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Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary

Theme: Science/Policy Interface

Key finding 21
Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reporting

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.

The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ does not have a harmonized framework for biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, or reporting. Although many monitoring and research initiatives are operational within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, spatial and thematic coverage is compartmentalized. Steps to harmonize biodiversity monitoring and research are underway through the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring in the western portion of the ecozone+.

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI)

The ABMI is an arm's length, not-for-profit scientific organization that measures and reports on the state of biodiversity and human footprint across Alberta.Reference 240 To do this, the ABMI has 1,656 monitoring sites systematically distributed every 20 km where this ecozone+ overlaps with provincial boundaries (Figure 48).Reference 240 Approximately 58% of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is monitored by the ABMI. The ABMI is designed to operate in perpetuity and throughout the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ of Alberta; however, it is presently operating at only about 50% of its designed capacity in this ecozone+.

The ABMI is designed to measure and report on the state of land, water, and wildlife in Alberta using a suite of indicators including human land use, species, and habitats. This monitoring framework includes the integrated collection and management of data for many species of mammals, birds, plants, moss, lichen, soil mites, aquatic invertebrates, and fish. Data generated by the ABMI are value-neutral, independent, and most are publicly accessible. The ABMI works with federal and provincial agencies to implement scientifically credible monitoring for biodiversity in the oil sands areas of Alberta. This includes the Athabasca, Peace River, and Cold Lake oil sands areas.

Figure 48. The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute's core sampling sites across Alberta.
Map showing Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute¡¯s core sampling sites
Source: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, 2013Reference 240
Long description for Figure 48

This map shows the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute's core sampling sites across Alberta between 2003-2013, and planned sites for 2014. Sampled and planned sites are numerous and evenly distributed throughout Alberta.

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Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring

The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring is an environmental monitoring program designed to monitor the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development on water, air, land, and biodiversity. The three-year implementation plan, which began in 2012, extends over 140,000 km2. The primary objective of Terrestrial Biodiversity (toxics) monitoring is to assess the levels and effects of oil sands‐related contaminants and their influence on the health of individual wildlife and wildlife populations proximal to and at varying distances from oil sands operations. Some of the components of the monitoring plan include:

  1. Monitoring the effects of oil sands activities on breeding waterbird populations, diet, and egg contaminants downstream from the oil sands on the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca
  2. Monitoring the impacts of contaminants associated with oil sands processing on the health and development of amphibian (i.e., wood frog) indicator species
  3. Monitoring the effects of oil sands contaminants on avian health using non-lethal measures of stress and physiological response
  4. Toxicological assessments of hunter/trapper-harvested wildlife (waterfowl and mammals), and dead and moribund birds in oil sands impacted areas and lower reaches of the Athabasca River
  5. Use of native plants to monitor the condition of oil sands-associated wetlands

The plan also includes monitoring the impact of habitat disturbance and mitigation on terrestrial biodiversity. Data from the program will be made publicly available from a portal (Joint Oil Sands Monitoring).

Boreal Avian Modelling Project

The Boreal Avian Modelling Project (BAM)Reference 320 is a land-bird data management and research initiative that aggregates data from across North American boreal forests including all of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Using quantitative modelling techniques, BAM derives information on abundance, distribution, and habitats of boreal birds, and uses this to evaluate and predict the effects of human activity. Biophysical data is also being assembled from remote-sensing and forest resource inventories including climate, land cover, and forest productivity indices. Several regional songbird monitoring initiatives are conducted under BAM through collaboration with university researchers.

Figure 49. Bird point-count sites compiled by the Boreal Avian Modeling Project.
Map showing Bird point©\count sites
Source: Boreal Avian Modelling Project, 2014Reference 320
Long description for Figure 49

This map shows bird point-count sites throughout Canada and Alaska, but concentrated along the US-Canada border. There are no sampling sites in southeastern Alberta or southwestern Saskatchewan.

