), and industry collaborators (COSIA members). In addition, however, there is the requirement to facilitate and coordinate the recovery actions of government and industry. Boutin will work to foster the co-planning and co-implementation of a Provincial Caribou Recovery Strategy.
1.2 Rare Animal Species Monitoring. The very nature of rare species makes them difficult to monitor with any sort of precision and accuracy. This project will combine with ABMI initiatives in the Ecological Monitoring Committee for the Lower Athabasca EMCLA of the Lower Athabasca Planning Region (LAPR) to develop and test cost-effective methods to monitor species that are rare, at risk, or threatened in LAPR. This involves research on understanding patterns in rare plant and animal distributions, their responses to habitat fragmentation and methods to better monitor their populations. Dr. Nielsen is leading a project termed model-based adaptive monitoring of biodiversity which will focus on identifying key places for monitoring of biodiversity and/or populations of prioritized species identified in Project 2.1 below using spatial models of species habitat. Critical to this approach is targeting sites where rarity is more likely rather than a general systematic (random) allocation of monitoring effort by ABMI. As a consequence, this project compliments broader scale monitoring by the ABMI network of sites. This work includes the current collaboration with ABMI Applications Centre (Dan Farr) on the EMCLA project for rare plant monitoring in the Lower Athabasca region.
In the case of animals, automated survey technologies, such as camera traps and automated recording units (ARUs, ref), have considerable potential to further address the monitoring challenges of standardization, observer error, and rare species detectability. Sampling networks of such sensor devices can be deployed consistently over multiple spatial scales and long time periods, eliminating some of the tremendous logistical challenges of repeated deployment of manual survey teams, and providing a record of observations that can be archived and reviewed for greater interpretability. The flexible deployment and broad range of detection for camera traps and ARUs can also facilitate the targeting of both common and rare species using comparable protocols. Despite the promise of automated survey technologies, many important questions regarding their effective use need to be addressed including: (1) optimizing the number, spacing and length of unit deployments for multi-species monitoring; (2) controlling for effects of environmental variation on species detection probabilities; and (3) efficiently managing the large volumes of data that can be collected. This work will involve collaboration with ABMI staff (Drs. Cole Burton, Dan Farr, Peter Solomys), Dr. Erin Bayne and both Biodiversity Conservation Chairs. This work will form a component of an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant.
- Cause and effect assessment of biodiversity change as the foundation for effective management
ABMI has already begun to identify a number of species that are reacting to the changing landscape in the Lower Athabasca Planning Area. The next step is more directed cause-and-effect assessments of biodiversity patterns and responses to disturbance. This research theme will focus on better understanding local and landscape mechanisms regulating biodiversity patterns in order to increase our predictive capacity to evaluate biodiversity responses to future land use and to better design management strategies. Taxa considered for biodiversity will include large mammals, birds, vascular plants, and butterflies and will emphasize the interplay between disturbance history, edaphic gradients, landscape processes and human activities including mitigation practices.
2.1 Prioritizing species for conservation action – Life history traits, rarity and vulnerability of species to habitat fragmentation and climate change. This project will focus on ranking selected groups of Alberta’s biodiversity from most to least vulnerable in order to prioritize conservation actions and identify specific mitigation practices that proactively sustain the most vulnerable species. This work will use a combination of life history and conservation status assessments, species abundance estimates from monitoring data and research plots, and vulnerability assessments based on species ranges and threats (current and projected). This approach recognizes the triage principle and may consider cost-benefit analyses to optimize conservation dollars. This project includes current collaborations with ABMI Applications Centre (Dan Farr) Biodiversity Climate Change Adaptations project funded by the CCEMC.
2.2 Habitat loss, fragmentation and biotic responses to changes in landscape structure. This project represents the evaluation of cause-and-effect responses of biodiversity to local and cumulative impacts of industrial activity, as well as natural processes (terrain, fire, etc.) that affect landscape heterogeneity. A field research program will be developed for representative areas of northern Alberta to measure and test cause-and-effect relationships between biodiversity patterns and changes in biodiversity as a function of local cumulative impacts of habitat fragmentation, natural landscape features and natural disturbance history. This work is designed to complement current ABMI monitoring, which occurs at broader spatial scales and over longer time-horizons, by focusing research plots with high sample intensity to specific areas of the landscape selected specifically to test hypotheses. . The intent is to examine fewer taxa in more detail, but across multiple trophic levels and for representative key ecological processes. Focal taxa would likely include vascular plants, butterflies, general pollinators, birds, and large mammals. Collaborators include Dr. Ellen Macdonald, Dr. Fangliang He, Dr. Erin Bayne and Environment Canada staff.
