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.


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

Karelian bear dogs help keep people and bears safe


Our Fish and Wildlife friends at Alberta Justice enlist some furry friends to help with bear control – here’s the scoop.

Originally posted on Alberta Justice & Solicitor General:

Alberta’s dog program barking up the right tree

A dog is man’s best friend, goes the old saying. That familiar phrase rings true for those Albertans who know about Justice and Solicitor General’s Karelian Bear Dog program.  The dogs use shepherding techniques to teach bears to recognize and avoid inhabited areas, helping to keep Alberta’s communities safe and secure. Watch a video of the dogs in action here.

During a wildlife encounter, a well-trained Karelian will force a bear to leave the area by standing its ground and barking. “We are really grateful to have these fantastic dogs in Alberta,” said fish and wildlife officer John Clarke. “The initiative helps Albertans and bears share the land. And it often means that problem bears do not need to be relocated or destroyed because the dogs teach them not to approach people.”

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The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan is finished. Here’s how the final version reflects your feedback.

SSRP banner

The SSRP has been a long time in the making. Over three phases of consultation we heard from 7,500 Albertans and received 2,000 online workbooks and written submissions.

The views and ideas we heard were diverse to say the least (you can check out all the summaries of the consultation sessions here). But there were also some concerns and ideas that we heard in almost every community we visited. We’ve made changes based on those comments.

Today, we’re happy to announce that the SSRP has been finalized. Here are some of the changes we’ve made to reflect your feedback: SSRP sign Taber 2013

  • More land for the Castle Wildland Provincial Park (now 54,588 hectares) and Pekisko Heritage Rangeland (34,356 hectares)
  • A formal commitment to work with our stakeholders to explore conservation opportunities in the Twin River and Onefour Heritage Rangeland Natural Areas of the grasslands
  • Improved connectivity for wildlife habitats, both within the South Saskatchewan region and connecting to other regions
  • A commitment to explore new tools and incentives for stewardship and conservation on private land
  • Longer terms for grazing leases (20 years instead of 10)

Continue reading