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Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey

The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey is a collaborative initiative between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service that was initiated in 1955. The primary purpose of the survey is to provide information on spring population size and trends for certain North American duck species (with particular focus on mallards). Data from these surveys are used extensively in the annual establishment of hunting regulations in the United States and Canada and provide long-term time series critical to effective conservation planning for waterfowl.Reference 321

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Key finding 22
Rapid change and thresholds

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.

In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, forest fragmentation, fire and insect disturbances, invasive species, contamination, climate change, acidification, and food web perturbations are all stressors that may be causing rapid, irreversible changes to the ecozone+. However, detecting rapid change or breached ecological thresholds requires more spatially and temporally comprehensive data than is available for the ecozone+. Given available data, rapid change in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ may have been caused by insect outbreaks, habitat loss and fragmentation, melting permafrost, and invasive species.

Insect outbreaks

Mountain pine beetle

British Columbia has experienced unprecedented mountain pine beetle infestations over the last decade and infestations have recently spread to Alberta. Since 2005, the mountain pine beetle has spread eastward across the Rocky Mountains affecting tens of thousands of square kilometres of lodgepole pine and lodgepole pine x jack pine forests in western portions of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 301, Reference 302 If left unchecked, it is possible that mountain pine beetle could expand its range further eastward through the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and beyond.Reference 299, Reference 300 Warmer winters, fire suppression, and continued dispersal increase the probability of range expansion (refer to the Mountain pine beetle section on page 75).

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Forest fragmentation and loss

Woodland caribou, boreal population (i.e., boreal caribou) are classified as threatened by COSEWIC,Reference 272 and are declining and at risk of local extirpation in some areas of their range (refer to the Caribou section on page 67).The decline of boreal caribou in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has been linked to two factors that have altered predator-prey dynamics in the area. First, habitat loss and fragmentation, specifically linear disturbances (roads and seismic lines) associated with oil and gas development, has increased grey wolf access to caribou habitat.Reference 193 Second, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) populations have increased, likely in response to warmer temperatures and habitat disturbance, which has created more habitat favouring deer.Reference 309, Reference 322 More deer increases available prey for grey wolves.Reference 309 These two factors likely caused the extensive declines in caribou over the past several decades.

There is a threshold of habitat required to sustain populations of forest-dependent species, particularly old-forest specialists.Reference 323 Most of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ remains intact for most species,Reference 241 however, habitat thresholds have been breached in some areas. For example, American marten require complex habitat structure (e.g., coarse woody debris) and forest cover. Marten could not persist in parts of the west Boreal Plains of Alberta where >36% of the area is developed by forestry, mining, and/or other industrial activities.Reference 324

Although populations of forest birds have not declined to date, the expected future landscape condition is not expected to support current populations of bird species that prefer mature and old boreal forests.Reference 43 Species such as black-throated green warbler, boreal chickadee, and western tanager prefer unfragmented, mature forest types. These forests are being lost, subdivided, and perforated by logging, oil sands development, and an expanding network of seismic lines, pipelines, production and exploration wellsites, power/utility lines and access roads.Reference 43 Climate change-induced forest fires are expected to increase, thus causing further population declines for mature and old forest-associated landbird species because the increased fire rate could lead to earlier and more substantial declines in old forest types.Reference 43

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Thawing of permafrost

Permafrost is melting along the northern perimeter of the ecozone+ in response to increases in average air temperature.Reference 53 Changes in biodiversity, landscape and hydrology are expected in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ but the actual impacts are unknown (refer to Permafrost section on page 23 for more details).

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Invasive species

Currently there is limited information on the distribution and abundance of invasive species across the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 126 Further, the threshold level of disturbance and/or fragmentation in the boreal forest that could enhance invasive species spread is unknown. However, continued industrial development may present windows of opportunity for non-native species to establish and spread. The populations of non-native species that are present in the ecozone+ may serve as nascent sources for a much wider invasion once a particular disturbance threshold has been reached.Reference 325, Reference 326

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Reference 48

Zhang, X., Brown, R., Vincent, L., Skinner, W., Feng, Y. et Mekis, E. 2011. Tendances climatiques au Canada, de 1950 ¨¤ 2007. Biodiversit¨¦ canadienne : ¨¦tat et tendances des ¨¦cosyst¨¨mes en 2010, Rapport technique th¨¦matique no 5. Conseils canadiens des ministres des ressources. Ottawa, ON. iv + 22 p.

