SSRP in Review: the Castle region’s new conservation areas

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This is part one in a series about the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan and how its implementation will address the feedback we heard from Albertans. You can view the full list of posts here.

Alberta’s Castle area, nestled in the Rocky Mountains where Alberta, British Columbia and Montana meet, contains some of the most beautiful – and sensitive – ecosystems in all of Alberta. These landscapes are favourite recreation spots for many outdoor enthusiasts, but they also need to be protected. The new South Sask Regional Plan (SSRP) strikes a balance between these goals – and one of the ways it does so is by establishing conservation areas.

Photo of part of the Castle area in Alberta.

What’s a conservation area?

A conservation area is a clearly defined space that has special rules to protect its ecosystem and biological diversity. Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Wildland Provincial Parks, Natural Areas, Heritage Rangelands, and Public Land Use Zones for Conservation are all examples of different kinds of conservation areas. Each of these has different goals and different rules associated with it. These rules dictate what kinds of activities – including recreation, development, and industry – are prohibited in the area, and which ones are allowed. (You can check out pages 188-189 of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan to see the full list.)

Conservation areas are managed to minimize new land disturbance. In general, land disturbances from oil and gas operations, mining, commercial agriculture and forestry are not allowed in conservation areas, although we may need to make exceptions if freehold mineral rights have already been sold in an area. The government works with companies that hold existing oil and gas leases to ensure damage to the landscape is minimized.

Commercial forestry is not permitted in conservation areas designated as wildland provincial parks. However, activities that involve wildfire management, disease and insect control are allowed. In areas designated as heritage rangeland, carefully managed grazing and traditional ranching practices are used to maintain the health of the ecosystem.

Conservation areas are often popular destinations for outdoor enthusiasts, and rules allow a certain amount of recreation to take place while ensuring the landscape is protected. Low-impact recreation is typically allowed, while off-highway vehicle use is typically permitted in certain areas, on existing trails (management plans must be drafted for these trails, if they don’t exist already). No new trails or routes or access may be developed without a management plan.

The SSRP establishes four new conservation areas, and two of these – the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland – are great illustrations of how this land management tool works in practice.

The Castle Wildland Provincial Park Map of Castle Wildland Provincial Park

This is a new 54,588 hectare conservation area established to protect key parts of the Castle area. The new park includes lands identified in the Eastern Slopes Policy’s prime protection zone and will also extend into neighboring valleys. This includes both areas that are very ecologically sensitive, and those that have lots of environmental and aesthetic value.  The Castle park will be managed to protect opportunities for low-impact backcountry recreation – like hiking and mountain biking – as well as eco-tourism opportunities.

The Castle park will help to protect the headwaters in the area, while also providing an important connection between the Alberta provincial parks system (to the north), the British Columbia parks system (to the west) and the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (to the south). This type of connection is important for wildlife habitat connectivity, which we’ll talk about in more detail in a later post.

(This area overlaps with the Castle Special Management Area, which was established in 1998 to better manage motorized recreation in the backcountry. Off-highway vehicle use is allowed in this area on designated trails.)

The Pekisko Heritage Rangeland

This conservation area will protect a representative part of Alberta’s native grasslands. This designation will help protect Alberta’s species at risk, the majority of which have grasslands habitats. Carefully managed grazing and traditional ranching will be used to maintain the health of the grassland ecosystem, and managed hunting, fishing and trapping in the area will continue.

What we look for in a conservation area

  • Little to no industrial activity (Conservation areas are designed to protect areas that are relatively undisturbed)
  • Support for traditional Aboriginal uses such as hunting, fishing and trapping
  • Representative of the area’s biological diversity
  • Sufficient size. When it comes to conservation areas, it’s generally better to have a smaller number of large ones than a bunch of small ones. This helps establish uninterrupted habitat for wildlife.

What happens now

The SSRP came into effect on September 1st. Areas identified in the plan as conservation areas are now governed by the appropriate rules. You can check out a full list of permitted activities for each new and expanded area on page 188 of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan.

