Monitoring Alberta’s biodiversity…from mites to moose

Jim Herbers

In her famous song, Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
When it comes to Alberta’s biodiversity, let’s hope we never get to that point.
That’s why the scientists behind the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute have developed a reporting system that tells us just where we sit on that spectrum between paradise and a parking lot.
They run a program that monitors the health of Alberta’s wildlife and ecosystems across the province.
As director of information for the ABMI, it is Jim Herbers’ job to communicate to the public, government, industry and the scientific community just where we are at in terms of protecting or destroying our natural world.
“In a nutshell, you manage what you measure,” he says, pointing to the scale of many of the new development policies in Alberta. There’s the Land Use Framework, the Energy Strategy, and there’s heightened interest in the cumulative effects of human activity on the landscape.
Herbers explains, “We traditionally have very little in terms of knowledge that operates at that scale. So being able to report on Alberta’s regions, parklands, prairies, municipalities even, certainly the new Land Use Framework regions, our program fills a gap in that information.”
Getting that information is truly a magnificent feat.
The ABMI scientists have mapped the province into a systematic grid of data collection points. In total there are 1656 points, each placed 20 kilometres apart. When the program is running at full capacity, each point will be visited on a five-year rotation.
About 30 percent of the sites are on private land, so the ABMI consults with ranchers and landowners to obtain permission to monitor biodiversity on their properties. The grid also covers the national parks, military lands, crown land, and municipalities like Edmonton and Calgary.
“When we go to a site,” says Herbers, “we collect information on the understorey vegetation, the overstorey vegetation, trees, the bird community, moss community, lichen community, fungi and invertebrates in the soil. We’ve also got an aquatic component that is coupled with that information about the state of Alberta’s aquatic resources.”
The sites are surveyed the same way on each five-year visit. “We can look at how they’ve change through time and relate that to how Alberta is managing the resources out there on the land base.”
Conducting the surveys is a demanding job for the young and the fit—those rare souls who can handle the rugged outdoors and all it offers in terms of weather and bugs.
A crew of two people will survey a site in the spring, collecting data on birds, trees, habitat and deadwood. A month later the crew returns to survey the plants. They also take note of bugs in the soil, moss, lichens and other features.
In the summer, a different crew visits a wetland near the grid point. “They will put a boat in the water and float out there with their hip waders. They take samples of the water to look at the habitat quality and bugs that are living in the water as well as the plants that are living on the shores of those wetland systems. And then finally some poor, unfortunate soul has to go out in January, February or March, and do a survey for winter tracks. So they are looking for moose, deer, coyotes, lynx, fox… those kind of mammals that are active in the winter are also surveyed.”
Samples of plants and organisms are sent to the Royal Alberta Museum for identification.
This has led to some exciting discoveries. Take the lowly mite, for example. Smaller than the head of a pin, these spider-like organisms play an important role in maintaining soil vitality. “We’re very proud to report that there’s well over a hundred new species to Canada that we’ve identified and well over thirty new species to the world.”
Once all is said and done, the field biologists are collecting data on two to three thousand species. While this may seem an extraordinary number, it is just a smidgeon of what’s out there.
“There are more than 80,000 species that we know of, and that number is probably twice as high living in Alberta,” Herbers points out.
Rather than simply focusing on rare and endangered species, the ABMI scientists chose to report on a variety of species that would give an indication of the overall health of Alberta’s biodiversity.
But what happens with this massive collection of data?
“It comes here to the University of Alberta. All of the data goes through quality control with our partners at the Alberta Research Council as well as at the Royal Alberta Museum. They send that information here to the U of A where we store and manage that data.”
The public, industry and government can access the raw data from the ABMI website for use in their own monitoring or modeling programs.
As well, through detailed analysis, the ABMI scientists distill all the information down to one number that indicates the state of biodiversity in a region.
According to Herbers, “We use a scale of zero to 100 where 100 represents a pristine habitat, a wilderness area where there’s very little human footprint, and zero represents a parking lot, [or] an area where there is a gravel pit, for example, with no biodiversity living there.”
Last February the ABMI issued a report for the lower Athabasca Planning region. This covers a vast area from the Northwest Territories down to Cold Lake and Lac La Biche. “The current human footprint in that area is seven percent. That’s roads, energy activity, forestry activity, urban activity, and in the south, agriculture. And our data are showing that the intactness for that entire region is 94 percent intact today.”
Herbers goes on to predict that as more oil sands mines and energy projects come on line, biodiversity in the region will decline.
This first report from the ABMI focused on birds and vascular plants in northeastern Alberta. Despite the relatively high level of intactness, the survey indicates that some non-native species are moving into the boreal region.
These include, says Herbers, “the American crow, the common dandelion, some of the European or non-native clovers seem to be expanding and aggressively starting to colonize the northeastern part of the province. On the flip side of that, when we are talking about species declining or becoming much rarer, in the species that we looked at, there’s no strong evidence that many of the species are declining today.”
But that can change over time, a state which future surveys will reveal.
“This whole program really comes down to sustainability and informed understanding about what the outcome of our activities are on Alberta’s landscape. Our industry partners, the companies that are operating on Alberta’s landscape, are interested in making sure they are operating in a way that is sustainable.”
It’s a decade now since a handful of concerned biologists and forest ecologists sat down to discuss over a few beers the need to systematically document change in Alberta’s biodiversity. It took five years to develop the scientific protocols to conduct the surveys. Today, the ABMI initiative has evolved into a world class monitoring program. And industry benefits from the consistent, harmonized approach to the collection of data which they can then use in their own research initiatives.
The ABMI offers a program that is designed to monitor the state of biodiversity across Alberta in perpetuity. But keeping the money in place to carry out the program is an ongoing endeavour. To run the program at full capacity would cost $12 million a year but that goal is still some distance away.
Funding partners include forest and energy companies, the federal and provincial governments, as well as the University of Alberta, Alberta Research Council, Royal Alberta Museum, and the Alberta Conservation Association.
With the economic downtown, the provincial government put the squeeze on the ABMI early in 2009. “We were asked to scale back our operations to the tune of $2.1 million. And we made some pretty tough decisions about being able to provide relevant information at appropriate scales,” says Herbers. As a result, the ABMI has concentrated all of its efforts in two of the seven provincial regions, the Lower Athabasca Planning and the South Saskatchewan Planning Region. “It takes a big commitment to get out there to measure each one of these sites.”
The ABMI is still working its way through its first rotation in order to establish a baseline of those 1656 points on the grid. Herbers reports, “We’ve visited about 350 sites and the majority of them are north of Edmonton to Fort McMurray and then across to Grande Prairie. We’ve started to do quite a bit of work around Calgary right down to the U.S. border, and then east-west to the Saskatchewan and BC borders.”
You can see for yourself what has been documented on the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute website at http://www.abmi.ca

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