Feature Story                                                                                             Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Saving Species

The battle to preserve our plants and animals

Staff/Voice photos


The Species at Risk Open House drew about 20-30 people to Evergreen Hall last Thursday.  Below, Danielle Prevost helped host the event.


small, but concerned group of Chilliwack residents, showed up for Environment Canada's Open House last Thursday at Evergreen Hall to learn about local plants and animals under threat from habitat destruction, and what they can do to help.


Ian Parnell, M.S., former Species at Risk (SAR) field Biologist with Environment Canada's Recovery Unit, transitioned to Head of Landscape Assessment & Planning, at the Pacific Research Wildlife Centre. He took a few minutes to speak with The Voice about the recovery programs. The following is our conversation.


Are all these posters related to Chilliwack?

These posters are species that are on our 3-year plan. There is a backlog of recovery documents, recovery strategies and management plans for species that are listed under the Species at Risk Act that haven't got those documents prepared for them yet.


So you guys are studying all of these species on the posters, what do you mean by "documents"?

They are recovery strategies and management plans that are required under the Species at Risk Act.


Do you do an assessment on the land?

What we do is that we work with our provincial colleagues to develop federal additions in many cases to the documents that are prepared by the federal government.


What's a "federal addition"?

A federal addition is front matter to a document that we can adopt. Adopting is a process that is allowed under the Species at Risk Act.


What's "Adopting"?

You take a document that's prepared, in this case by the province, by provincial recovery planners and species experts, and you're putting front matter on it that tells the public that when they read it, that this is now considered to be a federal recovery strategy as well.


So you're partnering with the provincial government on this?

Well, the provincial government prepares these recovery strategies as part of their own recovery planning process.


Ian Parnell points to a photo of streambank lupine which are an endangered species. Below, David Blain; Director of Planning and Engineering; City of Chilliwack was also in attendance.


So then what do they do, wash their hands of it after?

Oh, absolutely not. These are recovery documents that the province prepares for management and it's prepared by species experts, provincial biologists, who are often guided by provincial recovery teams and it has the real guts about the biology of the species, the threats to the species that the species needs in terms of actions, management actions, to help recover, because we're talking about SAR here. Species that have been considered to be special concern, or threatened, or endangered, most often by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which is an independent group of scientists and experts that theoretically assess species, and come up with a risk designation for them.    


So where I was going with that, was that the province has their own management program for species and ecosystems at risk. Many of the species that they develop recovery documents for are species that the government of Canada would like to develop recovery documents for as well.


If the province prepares a recovery strategy, for example, that it's for a species that we have to develop a recovery strategy for under the SAR. We can adopt that.


So that means you'll take it to another level?

That means we will look at the document, review it, our own species experts will review it in conjunction with our provincial colleagues. We will add information that's required under the SAR Act that might not be in the provincial documents. So, that can include what we call "critical habitat", which in this case is a specific phrase within the SAR Act, which refers to the habitat a species needs to survive or recover, and we will add any updated information that might have come forward in terms of species population and distribution data that may have been uncovered since the provincial document was published, any threats that might have been realized, any new listing information like the from the committee on the status of injured wildlife in Canada, and any new information they have brought forward will be included as well. It's front matter that goes on top of the provincial document, and that together becomes the federal recovery document.


So you work with the document then to actually bring these species back from the brink?

Yes, that's the intent, a recovery strategy, a management plan, it's a high-level overview of what's required based on the best available information. And the opinion of the experts who actually develop this information to recover a species. So, to take it from "threat", for example, to "special concern" or to keep it from becoming threatened or endangered.


What are the levels? There's endangered, threatened...

The four main ones are: Extirpated; which means no longer found in Canada. It would have been a species that would have been found in Canada. Others are; of special concern and threatened.


Any of those found on these charts here?

There are some species that we will be preparing documents for which are extirpated.



Do you remember any of those?

I believe the Pacific Gopher Snake. There's two types.


How do you get those back?

Pacific gopher snake is a pacific species. So there's populations that would have been in the Lower Mainland area and southwestern BC and there's also populations that occur farther south in the United States.