We let the dogs out! Meet Alberta’s four-legged partners in the fight against invasive mussels

This summer, we asked Albertans to voluntarily have their boats checked for invasive mussels when they crossed our borders. If you stopped at an inspection station (there are four, located on major highways entering the province and two roving crews), you likely saw our friendly Government of Alberta watercraft inspectors. These folks thoroughly inspect each and every watercraft that stops – but to do a really complete job, they get a little help from some furry friends.

Boats are full of nooks and crannies that can’t be seen by the naked eye. Invasive mussels can catch a ride in these areas – and remain undetected by human inspectors. But sniffer dogs rely on their noses – not their eyes – to locate mussels. Check out the video to see for yourself.

This program isn’t just good for our ecosystems – it’s good for the dogs too! The same characteristics that make some dogs less likely to be adopted from shelters – like high energy levels and an inquisitive nature – make them great candidates to help sniff out mussels and other invasive species.

 

Photo of a boat propeller covered with invasive mussels.

While we’d like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who stopped for an inspection this summer, the fact remains that just as many people didn’t stop. An infestation could cost the province as much as $75 million per year to fight – and it’s the responsibility of each and every boat owner to prevent that from happening. Please get inspected.

City of Calgary Calls, ESRD Answers!

It was a September snowstorm Calgarians will never forget. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) firefighter Troy Meier remembers waking up on September 10 to his own neighbourhood covered in unseasonable whiteness. “Watching trees break in front of my house was definitely scary.” Once Meier got to work at the Wildfire Management Branch’s Calgary Fire Centre, it wasn’t long until his and other crews were sent into the city to provide support. “The best part was how fast we responded. It feels good to help out!”

In response to the massive snow dump, the City of Calgary put in a call to the province to lend a helping hand. 20 firefighters headed immediately to the city to remove trees that had fallen under the weight of heavy, wet snow. By September 15, roughly 120 wildland firefighters from all over the province were in Calgary to help clear tree debris from city streets and parks. Firefighters also helped seniors and people who need help cleaning their yards this week, through the City Links program.

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Clearing trees in Calgary isn’t much different than a normal day on the job. Alberta’s wildland firefighters are extensively trained in all aspects of wildfire management, including chainsaw work (to trim and cut down trees). Putting these skills to use in an urban setting, on the other hand, is definitely a memorable experience. Meier says public reception has been overwhelmingly positive. “Whether we cleared an entire street, or just helped one resident move debris to the curb, everyone has been very grateful.”

ESRD’s Wildfire Management Branch has agreements in place with municipalities and counties around Alberta to assist during emergencies. Last year, ESRD firefighters also supported emergency response in southern Alberta after the floods. Check out this blog post for a firsthand account of their work pumping out the Calgary Zoo.

Follow the beetle: crews gear up for another year fighting Alberta’s most ‘invasive’ species

Ah, September. All over the province, students are heading back to school, the first leaves are falling…and ESRD crews are combing our forests for the evidence that will help us mount this year’s fight against the mountain pine beetle.

Each July and August, beetles leave the trees they’ve infected, and travel to new lodgepole pines. Tracking where these beetles have gone gives us the best possible chance of fighting them.

Photo of damage caused by the mountain pine beetle.

When beetles flee dying trees, they leave trademark red needles behind.

To conduct the first stage of this survey, our crews take to the air. Using helicopters, our staff fly over the forest and look for the telltale red needles that indicate a tree dying from mountain pine beetle damage. Staff on the ground follow up, combing the areas around these dead trees for signs that beetles have invaded live, healthy ones.

Once we know where the infestation has gone, we can concentrate our control work appropriately. Much of this work involves going in to remove and destroy infested trees – and the beetles inside them – to slow the speed of infestation.

 

Pine beetle infestations in Alberta are mostly concentrated within a triangle-shaped area from Grande Prairie to Slave Lake to Hinton. Most of this winter’s control work will be focused within this area.

In total, this species threatens approximately six million hectares of forests. Within these areas, it’s not just trees that are affected: the mountain pine beetle damages all aspects of the ecosystem, including watersheds and wildlife habitat – as well the livelihoods of communities that are supported by forestry and tourism dollars. And although cold winter temperatures can kill the beetle, that’s not always the case – as we saw last year.

For all these reasons, our fight against the beetle is critical. We’ll continue to blog letting you know about our progress – and if you want more info in the meantime, you can check out the facts right here.

