Research from coast to coast to coast

Conserving some of our wildest regions and most special places

Pressure grows on one of the world's largest carbon storehouses

Ontario Northern Boreal

When it comes to natural climate solutions, there are few places like the far north in Ontario. This globally important area is one of the world’s greatest carbon storehouses, holding hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon in muskeg, trees and soil. WCS Canada has been making the case for stewardship of this huge climate regulating region everywhere from the Glasgow Climate Summit to the halls of our legislatures. We are actively working with Indigenous communities in the region to develop new conservation approaches and to support their plans for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.

WCS Canada played a leading role in convincing the federal government to undertake a regional impact assessment for this region before mining development and roads change it forever. Now we are working to ensure this assessment properly addresses the immense natural values of the region, particularly its ability to absorb and store carbon. At the same time, we are working with First Nation partners to help protect at-risk species such as lake sturgeon while leading field-based research and using our expertise to drive better conservation approaches for wolverine and caribou.

  • Tracked 50 wolverines to understand the impact of forestry on these elusive creatures. Our researchers have made a number of new findings about wolverine behaviour and denning and worked with forestry companies to begin a process of changing practices to help wolverines.
  • Informed species at risk recovery planning for wolverine using the data we gathered through extensive aerial surveys undertaken over a seven-year period. Worked to improve assessments of caribou range and conservation planning for a species that has been in steady decline in areas with extensive logging. We also helped to develop strong indicator measures for caribou health in the Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) system.
  • Published a report identifying the priority areas for freshwater fish biodiversity in the far north in Ontario, as well as identifying priority areas for culturally and economically important species (brook trout, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, walleye). 
  • In partnership with Moose Cree First Nation, tracked over 100 lake sturgeon in the Moose Cree homelands to develop recommendations for reducing the impact of dams and to focus attention on the importance of large dam-free rivers.
  • With co-authors, published a key report about the importance of northern peatlands for fighting climate change, and identified key policy changes that are needed to protect these vast carbon storehouses. 
  • Drew attention to the importance of the Hudson Bay Lowland – the world’s third biggest wetland – through a northern peatlands story map, and a presentation at COP26, and are working with the Mushkegowuk Council and other partners to advance conservation solutions for the area.
  • Helped convince the federal government of the need for a Regional Assessment of the Ring of Fire under its new Impact Assessment Act and continue to monitor the development of this process closely, as well as monitoring individual assessments already underway for new region-opening roads to the mining area.
Climate change is rapidly reshaping this still wild land

Northern Boreal Mountains

Things are changing quickly in Canada’s northern regions thanks to the impacts of climate change and increasing demand for minerals. In Yukon, wildlife are going to have to adapt to changing conditions, from earlier snow melt and green-up in spring to winters with more snow and increasing risk of rain. The growing impacts of large and more intense wildfires or more frequent insect outbreaks are also reshaping landscapes. WCS Canada is working hard to understand these changes from both a scientific and conservation policy perspective. In a territory where many land-use planning processes still need to happen, we are encouraging those involved to fully consider how plans can best deal with projected changes. For example, plans can focus on protecting landscapes where change will be least (refugia), where focal species need large intact ecosystems, and where fire suppression can maintain habitat quality for some vulnerable species such as caribou. Most species will need to adapt by shifting their distributions, and plans can maintain connectivity across landscapes so species can move on their own, and can prepare for our intervention to assist them in moving when necessary.

Through Yukon and northern British Columbia, we are calling for governments to support the vision of Indigenous communities for the protection of their still-intact traditional lands and to improve cumulative effects management. For example, we are using various scientific approaches to help the Kaska First Nations make a strong case for enhanced protection in the Muskwa-Kechika region of northern BC, and throughout southeast Yukon. These regions still support largely untouched habitats surrounded by an increasingly industrialized landscape and act as refuges from climate change thanks to the diversity of their topography and ecosystems. .