2.3 Evaluation of local mitigation practices in a cumulative effects context. Despite the broad realization that it is the cumulative nature of all industrial activity that is most likely to affect biodiversity in a region, mitigation still tends to be enacted at a local project scale. This is due in part to the fact that regulatory approval of individual projects usually involves a series of proposed mitigation practices that are required to be conducted at the local level. Although these mitigation activities are often similar and tend to build on previous approvals, they remain uncoordinated and their effectiveness at a regional scale is rarely assessed. One example was the requirement that over 25 companies operating in northeastern Alberta each develop a biodiversity monitoring strategy. ABMI realized the need for a more coordinated approach which led to the formation of the Ecological Monitoring Committee for the Lower Athabasca (EMCLA). This has resulted in enhanced scientific credibility, harmonization of activity and analysis, improved communication, and co-ordinated application of biodiversity data to the management system. Such an approach has proven highly successful and the Chairs will build on this to assess a series of common mitigation strategies. The Chairs, in consultation with industry partners and government personnel, will develop a list of priorities for critical assessment of the efficacy of high cost practices. The intention is to objectively assess the scientific rationale, the actual efficacy of the practice with respect to regional goals, and propose changes where appropriate. In general, the intention is to eliminate approved mitigation practices that provide little conservation return on investment and replace them with practices that are more effective within the realities of a cumulative effects environment. Two examples include mitigation strategies around above ground pipelines and setback distances of mining relative to river corridors. In each case, companies spend considerable time and money creating crossings or raising the height of pipelines.
- Improving monitoring, modeling and management of terrestrial biodiversity for regional land use planning
This research theme will focus on better understanding spatial patterns of biodiversity in Alberta for land use and conservation planning. This includes using information generated by ABMI and other monitoring initiatives to: 1) build and test spatially explicit predictive models of biodiversity change in response to current and projected threats, 2) map biodiversity patterns in Alberta for estimating biodiversity hotspots and irreplaceability (biotic uniqueness), 3) estimate ecological equivalence of sites to assist with reclamation and conservation (habitat) offset projects; and 4) develop a set of land use planning tools and spatial datasets (GIS scripts & digital files) that assist with planning, including prioritization of restoration sites that have the greatest landscape benefit. This work builds onto the Alberta Species Conservation Atlas (http://www.ace-lab.org/asca.htm) project which is being developed by Dr. Nielsen’s lab in order to address current knowledge and data gaps in Alberta’s land use planning, the BAM (Boreal Avian Modeling) project of Dr. Erin Bayne, the Integrated Landscape Management work of Dr. Boutin, and the ABMI Applications Centre (Dan Farr) Biodiversity Climate Change and Adaptation project funded by CCEMC. This work will be fundamental to the LARP process including development of the Biodiversity Framework.
3.1 Targeted sampling to fill in key gradients in anthropogenic stressors and habitat. Regional sampling of species by ABMI is providing an initial picture of the distribution and relative abundance of many species in Alberta. This has facilitated the development of empirical models to support land use planning. However, there are important gaps in sampling coverage along key environmental gradients that are hypothesized drivers of biodiversity change. This includes the type and amount of human footprint together with rare habitats and certain successional stages. The under-sampling of these ’strata’ results in lower statistical power and thus a poorer ability to discriminate effects and trends. The first activity of this project will be to conduct targeted sampling to fill these gaps to increase statistical power of biodiversity responses. A matrix of existing sampling coverage of habitat and disturbance gradients will be used to target sampling for model development. The initial emphasis will be on birds and mammals and will include activities conducted by Environment Canada scientists under JOSM.
3.2 Testing and improving the predictive ability of spatially explicit species and biodiversity models. Spatially explicit models of biodiversity responses to land use activities represent an important tool to inform management but there is frequently a high degree of uncertainty associated with model predictions, given complex interactions between natural and anthropogenic factors, process noise inherent in ecological dynamics and observation error. Large uncertainty can undermine model applications, and thus focused effort is needed to not only reduce uncertainty, but to reliably portray it and assess its influence on model inference. We will use the information collected in 4.1 to construct spatially explicit models of biodiversity responses using a variety of techniques. These will then be validated through field sampling targeted to new areas spanning a range of model-predicted probabilities of occupancy or suitability, and validation statistics will be calculated to assess model accuracy. This form of model-based adaptive sampling can be used to continuously strive for reducing prediction uncertainty over time.