 

Ride the new Nordegg bike trail to see how FireSmart works up close

We tend to think of wildfires and clear-cutting as destructive, but both have great significance in renewing forests. Alberta has a fire-dependent ecosystem and nature uses wildfire to clear out older trees, which are more vulnerable to disease and insects.

Our data shows that in the last 100 years, the forest in the Nordegg area would have naturally seen two or three wildfires if it weren’t for humans putting them out, making the forest unbalanced and at greater risk for larger, faster-burning wildfires. FireSmart helps us minimize the risk of these fires. And now, a new mountain bike trail in Nordegg provides a unique opportunity to see how these techniques look up close.

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Develop help build new FireSmart Ecology Trail

Alberta firefighters help build new FireSmart Ecology Trail west of Nordegg.

The trail runs 13 kilometres through both well-developed forest and areas where trees have been cleared away to mimic the size and shape of a wildfire. Our wildfire crews have applied various FireSmart techniques to different areas along the trail. Logging equipment was used to mimic a wildfire disturbance, while in other areas branches were pruned to reduce the risk of surface wildfire turning into crown wildfire. Crown fires involve the entire tree, including the upper branches while surface wildfires burn along the ground. Whether visitors return to the trail weekly, seasonally or annually, they can witness firsthand the various stages of a forest’s life cycle.

Since the project started three years ago, the numbers of grasses and smaller plants – which can’t grow in areas of mature forest – have flourished. The mix of these areas with older mature forest creates a mosaic of different ages and species of trees that are beautiful to bike and hike through – and also make the forest more resilient.

The trail, created in partnership with Frontier Lodge, is located west of Nordegg in the Fish Lake Provincial Recreation area. It’s open to non-motorized recreationists, including hikers, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers, so it can be enjoyed year-round. From the trail, visitors can access Frontier Lodge, the Fish Lake Provincial Recreation Area, and Gold Eye Lake.

trail map

The trail took about 1,500 hours of labour to build and incorporates approximately 900 feet of new boardwalk. It’s a great example of how many organizations have come together to bring a project to life. Sponsors for this project include:

  • Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
  • Mountain Equipment Co-op
  • The Western Heritage ATV Association
  • West Fraser
  • Clearwater County
  • Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation

Cave closures are helping to protect Alberta’s more ‘bat-brained’ residents

For most people, picturing Alberta brings to mind majestic mountains and rolling plains – caves aren’t high up on the list. But we’ve got lots of them – and the wildlife populations that go with them.

Photo of a little brown bat

The world’s second oldest bat on record – dubbed ‘the old guy’ by ESRD staff – lived in Alberta. Photo credit: Chuck Priestly.

Bats are definitely in this category. Although they tend to stay out of sight, nine different species of bats call our province home – and the second oldest known bat in the world lived in Alberta as well (the oldest known lived in Russia).

Bats prefer to hibernate in cool, dark and moist spaces, which makes our cave systems perfect winter homes for them. But these caves also appeal to many other species – including human beings.

It’s easy to understand why cave exploring is popular: it’s like discovering a whole new world. But even careful spelunkers can unknowingly introduce new dangers into our caves. That’s why two of our caves – Cadomin Cave at the Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park near Hinton and Wapiabi Cave northwest of Nordegg – are closed to humans.

These closures are necessary to help stop the spread of something called white-nose syndrome.

  • What it is: white-nose syndrome involves a fungus that disturbs bats during torpor – a state similar to hibernation.
  • How it works: the fungus grows in the skin of bats, which causes them to wake up from torpor during the winter, when their main prey – insects – are in short supply. As a result of this, they often end up starving to death.
  • How it spreads: once the fungus enters the bat population, it spreads from animal to animal, and there’s very little we can do to stop it.
Photo of a little brown bat in New York with white nose syndrome.

The name of the syndrome comes from the appearance that it gives the noses of infected bats. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

The disease is spread by spores, which are virtually invisible once they attach themselves to clothing and footwear. A massive outbreak in eastern Canada and the US has already killed 90 to 95 per cent of bats in areas hit by the disease. There’s a lot of traffic across Alberta’s borders from these places – which means an increased risk that people coming across the border may carry spores into the province.