  • Integrated Indigenous and scientific information on conservation values to develop recommendations for new protected areas in the Dawson Regional Land Use Plan.
  • Mapped Indigenous and local information on fish and wildlife to help identify areas for protection and ecological values to monitor in the Beaver River Land Use Plan.
  • Collaborated on the design and data needs for a conservation area design for the Southern Lakes planning region.
  • Compiled scientific information and mapping to assess conservation options in the Kaska traditional territories of south-east Yukon. Also supported the Kaska First Nations in British Columbia with their Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area proposal.
  • Launched a number of studies on everything from climate change impacts on habitat and species and high value stop-over sites for migrating waterfowl in the Tintina Trench to how grizzly bears respond to roads and other corridors.
  • Published a field study on what suite of breeding birds rely on mature spruce forests beside streams and wetlands to better inform territorial rules for retention of these forests during timber harvest.
  • Documented the ecological value of burnt forests in response to growing interest in using biomass for energy in Yukon and commented on the territory’s biomass policies.
  • Provided advice on possible reforms to Yukon’s mining regime, including how to assess trade-offs between environmental costs and economic benefits, and how to implement the principle of free, prior, and informed consent by communities for all mining activities.
  • Collaborated on the development of a draft wetland policy for Yukon.
  • Completed a study of how some species at risk (bats and birds) use habitats on Yukon farms and developed a set of best management practices for conservation of these species.
  • Developed a population estimate of a river otter population to better understand the scale of wetland protection required to conserve a viable population of this apex predator.
  • Started a project to map landscapes that will change the least in the face of climate warming (i.e. refugia) so that these areas can get priority attention for protection in land use planning.
Helping whales and other marine species deal with a noisier environment

Western Arctic waters

A region once defined by ice is seeing a lot less of it every year. Canada’s Arctic region is undergoing rapid and profound changes, not the least of which is retreating ice cover. This change is having a number of notable effects, from whales being sighted in the depths of winter in what were previously summer feeding grounds to ship traffic steadily increasing as Arctic waters become more easily navigable.

Understanding how these changes will impact wildlife and ecosystems is a challenging job in an ocean that is still ice covered for long periods, not to mention locked in darkness. WCS Canada has turned to underwater sound recording as a key way to monitor the movements – and responses to things like increasing ship noise – among whales, seals and fish. We have used our findings to call for measures like reducing ship speeds to reduce the impact of ship traffic, from noise to collisions. We are also studying how other species, such as Arctic murres, are responding to changing conditions, while working with Indigenous communities on a long-term study of seal health, a key substance and cultural food.

  • We received funding and began a substantial new multi-year project investigating ship noise impacts on ringed seals in the western Canadian Arctic. Three new grad students, two PhDs and one MSc, have been taken on in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria as a core part of this project.
  • Our massive year-long passive acoustic datasets recorded in the Amundsen, Coronation and Queen Maud Gulfs have been analysed by UVic grad student Annika Heimrich and postdoc Dr. Nikki Diogou, indicating exactly when the different marine mammal species were present.
  • Despite the pandemic, all of our inshore and offshore passive acoustic monitoring moorings (currently 10) in the western Canadian Arctic have been successfully recovered and redeployed with our local partners from Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok and our DFO colleagues on the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
  • A unique and valuable effort by UVic postdoc Dr. Morgan Martin to remotely determine ship impacts on Arctic beluga and bowhead whales has been largely completed with one manuscript submitted for publication.
  • Detailed analyses and modelling efforts showing ship strike risk to bowhead whales and their exposure to noise as well as summarizing all available underwater soundscapes in the Canadian Arctic have been led and published by Dr. Bill Halliday.
  • A first field season tracking thick-billed murres at Cape Parry in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) successfully showed where the birds were foraging (their core-use areas) while raising their chicks.
  • The first four years of our ringed seal diet and condition community-based monitoring project was summarized and published with our community partners.
Keying in on uniquely important areas for species and ecosystems

Key Biodiversity Areas

WCS Canada’s efforts through our Key Biodiversity Areas program to hone in on some of the most important places for conservation across Canada is gathering a lot of momentum. This effort to steer conservation efforts to places with unique ecological features has already identified hundreds of places across the country that could contribute to biodiversity protection.