3.3 Using biodiversity maps for management. With mapped information on biodiversity of the region, we expect to develop a framework for guiding conservation offsets that consider ecological equivalence based on biodiversity values of a site with other factors such as ecosystem services added through additional and on-going collaborations. Using a biotic ‘value’ of a site, conservation offsets can then be guided through either ‘protection’ of other sites or restoration actions to improve biotic values of other sites. Critical to understanding and guiding this process will be determining offset ratios similar to what is done for wetland mitigation on a per unit area basis (e.g. ratios of 2:1, 3:1, etc. for restored vs. developed wetlands). Complimentary to the conservation offset tools is prioritizing restoration efforts. This will be done using landscape models that consider potential restoration effectiveness, costs and benefits (cost-benefit) to sensitive biota such as caribou.
- Integrated restoration: from site to landscape scales
This theme will focus on development of approaches to restoration of disturbed ecosystems and assessment of the effectiveness of these treatments. The research will focus on testing strategies aimed at conservation of rare and endangered species (building upon Theme 1 ) and will rely upon an understanding of species vulnerabilities to landscape changes and the cause-effect relationships between biodiversity and landscape pattern and process, including impacts of industrial disturbance (building upon Theme 2). Management practices for biodiversity conservation must necessarily encompass the site to landscape scale – since it is at the site scale that reclamation and restoration practices are implemented yet it is often the landscape scale at which their effectiveness may be realized. Furthermore, it is the landscape scale at which industry and government must plan for deployment of reclamation activities that will be most effective for a variety of organisms, within the context of a landscape strongly affected by cumulative effects.
4.1 Restoration recovery dynamics and silvicultural prescriptions for restoration of linear disturbances. This project focuses on understanding and mapping site factors that restrict natural recovery (forest succession) of linear disturbances and subsequently identifying site-based silvicultural practices that speed recovery (i.e. concepts of assisted succession). Recovery of these features is fundamental to habitat restoration efforts for woodland caribou and will link with the assessment of when linear features can be considered restored. A spatially-explicit restoration tool will be developed with this project to provide land managers with recommended restoration practices that are based on site conditions. It also will identify places that need little help (natural successional trajectories of recovery are sufficient) thus helping to allocate restoration dollars most effectively. This work includes the current project funded by AI-EES and Nexen (Dr. Nielsen – UofA, Dr. Vic Lieffers – UofA, Mr. Tim Vinge – ESRD and Dr. Barry White – ESRD) for the CEMA region southwest of Fort McMurray.
4.2 Seed delivery systems for ecological restoration of rare plants and fruiting shrubs. This research theme will identify seed delivery practices that facilitate and enhance establishment of selected plant species representing either rare plants or fruiting shrubs of importance to wildlife and aboriginals. This includes research into development of seed encapsulation techniques and local microsite modifications that enhance germination, survival and growth of target species for in situ reclamation (restoration). It also recognizes the need to identify proper site locations for restoration which at landscape scales would be based on targeted species habitat models. Dr. Nielsen is currently collaborating with Tim Vinge (ESRD) and his colleagues in developing seed delivery systems for rare plants and selected fruiting shrubs (blueberry, buffaloberry, etc.). This work also has linkages with Drs. Nielsen and Ellen Macdonald’s on-going research on assisted migration (colonization) for rare plants with the ABMI Applications Centre (Dan Farr) Biodiversity Climate Change and Adaptation project funded by CCEMC.
4.3 Landscape prioritization of restoration activities
Although restoration treatments may be effective in recovering composition, structure and function of individual sites, they may have little value for sensitive wildlife unless configured with respect to landscape structure and habitat needs of sensitive wildlife. In this project we will examine how restoration can be planned within the landscape in ways to help sustain and recover sensitive species such as caribou, old growth warblers, and fisher or alternately reduce populations and movement of invasive species such as coyote, white-tail deer, and weedy plants. Landscape restoration planning should involve considerations of different policy tools, such as conservation (biodiversity) offsets and an integrated use of scenario analysis and planning tools. Scenarios will be assessed over different landscape (spatial) configurations and temporal scales (annual to multi-decadal) in order to assess the effectiveness of spatially prioritizing restoration sites within the landscape and the impacts of restoration time lags on landscape restoration success. A range of spatial blocking scales will be examined based on the landscape habitat needs of different area-sensitive wildlife species. Along with evaluating the effectiveness of spatial blocking of restoration sites, we will also examine three spatial extents of restoration offsets in order to assess whether landscape restoration may be better achieved through offsets in different regions of Alberta. Each landscape restoration scenario will have economic consequences and thus tradeoffs between ecological benefits and economic costs. These trade-offs will need to be evaluated to better understand how to optimize restoration efforts that most benefit sensitive species for the least cost.