So you can actually get those species down there and bring them back here?

Reintroduce. That depends. The species experts would have to do a feasibility analysis to see whether or not that can actually happen. That would be summarized in a recovery document prepared for an extripated species statement. There would be a feasibility statement and that would be the expert's analysis on whether or not it would be feasible to reintroduce.


So these species (charts on wall) are all in BC and are all threatened or endangered, special concern and extirpated?




Most of these aren't extinct yet?

Most of them are still here, they're not extirpated.


But you don't use the word "extinct" because that's a global designation?

There is the word "extinct", but that's a global reference which means that they don't exist anywhere.


How do you get them back?

The activities that you would take to recover a species, to stabilize it so that population doesn't decline any further, or to recover it to pre-impact numbers, if you will, those kinds of activities and management actions that people can do are outlined in the recovery document that's been prepared.


Okay, so just for our readers, what can they do? You've got some pretty common species here, for example, the little plants that grow on the riverbanks (riparian areas), what can they do to insure that those survive?

Well, the first thing you can do is you can become familiar with the needs of the species and you can do that by going to our Canadian SAR Public Registry and there is information there, and you can find information about each of these individual species. They'll have their own individual web pages that will give you an overview of what its needs are and the threats to the habitat. So if you become familiar with those issues, you can begin looking out for those kinds of conditions, and it'll also tell you where they're found so you can get a better idea whereabouts in your area they might occur; what kind of habitat they might be in; do they like streams or do they like drier areas etc.



Homeowners might have these plants in their backyards and might misconstrue them as weeds and so the idea of this, I imagine, is to get people thinking about these things and identifying them so they don't rip them out as weeds, correct?

That would be an ideal outcome, yes. We're trying to educate and inform people about the SAR Act, what it can do, what it can't do, what it is, what it isn't and what we're working on actively now. These species that are on the posters on the walls, are species that we haven't got all the recovery documents for yet that we're going to be preparing federal versions for. Many of them have provincial recovery documents and you can go to the provincial recovery planning site, that's under the Ministry of Environment website page, and you can find those documents and you can read through them, and you can find out more about their habitat. They'll have better maps about where they occur, more about the kinds of threats that scientists are concerned about because of habitat loss, pollution, water pollution, those kinds of things. People can always contact us to find out what species we're looking at and what's going on now, and who might be a good person to talk to if you had a specific question.


So what do you know about Chilliwack? Do you see any problems here?

I don't know a lot about Chilliwack specifically, but a lot of species that are found in the wild are found in this area and I'm sure that many of the issues in the area are the same concerns in the area overlap species' needs. A good way to find out how that might be happening is to look at the recovery documents and find out the details.


Each species will have a common theme. Habitat loss is a common theme that is specific to that, and it's going to vary across BC.


Are you on a traveling road show here?

Yes, these events are, like in Chilliwack. We had an event in Squamish last night, and there's going to be an event I believe on March 25th in Nanaimo. The purpose of these particular events is just to educate and inform about the SAR Act and the three-year plan that we're embarking on to finish off our backlog of recovery documents.



What are you going to accomplish in those three years?

We're going to be posting the backlog of about 100+ documents.


Each document represents a species?

In most cases. There will be a few documents that will be multi-species. So, in British Columbia proper, in the pacific and Yukon region, which is the regional wildlife service office that I work in, we're looking at about 70 or so species across that three year period.


So is it going up, the rate of species loss, with all the development that's going on everywhere?

That depends on the species and where you're looking.


(Parnell's specialization is the marbled murrelet aquatic bird.)


You've been studying this bird for quite a while?

Yes, I've been working with the recovery team for about 4 years and developing the latest stage of the recovery strategy for this species.


What's its status?

It's threatened. The primary reason that it's threatened is its nesting habitat loss up and down the coast of British Columbia. Its primary nesting habitat is old growth forest which is also a valuable economic commodity.



Is there much old growth left?

We have a identified about 1.4 million hectares of suitable nesting habitat. So, it's not just one type of old growth, there's different varieties of it.


If there's that much old growth, why is there a problem with this species?