With the release of a Canada-specific KBA standard -- the first country-specific standard to be developed in the world -- we are well positioned to accelerate our work of identifying areas that could qualify for KBA status. Such status does not automatically mean an area is protected, of course, but it does steer focus and effort toward places with high biodiversity value. Our KBA efforts will also help to ensure Canada’s national commitment to protecting 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030 results in strong protection for highly biodiverse areas and not just the protection of areas that are low on conflict with other uses, such as forestry, mining and land development.

A strength of the KBA program is its highly collaborative nature. Our regional coordinators work with a wide variety of experts, governments and Indigenous communities to collectively identify places with rare ecosystems, at risk species and other strong biodiversity elements. This growing network is quickly helping us map out key conservation opportunities in Canada and ensuring that involvement in the on-the-ground work of biodiversity stewardship and recovery has many allies.

  • We have identified and mapped 350 new KBAs to date. These are undergoing technical review or review by stakeholders and rights holders and will soon be part of the national and global KBA portfolio. A set of 22 KBAs in Yukon and 1 in BC have been formally accepted by national and global KBA committees.
  • Articles about KBAs have appeared in Canadian Geographic, and a StoryMap was created to spread awareness of this new tool in Canada.
  • We have held over 30 workshops and presentations on the KBA program in the past year with over 1,000 participants.
  • KBAs are already being used by governments in Canada to prioritize areas for conservation and organizations are hoping to leverage KBAs to improve local conservation outcomes. This interest and requests for information are rapidly growing.
  • New data infrastructure for the KBA initiative is complete and includes a set of tools for mapping, storing, sharing and reviewing KBA information, tools for generating KBA summaries for partners, a KBA Canada wiki, and other tools. National public datasets have been generated by KBA partners, including range maps for hundreds of threatened species.
  • Canada is the first country in the world to identify KBAs based on ecosystem criteria (ecological integrity, threatened ecosystems and geographically restricted ecosystems). We hosted expert workshops for ecosystem KBAs in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and will be completing proposals for the first ecosystem-criteria KBAs in the coming months, while continuing to identify crucial sites for ecosystems across the country.
  • Scoping for KBAs with the highest ecological integrity in northern Canada has been completed and proposed sites within several regions (e.g., northern Ontario, Quebec and BC) will be discussed and explored with experts and knowledge holders.
  • We hosted two national KBA workshops for a total of 150 Indigenous participants, partnering with the Center for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER). We are using insights from listening to Indigenous communities to tailor our approach to reaching out to Indigenous experts and communities around specific KBAs to improve relevance and opportunities for participation.
  • We are continuing to work with Birds Canada and NatureServe Canada to build the KBA registry and a new public website, which will be launched in October 2022.
Studying key species can tell us a lot about the health of our planet

Understanding how to help wildlife, from one species to many

We can’t monitor every one of the thousands of species that are found in this vast country. But we can investigate what is happening with key species that can tell us a lot about the health of large wild landscapes or water systems. Caribou, for example, need large intact areas of old forest for survival and healthy caribou populations usually indicate that wild ecosystems have not been heavily disturbed by human actions. Similarly, lake sturgeon are a great indicator for healthy waterways because of their long lives and need to migrate long distances. Bird population trends can be representative both of the state of global ecosystems, but also local indicators of availability of good nesting grounds. WCS Canada studies a suite of key species – including birds, bats, caribou, wolverine, lake sturgeon and bison – to better inform our landscape conservation efforts. Ensuring these species have the habitats they need requires changing approaches to things like resource development and land-use planning to ensure we retain core areas and connections that will keep Canada’s wild character intact.

Caribou: We are continuing to advocate for better protection for remaining caribou habitat and a change in policies to prevent the fragmentation and disturbance that has steadily eaten away at caribou habitat in places like southern British Columbia and northern Ontario. Protecting some of the healthiest remaining boreal caribou populations in places like northern BC and the far north in Ontario will take a new commitment to lessening cumulative impacts and better recognition of the growing impact of climate change on this iconic species.

Wolverine: Our team has tracked wolverines across northwestern Ontario for three winters, using a combination of live traps, hair snag traps, and camera traps to better understand wolverine movements and habitat use. We have already made recommendations on how to change forestry practices to help protect wolverine dens and will continue to use our scientific findings to advocate for evidence-based policies for management of boreal wolverine populations. This finer-scale work builds on the seven-year aerial survey effort we undertook to better determine where wolverines were in northern Ontario and whether their range was expanding.