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Reference 53

Zhang, X., Brown, R., Vincent, L., Skinner, W., Feng, Y. and Mekis, E. 2011. Canadian climate trends, 1950-2007. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 5. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. iv + 21 p.

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Reference 126

 Sanderson, L.A., Mclaughlin, J.A. and Antunes, P.M. 2012. The last great forest: a review of the status of invasive species in the North American boreal forest. Forestry85:329-340.

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Reference 193

 Lloyd, A.H., Yoshikawa, K., Fastie, C.L., Hinzman, L. and Fraver, M. 2003. Effects of permafrost degradation on woody vegetation at arctic treeline on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes14:93-101.

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Reference 240

 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2013. Alberta biodiversity monitoring program [online]. (Accessed 8 August, 2013).

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Reference 241

 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2013. The status of biodiversity in the Athabasca oil sands area. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. Edmonton, AB. 39 p.

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Reference 272

 COSEWIC. 2002. COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa, ON. xi + 98 p.

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Reference 299

 Safranyik, L., Carroll, A.L., R¨¦gni¨¨re, J., Langor, D.W., Riel, W.G., Shore, T.L., Peter, B., Cooke, B.J., Nealis, V.G. and Taylor, S.W. 2010. Potential for range expansion of mountain pine beetle into the boreal forest of North America. The Canadian Entomologist142:415-442.

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Reference 300

 Rice, A.V., Thormann, M.N. and Langor, D.W. 2007. Mountain pine beetle associated blue-stain fungi cause lesions on jack pine, lodgepole pine, and lodgepole x jack pine hybrids in Alberta. Canadian Journal of Botany-Revue Canadienne De Botanique85:307-315.

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Reference 301

 Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. 2009. 2008 Annual Report: forest health in Alberta. Government of Alberta. Edmonton, AB. iv + 44 p.

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Reference 302

 Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. 2009. 2008 Annual Report: forest health in Alberta. Government of Alberta. Edmonton, AB. iv + 44 p.

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Reference 302

 Tyssen, B. 2009. Mountain pine beetle aerial survey 2009. Map. Government of Alberta.

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Reference 309

 Latham, A.D.M., Latham, M.C., McCutchen, N.A. and Boutin, S. 2011. Invading white-tailed deer change wolf-caribou dynamics in northeastern Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Management75:204-212.

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Reference 320

 Boreal Avian Modelling Project. 2014. Boreal Avian Modelling Project [online]. (accessed October, 32014).

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Reference 321

 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).

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Reference 322

 Cote, S.D., Rooney, T.P., Tremblay, J.P., Dussault, C. and Waller, D.M. 2004. Ecological impacts of deer overabundance. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 35:113-147.

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Reference 323

 Rompre, G., Boucher, Y., Belanger, L., Cote, S. and Robinson, W.D. 2010. Conserving biodiversity in managed forest landscapes: the use of critical thresholds for habitat. Forestry Chronicles 86:589-596.

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Reference 324

 Webb, S.M. and Boyce, M.S. 2009. Marten fur harvests and landscape change in west-central Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Management 73:894-903.

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Reference 325

 Lodge, D.M., Williams, S., MacIssac, H.J., Hayes, K.R., Leung, B., Reichard, S., Mack, R.N., Moyle, P.B., Smith, M., Andow, D.A., Carlton, J.T. and McMichael, A. 2006. Biological invasions: recommendations for US policy and managem

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Reference 326

 Denslow, J.S. 2007. Managing dominance of invasive plants in wildlands. Current Science 93:1579-1586.

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