The Committee on Status of Injured and Endangered Species Wildlife in Canada evaluate where a species has come from in terms of its habitat and in terms of threats and they look at trends in the  future. So, they looked at the marbled murrelet, and they realized there's a pretty strong correlation between the numbers of birds off the coast and the amount of nesting habitat that's available.


They're a unique seabird in that they nest in trees of very low density in contrast to other seabird species that nest in dense colonies on islands. They need a lot of habitat to spread out onto to keep large numbers. The committee realized that there was a fairly steady decline in the type of habitat that they require for nesting, and so they designated them as threatened to ensure that actions would be taken to halt the decline of that habitat loss.


These are only on the ocean?

Yes. They're a seabird. They spend most of their life on the ocean foraging for little fish species and then they breed in the old forests along the coast not just in British Columbia but in Alaska and all the way down to mid-California.


Do you have an estimate on how many there are left of this species?

Estimates are really hard to get for this bird because it's such a wide ranging species and it's very difficult to monitor them, but the most recent estimates that were done indicate about 95,000 adult birds.



That seems like a lot, but I guess not if they're spread out from Alaska to California.

The "threatened" designation is primarily due to the decline of habitat over time. So, the projected decline of habitat over 30-years was high enough that it raised an alarm for a 'threatened" designation. The team has all sorts of criteria that they use to evaluate the designation, and you can get that information, which is published on their website.


It would be pretty devastating if there was an oil spill on the coast for this bird.

Well, for the marbled murrelet and a lot of other species, marine species, mammals, oil contamination from small oil spills and large oil spills is seen as a threat. It's not well understood, and that's one of the activities outlined in the recovery strategy that needs further research to understand that threat.


Do you know how many are lost in gill nets every year? I guess that's pretty hard to know if you're not out there on the boats?

That's an area also that needs more research. There's not very good estimates of numbers lost to bycatch, or gillnet mortality, or entanglement. So that's part of the recovery strategy that focuses and discusses the threats that come from that the possible population impacts, and the work that needs to be done to understand it better. So there needs to be more observers on boats for example to do that kind of work.


Is the federal government putting a lot of money into this recovery strategy?

The federal government recognizes that this is a particularly important bird from the perspective of our work, all the species are important, but this is also a migratory bird listed under the Migratory Bird Convention Act.



Where do the birds migrate to and from?

They migrate up and down the coast. Inland to breed and out to the ocean. How far they migrate and what their patterns are like is another uncertainty in their life history.


Have you considered putting a radio monitor on them?

It's funny that you should mention that because we do have researchers in Environment Canada who are actually doing that kind of work. A researcher last summer tagged a murrelet with a satellite tag so they could trace its movements up and down the coast and they actually had an astounding wide range. It was tagged in the mid-coast area and it ended up going all the way up to Alaska.


That's quite a haul for a little bird like that, isn't it?

It is.


And they have predators too I imagine; eagles and hawks etc.?

Eagles are one of the key threats associated to their nesting and changes in their nesting habits. Predation on them comes from crows and jays who prey on the eggs in the nest for example.



How confident are you in the work that you're doing to bring back these birds?

I'm very confident. I see a lot of hope. I see a lot of very dedicated individuals from the provincial and federal governments, in academia, and industry working together to look at the problem with a clear lens to establish what we know, what we don't know, what we need to know more about and we're taking it seriously. It's very encouraging.


When you took over this job, there wasn't much research done on this bird?

Oh no. There's been a lot of research done on the murrelet. Twenty or more years of it. I came in very late. I had a very special role which was to help finish development of the recovery strategy. But there's lots of researchers out there; scientists from Environment Canada and other institutions that are working on the marbled murrelet and other sea birds to understand their ecology and their life history better.


How do you recover something like the marbled murrelet?

Recovery is going to be something that everybody has to play a part in from the federal government, local government, regional districts, fisheries, stakeholders, the forest industry, First Nations, the public. Everybody has a role to play. A lot of it is about education. Having events like this to inform people about what species we're working on. Getting people interested in it and helping them find the information they need to learn more about it, and working hard to find ways to work together in all these different areas.






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