Skip booklet index and go to page content

Prairies Ecozone+ Evidence for Key Findings Summary

Theme: Science/Policy Interface

Biodiversity Monitoring, Research, Information Management, and Reporting

Key Finding 21
Theme Science/Policy Interface

National Key Finding
Long-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.

Monitoring, research, information management, and reporting on biodiversity vary widely in the provinces comprising the Prairies Ecozone+.

The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Program was initiated in the late 1990s, with the goal of linking policy development, resource management, and science using appropriate measures of biodiversity.Footnote329 A regular grid of sample points at 20 km intervals covers the entire province. At approximately five-year intervals, biological surveys are conducted for vascular plants, mosses, lichens, birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates, and algae.Footnote330 These data will measure trends in these taxa and relate them to land use. No other province has a comparable program. However, although the program has established a regular grid across Alberta, sampling has not been initiated in most of the Alberta portion of the Prairies Ecozone+ at this time.

Since the 1970s, Alberta has also maintained a Rangeland Reference Area Program to monitor trends in productivity and species composition in a network of plots (183 plots in 2004) representing different types of rangeland.Footnote331 Similar programs initiated in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have fewer numbers of plots. AlbertaFootnote332 and SaskatchewanFootnote333 also developed standardized rangeland health assessment methods, although these have not yet been applied to a monitoring program for the Prairies Ecozone+.

The Breeding Bird SurveyFootnote50 provides the most complete information on non-game and non-colonial bird populations for the Prairies Ecozone+. Because the transects are randomly selected in one-degree blocks (within the constraint of using roads as routes), the results are relatively representative of common habitats in the region and therefore representative of the most common bird species. The results are best used as an index of population trends rather than for estimating actual numbers of individuals.

Breeding Bird Survey routes in the Prairies tend to be located in agricultural areas where there is a good road network and where there has been substantial loss of native grassland. The remaining areas of extensive grassland in the prairies are concentrated in a relatively small area, often with poor road access, and so there is sparse Breeding Bird Survey coverage in areas where the grassland bird density is high.The Grassland Bird Monitoring program,Footnote53 which began in 1996, provides supplemental data to the Breeding Bird Survey. Surveys are located in areas of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan where grassland is still common.

The best data on waterfowl species distribution, abundance, and community composition come from the joint Canadian Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Breeding Population, and Habitat Survey.Footnote59

The provinces also conduct targeted surveys for big game animals and other species of special concern, while both provincial and federal agencies are involved in targeted surveys for individual species at risk.

All three Prairie provinces have conservation data centres under the umbrella of NatureServe Canada. These centres develop lists of plant and animal species for their jurisdictions, maintain data on recorded occurrences of these species, and assign conservation status ranks.Footnote334 Footnote335 Footnote336

Top of Page

Rapid Change and Thresholds

Key Finding 22
Theme Science/Policy Interface

National Key Finding
Growing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.

Predictions of future climate change (see Climate change key finding on page 57) focus on trends in average climate. However, changes in climatic variability may be of even greater concern. The Prairies Ecozone+ is characterized by wide fluctuations in precipitation from year to year, and multi-year droughts occurred in the 1890s, 1910s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s, and 2001 and 2002. Drought in the mixed prairie causes an immediate reduction in grass growth, while multi-year drought causes a shift in composition from taller to shorter grass species.Footnote199 The result is poorer habitat for those species that require taller vegetation. Research in North Dakota has shown that most grassland birds are less abundant in dry years, with species such as grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), Sprague's pipit, clay-coloured sparrow (Spizella pallida), and Baird's sparrow being most likely to decline.Footnote337, Footnote338 Drought also reduces the area of shallow lakes and wetlands, resulting in reduced waterfowl populations. Climate change over the coming century is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of droughts.Footnote339 If droughts occur often enough to prevent complete recovery of species and ecosystems in the intervening moist years, this could lead to more rapid ecological changes than implied by the average trends. In addition, it could also threaten the viability of prairie agriculture.

Top of Page


Footnote 50

USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2010. The North American Breeding Bird Survey [online]. U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Return to footnote 50

Footnote 53

Dale, B.C., Norton, M., Downes, C. and Collins, B. 2005. Monitoring as a means to focus research and conservation - the grassland bird monitoring example. In Bird conservation implementation and integration in the Americas: proceedings of the Third International Partners in Flight Conference. Asilomar, CA, 20-24 March, 2002. Edited by Ralph, C.J. and Rich, T.D. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. Albany, CA. pp. 485-495.

Return to footnote 53

Footnote 59

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey [online]. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management and U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. (accessed 20 July, 2010).

Return to footnote 59

Footnote 119

Sawyer, H., Nielson, R.M., Lindzey, F. and McDonald, L.L. 2006. Winter habitat selection of mule deer before and during development of a natural gas field. Journal of Wildlife Management 70:396-403.

Return to footnote 119

Footnote 329

Herbers, J. 2005. Biodiversity information needs in Alberta: a detailed analysis. Report prepared for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Program. Edmonton, AB. x + 61 p. 

Return to footnote 329

Footnote 330

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2010. Terrestrial field data collection protocols (10001), version 2010-04-20. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. Edmonton, AB. 89 p. Report available at: (accessed 29 October, 2013).

Return to footnote 330

Footnote 331

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. 2004. Rangeland reference area program for the Province of Alberta. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Public Lands and Forests Division. Edmonton, AB. 

Return to footnote 331

Footnote 332

Adams, Barry W., Ehlert, G., Stone, C., Lawrence, D., Alexander, M., Willoughby, M., Hincz, C., Moisey, D., Burkinshaw, A., Carlson, J. and France, K. 2009. Rangeland health assessment for grassland, forest and tame pasture. Publication No. T/044. Government of Alberta, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Lands Division, Rangeland Management Branch. Edmonton, AB. 128 p. 

Return to footnote 332

Footnote 333

Saskatchewan PCAP Greencover Committee. 2008. Rangeland health assessment: native grassland and forest. Prairie Conservation Action Plan. Regina, SK. 82 p. 

Return to footnote 333

Footnote 334

Manitoba Conservation Data Centre. 2013. Manitoba Conservation Data Centre: about the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre [online]. Government of Manitoba. (accessed 29 October, 2013)

Return to footnote 334

Footnote 335

Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre. 2013. Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre: Informing Conservation [online]. Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre, Fish and Wildlife Branch, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. (accessed 29 October, 2013)

Return to footnote 335

Footnote 336

Government of Alberta. 2013. Alberta Conservation Information Management System (ACIMS) [online]. Government of Alberta.

Return to footnote 336

Footnote 337

George, T.L., Fowler, A.C., Knight, R.L. and McEwen, L.C. 1992. Impacts of a severe drought on grassland birds in western North Dakota. Ecological Applications 2:275-284.

Return to footnote 337

Footnote 338

Igl, L.D. and Johnson, D.H. 1997. Changes in breeding bird populations in North Dakota: 1967 to 1992-93. The Auk 114:74-92.

Return to footnote 338

Footnote 339

Bonsal, B. and Regier, M. 2006. The 2001 and 2002 Canadian drought: historical context and potential future occurrence. CCIAP A932 "Canadian agricultural adaptations to 21st century droughts: preparing for climate change". Environment Canada. Ottawa, ON. 58 p. 

Return to footnote 339