Freshwater Fish: A number of North America’s last large free flowing rivers flow from the peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands into Hudson’s Bay. However, one set of rivers in this remote region was dammed in the 1960s. We are comparing how lake sturgeon are faring in dammed and undammed rivers both to better document how dams affect these long-distance migrants and to see if steps can be taken to lessen the impact of the existing dams on these ancient fish. WCS Canada is working with the Moose Cree conservation team on a long-term monitoring program and involving youth from the community in monitoring these fascinating fish that can travel hundreds of kilometres and dance on their tails. With the potential for mining projects in the headwaters of these major river systems or further hydroelectric development, we need to pay careful attention to how this key indicator species is faring now – and tomorrow.

Birds:The amazing journeys taken by many bird species make them a unique indicator for planetary health. Sadly, many bird populations have experienced steep population declines over the past 50 years thanks to everything from habitat loss and pesticides to collisions with buildings and power lines. In Yukon, we are looking at a number of aspects of bird life, from how birds use old shoreline forests and migration patterns along the territory’s Tintina Trench to the importance of burned forests for woodpeckers. Our Canary in the Goldmine video captures some of our work studying how birds respond to habitat disturbance.

Bison: Working with our U.S. colleagues in WCS, we have helped revive the American Bison Society and hosted an annual gathering to discuss how to restore bison that included everyone from ranchers and First Nations to scientists and park staff. Bison’s role in shaping grassland ecosystems is now well understood and we need to accelerate efforts to bring this keystone species back to our remaining grasslands while expanding their habitat. This year our scientists are working with an international team to identify and map priority landscapes for bison reintroduction.

Taking action before it is too late for our only flying mammal

Keeping bats flying in the face of building threats

It is not just habitat loss that is challenging bats’ survival. White-nose syndrome, a deadly introduced fungal disease, has been steadily spreading west in North America. WNS has killed millions of bats on the eastern half of the continent and signs are it has now reached Saskatchewan in Canada. Our bat team is using innovative approaches to monitoring the spread of the disease, such as collecting bat guano samples from under bridges where bats rest, while also preparing for its inevitable arrival in our most bat-diverse province, British Columbia. We are expanding testing of our probiotic preventative treatment designed to help bats resist infection and developing a better understanding of which western species are most at risk from WNS. WCS Canada has also played a central role in establishing the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat), an important initiative for understanding bat population trends. Our Alberta Community Bat and Kootenay Community Bat programs are also using community science to gain knowledge about the province’s bats and to engage community members in bat conservation efforts, such as building appropriate bat house structures. In BC, we are working with multiple partners to understand tree roost requirements for bats and how best to mitigate loss of forest habitat.

Achievements:

  • Field-testing continues in BC and now also in Washington for the probiotic WNS prophylaxis for bats that we co-developed with two Canadian universities. Established and implemented the first six years of bat population monitoring throughout BC in partnership with the BC government through the North American Bat Monitoring Program, a program that we help direct through participation on a core steering committee.
  • Continue to provide outreach, education, and opportunities for citizens to contribute to bat conservation through our community science programs:  Kootenay Community Bat Program, BatCaver.org, and AlbertaBats.ca.
  • Presented to many community groups and residents to explain why bats need new habitats as old roost sites are lost and how people can help with this challenge.
  • Presented to many community groups and residents to explain why bats need new habitats as old roost sites are lost and how help people can help with this challenge.
  • Studied the growing risk of overheating in bat boxes and through input from an ad hoc international committee, created recommendations for appropriately deploying artificial roost structures in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Researched year-round roost habitat requirements for bats that overwinter in trees.
  • Began a new initiative to document bat migration routes in southeastern BC with a focus on three bat species under COSEWIC review.
  • Expanded the installation, testing and monitoring of artificial bark roosts and tree modifications for species, including at risk bats. These structures are not yet commonly used to enhance bat habitat for western species, but are promising as alternatives to bat boxes, which are used by relatively few bat species.