2018/19 Research Projects

Ecological shifts in marine communities following periods of extreme heat

Isabelle Cote

The northeast Pacific region experienced a lengthy period of warm sea surface temperatures and a mass mortality of predatory seastars between 2014 and 2016. During this project, we used highly qualified divers to assess the amount of fish and invertebrate around the Baeria Rocks Ecological Reserve in Spring 2018, using surveying methods identical to those used since 2007. The seastar mortality was evident in the time-series, and it coincided with a rapid increase and precipitous decrease of green urchin density. Other invertebrates, including bat stars, ochre stars and abalone, appear to have benefited from the disappearance of large seastars. On the other hand, many fish species invertebrates, including greenlings, lingcod and some rockfish, show steady declines in abundance. This growing time-series gives us a unique opportunity to document the impacts of major disturbances on the subtidal ecological community of a near-pristine area.

Dungeness crab Clam harvesting in Gitga'at territory Seaweed drying near Kiel, the Gitga’at spring harvest camp

Gitga’at Knowledge Project: Enhancing Gitga’at monitoring through use

Kim-Ly Thompson and Natalie Ban

This Living Lab project was a partnership between the Gitga’at First Nation and researchers at the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies - part of a longer partnership that helped develop the Gitga’at environmental knowledge program. Observations of ecological change in Gitga’at Conservancies made by Gitga’at harvesters during the spring and fall/winter of 2018/2019 were summarized. This past harvest season marks the third in which harvesters’ knowledge and observations are documented to inform Gitga’at stewardship, Treaty negotiations, local education and health and wellness initiatives. Thirty-three Gitga’at harvesters participated in interviews to date. A detailed report was provided about the community-driven steps taken to initiate, design and iteratively revise the Gitga’at knowledge program.

A key message from harvesters and knowledge holders is that being out on the land and water is paramount to enabling ongoing Gitga’at observations. A key impediment to maintaining observations is lack of access to boats and funds for fuel to get to harvesting areas. Some Gitga’at harvesting practices enhance productivity (e.g., harvesting seaweed, clams and cockles), and thus lack of use may reduce ecological integrity. Participants in previous seasons have noted that the cost of fuel and equipment is often a limiting factor in whether they are able to harvest or not and harvesters’ knowledge cannot continue to be transmitted without ongoing use of and access to their territory and resources.

In light of these challenges, this project facilitated harvest outings by providing vouchers for the Hartley Bay fuel station, to facilitate Gitga’at harvesters to go harvesting with their own boats on their own time, and by partnering with the Gitga’at Health Department and the Gitga’at Oceans and Lands Department to organize seasonal harvest outings for Gitga’at people who have limited opportunities to harvest traditional foods.

Rattlesnake denning behaviour in a changing climate

Karl Larsen, Ryley Scott and Alex Gallis

The goal of this project was to understand how rattlesnake activity patterns at hibernacula within BC vary in accordance with seasonal and local temperature patterns, and how these emergence patterns may be influenced by climate change. With the Living Lab funds, cameras and thermologgers were established at key locations within the protected area network of B.C. These, along with five other sites, will provide a strong assessment of snake emergence patterns with prolonged monitoring. The 2018 year also revealed limitations in camera technology and other logistical constraints that have been since addressed, as well as a first-assessment of the time needed to process the vast amounts of data that camera work can create.

Although data processing is still underway (from 2018), and 2019 monitoring is poised to begin, the 2018 data revealed some startling contrasts in the thermo-dynamics of den entrance areas, which suggests good variance in the metrics we will anticipate comparing with snake ingress and egress patterns in the years ahead. The data analysis to date confirms that not all dens are created equal, in terms of seasonal thermodynamics, and thus we may expect to see varying patterns of snake den use, unless (hypothetically) the timing of ingress and egress are strongly dictated by the time of the year, versus annual weather patterns. Likely some combination of the two is at work, but additional years of data will be required to determine this. One other interesting point has been verification that rattlesnakes do return to the dens overnight (despite lower temperatures), and also, at least one den shows an interesting pattern of snakes leaving the dens in autumn at nightfall. Why this is occurring is unknown at this time.