Researchers in both the US and Canada are hard at work right now investigating solutions to the problem, and many avenues are being explored, including the use of anti-fungal bacteria. Until a treatment can be developed, our goal is to keep the fungus out of Alberta – and cave closures are one of the ways we can do this.

It’s important that we do. While some people don’t find them very cuddly, bats are an undeniably important part of our ecosystems. How? Like spiders – another species that isn’t particularly appreciated by the public – bats help keep Alberta’s bug population under control. This is important for Alberta’s economy as well as its ecosystems: the more bats, the fewer pesticides farmers need to use to grow their crops successfully.

Currently, there have been no outbreaks of white-nose syndrome in Alberta – and by obeying stated cave closures, you can help us keep it that way. Click here to learn more about the disease.

Understanding environmental monitoring: what are limits, triggers, and management frameworks?

If you were reading along with the summaries for our North Saskatchewan regional planning sessions, you probably saw certain terms come up over and over again. One of these was the idea of environmental management frameworks. These came up in almost every discussion – but what are they, and why do we need them?

When we put together a regional plan, one of our goals is to manage the environmental impacts of industry, development, and other activities. Comprehensive monitoring is a key part of this – but until we interpret them, monitoring results are just raw data.

Environmental management frameworks help us set goals, and these give our monitoring results meaning. If levels of a certain pollutant increase, the objectives we have set will help us interpret what that means for our environment and for human health, and what kind of action we need to take. Continue reading

No black? Put it back! You can help the bull trout recover in Alberta

When we announced the recovery of the trumpeter swan last week, we had some not-so-great news as well: four species have been added to Alberta’s Threatened Species List. One of the species added to the list is the bull trout, Alberta’s provincial fish.

Photo of a biologist holding a bull trout.

Photo credit: Blair Reilly, ESRD.

Threats to the bull trout 

Photo of bull trout habitat in Jacques Lake, Alberta.

Changes to the bull trout’s native habitat have contributed to its decline.

Bull trout were once abundant in at least 60 of Alberta’s watersheds, including downstream of pretty much all of our mountains and foothills. Today, only seven of those watersheds have healthy populations – all of which are found in national or provincial parks. The fish is now absent from 20 watersheds where it was once found, and the total number of bull trout remaining is estimated at only 20,000 province-wide.

Over time, the bull trout’s habitat and spawning grounds have been impacted by dams and weirs and development; competition with other species has also played a role. Bull trout take a long time to mature, produce relatively few eggs, and may spawn only every second year – so recovery is a slow and delicate process. Although fishing restrictions have been in place since the 1990s, illegal harvesting may be interfering with recovery efforts. Continue reading

“Every single day is different”: meet the firefighters fighting this summer’s wildfires

Our helicopters and airtankers help get wildfires under control – but it’s the firefighting crews on the ground who actually put them out.

smoke 3

Firefighters dig up all hot areas until they are cool to the touch.

Firefighters build containment lines to stop the spread of wildfire and put out the wildfire. But it’s important to remember that putting out a wildfire doesn’t just require extinguishing what you can see.

Wildfires can burn underground and pop up again when the weather becomes hot and dry. To find these underground fires, crews use infrared scan maps of the wildfire area. Each area needs to be dug up and the fire put out until the ground is cool to the touch – this is called ‘cold trailing’.

If you think this sounds like an awful lot of work, you’re right. So why do our firefighters do what they do? Watch this clip and hear their reasons firsthand: Continue reading

When is a species no longer ‘at risk’? Understanding the trumpeter swan’s recovery

It’s a good summer for birds in Alberta. Early this month, we announced that the peregrine falcon has returned to nest on the banks of the Pembina for the first time in half a century. And now, we’re happy to report that another bird species – the trumpeter swan – has been removed from Alberta’s list of Threatened species.

Photo of a group of trumpeter swans.

These two success stories aren’t accidents – they’re the result of our Species at Risk program. This program helps us take action when a species is threatened. To do that, we need two things – a warning that the species is declining, and an understanding of what’s causing the threat.

Numbers aren’t everything – how do we know when a species is at risk?

You might think that a species has to be pretty rare in order to be considered ‘at risk’ – but that’s not necessarily true. What’s most important is whether the population of the species is decreasing significantly over time. Continue reading