From wolverines to whitebark pine – An interview with Parks Canada ecologist Sarah Boyle

The Review speaks to Parks Canada conservation ecologist Sarah Boyle about research in Mount Revelstoke & Glacier National Parks.

Sarah Boyle is the lead conservation ecologist for Mount Revelstoke & Glacier National Parks.

As a journalist, one of the most exciting aspects of the change in governments in Ottawa is the fact that Federal government scientists are now free to talk about their work with the media.

With that in mind, I decided to call Sarah Boyle, a conservation biologist with Parks Canada to find out what the agency has been doing in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

It was a chance to follow up on several stories I’ve written over the years.

Bat research

Photo: Parks Canada staff use mist needs to capture bats near the Nakimu Caves in Glacier National Park.

In August 2013, I was lucky enough to visit the Nakimu Caves while researchers placed bat monitoring equipment and took soil samples from the cave to see if White Nose Syndrome had spread to the area.

The work found that there were bats in the cave, however, they still needed to find out what kinds. This summer, Parks Canada staff travelled to the area with mist nets to capture bats.

“While the acoustic technology that we have is really cool, it can confuse different species and it doesn’t have a high enough level of sensitivity to determine between species,” said Boyle.

When the nets were deployed, Parks found that five bat species used the caves, including the endangered little brown bat. Perhaps most interesting is the fact the bats were ready to reproduce.

“This is a hook-up joint, it’s a swarming site,” said Boyle.

The last bat call that Parks detected happened on October 4. Now, they want to see if bats are hibernating in the caves. To do that, they’ll be placing monitors in the caves in March.

“We’ll have pretty good confirmation if we have bat species hibernating in the Nakimu caves,” said Boyle.

Part of the goal of the bat research is to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome to the caves. WNS has devastated bat colonies in eastern North American and is quickly spreading westward.

“It may impact how we allow access to the caves,” said Boyle. “Right now access is allowed year-round. If we know we have hibernating bats, we might not allow people to go in the winter months when they have potential to disturb bats.”

It also helps determine the decontamination protocol people have to follow before they enter the caves.

Wolverines

Photo: A wolverine is caught on camera at a bait site in Glacier National Park.

In 2011, Parks Canada began a project to track wolverines – which is listed as a species of concern – in Glacier National Park. They divided the park into 10-kilometre by 10-kilometre grids and placed bait stations at 29 sites using what one researcher described as “the most foul smelling, disgusting stuff that you’ve ever experienced.”

The goal was to collect DNA samples to determine how many wolverines there are in the park and to look at how they move around. “They are quite sensitive to habitat fragmentation,” said Boyle.

The results are encouraging as the study enters its fifth and final year. “Through genetics and cameras we’ve been able to identify a total of 25 wolverines — 20 males and five females,” said Boyle.  “This animal is in decline in a lot of places but these results indicate a fairly healthy wolverine population.”

The next step will be to repeat the study in a few years to see if the population is declining or increasing.

“If there are alarm bells going off, what is the reason why?” said Boyle.

Mountain Caribou

Photo: Caribou are seen in the Mount Klotz caribou closure in Mount Revelstoke National Park.

As I reported last month, scientists with Environment Canada are set to recommend that southern mountain caribou are listed as endangered by the Federal government.

The change in status to endangered from threatened shouldn’t impact work in the parks, said Boyle.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s going to affect anything we do any differently,” she said. “We already put a huge emphasis on caribou in the park.”

The most notable work is the annual Mount Klotz caribou closure, that goes into effect from December 15 to April 15 every winter. It was put in place to protect the South Columbia herd, which only had six animals when it was last counted in 2013.

“That closure will obviously stay intact and that’s to protect mountain caribou from being disturbed by any backcountry users and being displaced from over-wintering habitat, or inadvertently into an avalanche area,” said Boyle.

She said Parks will do another census this winter, in partnership with the province of B.C.

Amphibians

Photo: Parks Canada staff capture tadpoles as part of research into amphibians in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

One of Parks Canada’s newest projects is research into amphibians.

Globally, amphibians are not doing that well worldwide,” said Boyle. “We want to make sure we have a full complement of native species, and that includes our amphibians.”

The first step involved sending staff with nets into ponds, lakes, marshes and other breeding areas to look for eggs, tadpoles, juveniles and adults. They found western toad, Columbia spotted frog, long-toed salamander and the Pacific chorus frog.

“They’re quite a sensitive species and they’re a really good indicator of environmental change, and a healthy hydrological system,” said Boyle. “We are really interested to make sure we’re not losing wet areas and we want to make sure that similar to worldwide trends, we’re not seeing as severe a decline in species.”

Whitebark pine

Photo: Whitebark pine trees are grown inside a nursery as part of an effort to recover the endangered species.

Whitebark pine is the only tree species in western Canada to be listed as endangered by the Species at Risk Act.

The tree is found at at mid to high elevations in subalpine areas throughout western North America.

“It’s considered a keystone subalpine species. It can grow in really harsh conditions — south facing, rocky slopes,” said Boyle.

Because of its hardiness, it’s one of the first trees that will colonize an area after a fire and is considered very important to re-vegetating areas disturbed by fire.

Its cones provide food for 22 different species, including grizzly bears, said Boyle. “It’s important to a lot of alpine species in our parks.”

That’s why its decline due to diseases like white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetle, as well fire suppression, is of big concern.

Parks Canada has been surveying Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks for stands of whitebark pine and studying them to determine their health. They cage the trees that are healthy and collect the cones to prevent them from being eaten.

“We’ll cage them in the spring and we’ll go back in the fall and collect the cones,” said Boyle. “From those, we’re able to grow saplings and seeds and test them for disease resistance.”

Trees are grown in nurseries and then planted in the parks. “It’s a very significant undertaking in the park.”

 

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