Patterns of Vegetation Change at Nisga’a Memorial Lava Beds Park

Phil Burton

The Aiyansh Volcano erupted about 1770, creating a 25 square kilometre lava plain and destroying two Nisga’a villages. The volcanic features and tragic history are protected in Anhluut’ukwsim La xmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a (Nisga’a Memorial Lava Beds Provincial Park, NMLBPP), designated in 1992. The cinder cones and lava deposits are the second-most recent products of volcanism in Canada and are nationally unique in terms of accessibility and First Nations history. Plant inventory work in the 1970s consisted of sketch maps and species lists, and little has been done since. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that climate in the northwest is becoming wetter and milder (see plan2adapt.ca). With forest cover reported to have developed rapidly in recent decades, it is conceivable that the iconic lava landscape covered by lichens and mosses could be hidden by trees by the end of the century.

This project investigates the causes of vegetation differences on the Nisga’a lava beds in Nass River Valley, BC. Some areas are well forested, yet other areas remain dominated by moss and lichen cover. A total of 66 sample plots were randomly established across 13 strata in the lava plain. In those plots, the most common species were the lichens Stereocaulon paschale and Cladina mitis, and the moss Racomitrium lanuginosum. Common vascular plants included Saxifrage tricuspidata and the fern Cryptogramma aristichoides. Betula papyrifera is the most widespread tree species found on the lava beds, with some areas supporting closed cover of Pinus contorta, Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa, or Thuja plicata as well. Much of the biodiversity of the lava beds is cryptic and easily overlooked, with at least 63 bryophyte species and 73 lichen species confirmed by experts. A review of historical documents and local knowledge reveals a complex history of disturbance that has variously reset succession or accelerated it at different places and times. Further work is needed to identify the sequence of weather events that have facilitated wildfires and floods on the lava beds, and to project their likely occurrence in the future. Year two of this project will evaluate differences from previous floristic surveys and look for the weather patterns associated with historic fires and floods in order to project their likely occurrence in the future.

Developing camera trap surveys to monitor wildlife responses to environmental change in BC Parks

Cole Burton

The goal of the ongoing project is to advance development of a camera trap network to support BC Parks’ Long-Term Ecological Monitoring of wildlife responses to environmental change. Through the WildCAM network (Wildlife Cameras for Adaptive Management), the aim is to improve understanding of the status of terrestrial mammal populations in and around BC’s parks, and of mammal responses to key stressors such as climate change, regional land use change, and recreational pressures. We are implementing pilot projects to use remote cameras for monitoring medium and large-bodied mammals and vegetation phenology within three provincial parks: South Chilcotin Mountains, Cathedral, and Golden Ears. Time lapse photos are being used to monitor variation in phenology, such as timing of snow melt and vegetation green-up, and motion-triggered photos are documenting the distribution, abundance, and behaviour of a range of mammal species. For example, an array of 61 camera traps in South Chilcotin Mountains Park has so far detected 28 mammal species and highlighted variable responses to recreational activities in the park (e.g. mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding).

Examining landscape level change through re-photography: Mt. Robson and Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Parks

Eric Higgs and Mary Sanseverino

This project builds on the observation and analysis network made possible through the Mountain Legacy Project. The Mountain Legacy Project explores change in Canada’s mountain landscapes using historical mountain photographs. Initial analysis of some of the “classic” images (e.g. Mt. Assiniboine from Nub Peak) suggest that coniferous forest has increased through time, encroaching onto areas formerly occupied by rarer alpine meadows. Certainly more research is needed to statistically affirm these observations, but they are consistent with a recent 2018 article by Fortin et al that suggest homogenization at the landscape level is occurring in the Rocky Mountains.

Evaluating historic imagery for landscape-level change: First steps in the Muskwa-Kechika

Eric Higgs and Mary Sanseverino

The Muskwa-Ketchika region is often referred to as the “Serengeti of the North”. It is a landscape that has experienced direct human-induced change at an ecosystem level – the Bennett Dam and creation of Williston Lake reservoir. Forestry and some mineral resource extraction are also practised here amongst a number of protected areas including Northern Rocky Mountains, Liard River and Dune Za Keyih Provincial Parks. It is a wilderness area with few roads and little large-scale infrastructure – an area where landscape change, if it is detectable, might be more unambiguously examined for signs of climate change at work in mountain environments. This project is working with historic photos from the Muskwa-Ketchika / Finlay River / Williston Lake area. Mountain Legacy Project research associates Dr. Joy Davis and Mary Sanseverino met with archivists and administrators at the Royal BC Museum and Archives and a rich trove of photos, maps, and accompanying meta-data was uncovered and made available for study. Analysis of these images continue and a new website reports on the resources, history, and further research and collaborative potential at the BC Museum and Archives revealed through these amazing images.