Study to shed light on wildlife corridors
Thursday, Feb 05, 2015 10:08 am
A new study aims to provide better scientific information on what makes a good wildlife corridor.
Wildlife biologist Adam Ford is conducting a large-scale analysis of factors affecting use of wildlife corridors in the mountain national parks and neighbouring provincial lands, including Canmore and Harvie Heights.
He is compiling existing data from several long-term monitoring programs that have been conducted since the 1990s to record the presence of deer, elk, moose, coyotes, cougars, wolves, black bears and grizzly bears.
Ford said corridors are a contentious issue in the debate over development and, while they have been an important tool in conversation and wildlife management since the 1970s, scientific understanding of how to optimize corridor design and quantify how they function is still lacking.
“I want to look at what makes a corridor work well, and what we can prioritize to make sure corridors have certain features that will enhance use by animals. ” said Ford, a postdoctoral fellow from the Department of Integrative Biology at Ontario’s University of Guelph.
“Is there a one-size-fits-all corridor, or do we need different corridors for different critters because they have different needs? I am trying to get as much data as I can on as many animals as I can.”
Parks Canada and Alberta Parks is providing data for the project, which covers lands in Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay national parks, and the Bow Valley near Canmore and Kananaskis Country.
The data comes from more than 40 wildlife corridors that have been monitored with snow-tracking or motion-activated cameras. In addition, animal movement from GPS collaring studies, backtracking, wildlife population censuses and weather mapping is also being reviewed.
“It’s a very impressive data set and if you are a data geek like me, it gets you really excited,” Ford said.
The Bow Valley is home to many wildlife species, including wide-ranging animals like bears and wolves. Animals also use this area as a pathway connecting Banff National Park with Kananaskis Country – a key link in the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) system.
The Bow Valley is also a popular place for people. It is home to towns, the Trans-Canada Highway, Canadian Pacific Railway, golf courses, ski hills, hiking and biking trails – and draws millions of tourists a year.
It’s no longer considered good enough to create isolated protected habitats. Some species such as wolves, grizzly bears, cougar and lynx need to travel long distances to survive and their habitat needs to be connected with corridors if they are to thrive over the long-term.
To work properly, previous guidelines and recommendations have suggested wildlife corridors must be wide enough, provide adequate vegetation cover, not be too steep and be far enough from human development and activities for the most wary animals to use them.
Ford said the location of corridors at several places in the Bow Valley was largely determined by expert opinion, leaving substantial room for debate about the ways future land development may impact animal movements.
“This uncertainty has generated political controversies for municipal governments, heightened insecurity and cost for land developers, and has undermined conservation efforts,” he said.
In Canmore, debate over wildlife corridors has been controversial for many years, particularly over development of Three Sisters lands.
Under new ownership, Three Sisters has received zoning for phase 2 of Stewart Creek, and it is anticipated it will complete redevelopment plans in 2015 for the remaining developable lands.
Ford said a lack of clarity on the appropriate measure of corridor functionality meant developers and community stakeholders were unable to reach consensus on the extent to which the Three Sisters project would further fragment the landscape.
“Having some tangible, quantifiable values for what makes a good corridor will help resolve some of these longstanding debates about development,” he said.
In the 1990s, Parks Canada restricted human use in the area north of the Trans-Canada Highway below Banff’s Cascade Mountain. A cadet camp, horse corrals and buffalo paddock were removed. A grassy airstrip remains, but is allowed to be used for emergency landings only.
Since then, studies have shown use by wildlife has dramatically increased.
Jesse Whittington, a Parks Canada wildlife biologist, said the Cascade corridor is one of the best wildlife corridors in the Bow Valley because it is large, wide, and has lots of high quality habitat.
He said snow-tracking surveys in the Cascade corridor detect wolves or cougars approximately 45 per cent of the time.
“We rarely detect wolves and cougars in corridors closer to town, such as the Fenlands-Indian Grounds where we detect them 12 per cent of the time,” he said.
“But some corridors rarely used by wolves and cougars are frequently used by bears such as 122 when travelling up and down the Bow Valley.”
Parks Canada is planning to capture and fit two wolves from the Fairholme pack with GPS collars this winter to help with Ford’s project. The goal is to get information on how this pack, which extends its range from Banff onto provincial lands near Canmore, use wildlife corridors.
“We know wolves strongly select shallow slopes and low elevations, but we need to know more about corridor width, length, and how available habitat and human use in surrounding areas affect corridor use,” Whittington said.
Whittington said there is no clear understanding of why some corridors work well for some animals, and others do not.
“Corridors are perpetually an item of discussion for looking at human use throughout the Rocky Mountains, and there’s a lack of peer reviewed empirical data showing what you need to design a really good corridor,” said Whittington.
“We want to combine a rich data set to determine why wildlife use some wildlife corridors a lot, and other corridors very little. Having that analysis will allow land managers to make more informed decision about how to design corridors.”
Ford’s study, which aims to advance the science of wildlife movement ecology, will be peer reviewed. At the completion of the review, a series of recommendations will be presented to land managers.
“The end product would be a handful of very tangible recommendations based on science,” Ford said.