Research from coast to coast to coast

Conserving some of our wildest regions and most special places

A globally important area facing big changes and new challenges

Ontario Northern Boreal

The vast boreal forests and wetlands of the far north in Ontario represent one of the largest intact areas left on the planet. But major new resource development and infrastructure projects are on the horizon. We need to know more about this region and its wild inhabitants in order to plan for a future where wildlife thrives, and people continue to benefit from healthy lands and waters.

Rigorous multi-year wildlife surveys undertaken by WCS Canada have helped fill in some of the knowledge gaps and have shown the importance of this area as a refuge for species that have lost populations in areas further south, such as caribou and wolverine. The region boasts some of the most pristine and undammed freshwater rivers and lakes in North America and is home to more than 50 species of fish, including ancient sturgeon. Our scientific modelling work in this region has helped identify areas that are critical for the protection of sensitive fish species already grappling with the impacts of climate change.

  • 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.
  • Surveyed fish populations, and 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.
  • Drew attention to the importance of the Hudson/James Bay Lowlands – a vast carbon storehouse and the world’s third biggest wetland – 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 individual assessments already underway for new roads into the region – the first step in developing the Ring of Fire mining.
A wild corner of our continent where conservation can finally come first

Northern Boreal Mountains

The mountains, plateaus, and forested valleys of northern BC and Yukon are another globally important wild area with a relatively light (for now) human footprint. In Yukon, we have mapped “the best of the best” of the territory’s extensive wild habitat to help inform efforts by both the territorial government and Indigenous communities to develop new protected areas. The territorial and First Nation governments negotiate land-use plans with new protected areas, and we provide technical support to the First Nations and conservation advice to the planning processes. Beyond protected areas, our sights have been focused on improvements to policy and legislation, including fighting large-scale hydro-electric developments, reducing disturbance to wildlife, and getting protections for wetlands. Our passion is to do hands-on research with species that are key to conserving certain ecosystems such as lakes and wetlands (breeding birds, river otters), that are particularly sensitive to current threats (salmon, grizzly bears), or are keystone species in ecosystem processes (snowshoe hares, beavers).

  • 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.
Listening closely to learn how climate change is changing the Arctic

Western Arctic waters

Canada’s arctic region is warming faster than almost any other place on Earth. The rapidly changing climate is reshaping both land and marine environments in the Arctic and may be doing so at a pace that will make it difficult for some species to adapt. While action to address climate-disrupting emissions remains critical, we must also prepare for inevitable changes to Arctic ecosystems. One of these is a loss of sea ice and a resultant increase in ship traffic through the Arctic as shippers pursue a shorter connection between Europe and Asia. Impacts on marine mammals from increased ship traffic could include deadly collisions and disturbance by ship noise.

Loss of sea ice will also increase ambient noise in the Arctic, which points to the importance of addressing cumulative impacts and putting solutions in place before problems grow even larger. Our acoustic monitoring work on marine mammals is helping us assess current and future noise impacts on whales and seals and to make recommendations for how to manage growing ship traffic. We also have a long-term community-based monitoring program in place to assess ice-seal population health and diet, recognizing how any disruption to seal populations could affect the people for whom they are a dietary staple across the Arctic. We are also using findings about seal diet to help monitor how the Arctic marine ecosystem is changing.

  • Called for measures to reduce ship noise, including slower speeds and routing around marine protected areas, based on our evidence showing the overlap between ship noise and areas frequented by whales.
  • Provided information to the federal government on noise impact on whales. The federal government then issued a “Notice to Mariners” aimed at reducing disturbance to marine mammals in the Western Arctic which is updated each year.
  • Developed a State of Knowledge report on underwater noise for the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group.
  • Developed a baseline of information on ice-seal health and diet so communities can assess threats and changes in seal populations in the Western Arctic.
  • Documented bowhead whales overwintering in the Eastern Canadian Arctic for the first time, a likely response to a changing Arctic climate.
  • Measured ship noise impact on beluga whales and modelled masking (sound interference) impact for all local marine mammals (beluga and bowhead whales and bearded and ringed seals).
Keying in on uniquely important areas for rare species and ecosystems

Key Biodiversity Areas

In the past, protected areas were often designed as much to reduce conflict with resource industries (forestry, mining) as to protect biodiversity. This has led to parks that may be scenic, but limited in species diversity or lacking in ecosystem representation. With habitat loss and degradation being the principal cause of biodiversity decline in Canada, area-based conservation strategies remain important. Yet, as Canada moves to meet its goal of protecting 30% of its lands and waters by 2030, we need to be sure the same mistakes are not made again. Our protected area systems must do a much better job of helping species and ecosystems survive. And we must look beyond protected areas to improve conservation outcomes across our natural and developed landscapes.

The Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) Canada Program, part of the international KBA initiative, is one significant tool driving this shift in protection and conservation priorities. The KBA program starts with knowledge gathering and we have developed a wide network of information sources on species and ecosystems across Canada. We have also developed new systems for making this collective information more accessible to everyone in the conservation community.

Working with local experts, governments and Indigenous communities, we identify areas that harbour rare, threatened and endemic species and ecosystems, significant populations of key species, and areas with exceptionally high ecological integrity that can play a key role in protecting biodiversity. To date, we have identified more than 200 sites that we believe require special conservation attention across Canada and now have regional processes in place to identify many more.

  • Developed collaborative networks for identifying KBAs in Yukon, British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and are currently developing networks in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
  • Identified and mapped more than 200 potential KBAs to date in a diversity of ecosystems across Canada.
  • Created an information management system to track data on species and sites, drawing on a wide variety of different information sources (e.g., governments, universities, local naturalists, First Nations knowledge, etc.).
  • Hired provincial/territorial coordinators to lead work in 10 provinces and territories to help coordinate information gathering and designation efforts for KBAs, with an additional two provinces and territories to be covered starting in September 2021.
  • Launched the KBACanada.org website to draw attention to the program and attract new partners.
  • Developed, tested and released the first national KBA Standard in the world, a standard tailored to the Canadian context but that can be used alongside the global KBA Standard.
Studying key species can tell us a lot about broader ecosystems

Understanding how to help wildlife, from one species to many

Canada has some of the largest remaining wild areas left on the planet. But monitoring the health of these vast areas, including deep forests, wetlands and peatlands and thousands of lakes and rivers can be challenging. That is why WCS Canada scientists look at specific species as indicators for the health of broader systems. Species such as caribou, wolverine, bison, birds and freshwater fish can help us understand how systems are faring because they need large wild spaces, healthy rivers, lakes and forests. Caribou and wolverine, for example, are sensitive to disturbance by resource industries and may disappear from areas that become heavily fragmented by roads, logging and mining. Freshwater fish require good water quality and the ability to migrate up or down river from spawning sites. Bison can be a critical element in restoring now rare grassland systems.

Caribou: We continue to fight for effective recovery plans for threatened caribou across Canada and protection of remaining habitat. Meanwhile, our work on areas like the Muskwa-Kechika in BC focuses on saving intact habitat for healthy caribou herds, which are disappearing in more southerly parts of the BC.

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: Working with the Moose Cree community in northern Ontario, we studied the impact of hydroelectric development on sturgeon to highlight the importance of undammed rivers to this ancient species. Our freshwater fish research aims to protect species that have both ecological and cultural importance.

Birds: 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. We are interested in addressing the issue of habitat loss in the boreal nesting ground used by millions of songbirds each year and along critical migration corridors, such as the Tintina Trench in Yukon. By documenting bird movements – including the amazing migratory journey of the blackpoll warbler – and habitat use, we can make the case for protecting forests that function as huge bird nurseries.

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.

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

Keeping bats flying in the face of building threats

White-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease that spreads among bats during hibernation, has wiped out millions of bats in eastern North America, landing species such as the little brown myotis on the national endangered species list. The disease has been steadily spreading west and it is almost inevitable that it will eventually reach Alberta and BC (it is now confirmed in Manitoba, Montana and Washington). These two provinces — and BC in particular — have very high levels of species diversity for bats. Bats play an important insect control role in ecosystems and provide us with millions of dollars of pest control services. Despite being long-lived mammals, bats do not get the care and attention more charismatic species receive and have seen a steady loss of habitat and hibernation sites, particularly in old buildings. Our bat program is racing to understand more about the vulnerability of western bats to WNS, monitoring bat status through the innovative and wide reaching North American Bat Monitoring Program, and looking at ways to restore and protect habitat, including developing best practices for bat houses.

Achievements:

  • Co-developed a probiotic WNS treatment for bats (now in the last stages of testing) to naturally increase their resistance to the fungus that causes WNS.
  • Established and implemented the first five years of bat population monitoring throughout BC in partnership with the BC government through the North America Bat Monitoring Program and citizen science programs, including our BatCaver.org program and AlbertaBats.ca.
  • Studied the growing risk of overheating in bat boxes and convened an international committee that has created draft recommendations for appropriately deploying artificial roost structures in the U.S. and Canada.
  • 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.
  • Collaborated with the Government of BC to learn more about BC bat species, including identifying which species may be most vulnerable to WNS.
  • Researched roost habitat for bats that overwinter in trees.
  • Installed artificial bark roosts for species at risk bats, creating a research opportunity for us to monitor the success of these structures that are not yet commonly used to enhance bat habitat for western species.