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Victoria

On one of my last days in North America,  I wove my way through the Victoria suburbs. I arrived at Esquimalt High School, to give a talk to enthusiastic grade 10 students.  This went well, with plenty of good questions showing the environmental concerns of these young people.

The visit was arranged by the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Vancouver Island. I was also the guest of the society at a waterside restaurant for a very pleasant and stimulating lunch and discussion with the Society at West Bay Marina, Victoria.

That afternoon I had a mini tour of selected parts of Victoria in the engaging company of  Mayo McDonough, President of the Society.  We visited some remnants of Garry oak (a type of native vegetation characterised by Quercus garreyana but often resembling wooded prairie grassland). This slighly made up for my failure to fit in a  visit to see this project set up to restore this threatened habitat. We finally made it to the Mayor’s Grove of Beacon Hill Park, Victoria.

Mayo and I were in the  Park to see a hawthorn tree. I had done a Masters degree in eastern Canada (London, Ontario) on hawthorn trees in the early 1980s(!) so was quite keen to see this nearly 100 yr old tree,  planted on September 6th 1929 by Winston Churchill.  The tree was looking a bit sickly but I was able to provide enough advice to spur Mayo into action. Within a few days of me leaving Canada, she had organised an arboriculturalist visit and a few weeks later, the local council carried out some restorative works to carry the tree gracefully into its old age.

The learning points from a trip as diverse as this will take a little while to sink in. The opportunity to learn about different cultures, institutions and ways of doing things has been invaluable. I hope to achieve a wider community benefit to return the faith of the Trust. On a more prosaic level, the most directly rewarding parts of the trip were trapping black-footed ferrets to gain information to help their recovery. However helping conserve this single hawthorn tree gave me a surprising emotional connection to Winston Churchill I will treasure.

Mayo McDonough and the tree

After passing through the wet western end of the Rockies, I drove through the city of Kamloops, in a semi-arid landscape because of  the rain shadow of the coastal mountains, before following the Fraser Valley to Vancouver.

A Gulf island

Reaching Vancouver Island by the Tsawwassen ferry on a beautiful sunny day, later I met Rob Walker, Manager Resource Conservation of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve lies in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, similar in character to the San Juan Islands (see previous blogpost ) on the other side of the US/Canada border south towards Seattle.

After a tour of the brand spanking new ‘green’  HQ building, I sat in on a very interesting Parks Advisory Board meeting. Various interests were represented including First Nations, academics, community groups and even a national advisor on marine issues.

As the Park owns all its land, the nature of the Board was clearly ‘advisory’ but the consultation was obviously genuine and useful especially as the Park is relatively young (established 2003) and there are many treaty negotiations and third party interests (300+) to be assessed and dealt with. I also met and gave a presentation to Park staff on my work in England.

National Park boat & staff in British weather

The following day we toured Portman Island and Sidney Spit in a powerful boat to see some of the issues such as deer pressure, other invasives, midden sites, and discussed balancing objectives in managing Parks.

This Park appears to be the protected area most like a UK national park/protected areas, by virtue of the extent of human usemost has been modified before 1932, by agriculture and homesteading followed by forestry, agricultural and rural-residential development.   The Park is made up of 3500 ha of land on 15 islands and over 50 islets, and 2600 ha of intertidal and nearshore subtidal marine areas. As well as the many islets, five complete islands are protected  and on a few larger islands up to just over 40% is included.

I was struck by the fact that the same debates about objectives arise in a less-wild Park such as this one. The priority to be given to wild versus cultural heritage features and the appropriate target state to restore to is one good example. After these decisions hae been taken, the development of explicit, stakeholder-involved management  plans or guidelines which are then acted upon are important.   We looked at the issue of reverting to pre-agriculture forest versus maintaining settlement-created  clearings on Portman Island as well as some orchard restoration as a cultural legacy (although the decision had been taken not to maintain trees after they have died naturally).

Invasives reared their ugly head yet again (a common theme of all areas I visited) and here it was Scotch broom and Himalayan Blackberry (especially on Portman Island) and are obviously ubiquitous in the Region. However the most catastrophic here is the locally severe deer pressure c. On Sidney Island (Sidney Spit) introduced 1500 fallow and native black tailed deer have caused significant problems removing all -literally all- understorey (see  photo of  exclosures) on the c. 900 ha island.

Non-exclusive ownership of the island meant significant co-operation over a year long, highly organised and expensive control programme in 2008/9. It removed over 1300 deer, yet deer continue to be hyper-abundant with densities well over 100 deer/km2. In some other national parks, densities of 1-4 deer/km2are used as a management target!

Deer exclosure: impact on woodland understorey & floor

The Park has considerable involvement in, and high sensitivity to, cultural heritage with First Nations burial sites, together with traditional uses of resources such as shellfish.

There are also abundant middens (shell deposits), many of which are on the shore and subject to erosion from wave action (enhanced by boat use) and visitor trampling. A major survey programme has been completed (184 archaeological sites have been identified including culturally modified trees and homesteads) and the challenge is now to develop management strategies which can combine preservation, rehabilitation and resolving conflicts.

Shells on a midden site

Coastal erosion at midden

I chose the right night to spend at Anna’s warm house in Calgary. Setting off at 5.00 am in freezing fog to travel to the holy grail for geologists the world over, the frozen radio antenna’s  frenzied swishing threatened to snap if off with increasing speed.

Glacier and lateral moraines

At 8.00 am, six of us gathered in the cold dawn of Field, Yoho National Park, for a 10 hour hike led by Paul McNeil, a skilled and engaging geological guide.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel (= chipmunk)

The Quarry

The Burgess Shale, in the Canadian Rockies, contains the world’s most important fossil fauna and is reputedly one the most beautiful geological locations.

The hike was stupendous, the more so because of the bright sunny weather but more so due to the history associated with the discoverer, Charles Walcott, and subsequent interpretations by Stephen Jay Gould in his book ‘Wonderful Life’ and ‘The Crucible of Creation’ by Simon Conway Morris. The arguments between them addd extra spice, with the continued debate over the role of the amazing Cambrian fossils here in our understanding of evolution.

Ottoia

A day later, I visited Banff and Kootenay National Parks. In response to high and rising traffic volumes, sections of the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) have been upgraded from a two-lane to a four-lane divided highway in Banff National Park. This massive project involves spending nearly a third of the budget on reducing  the negative impacts of a larger highway on wildlife populations in Banff National Park.

Overpass being constructed

This is being done partly by installing 100s of kms of fencing on both sides of the twinned highway sections to prevent large animals from getting onto the highway. This has led to vehicle-wildlife collisions significantly reducing.  To connect habitats and help sustain biodiversity, wildlife underpasses and overpasses have been installed.

A sixty metre wide overpass

Underpass, the more common crossing

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The merits of this expensive approach are being considered on a stretch of the Kootenay National Park highway, although funding is an issue.

I travelled into Canada at a tiny border crossing only open 8.00 am till 8.00 pm. The home of the Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, was hardly awake as I arrived.  The ‘main’ street resembled an abandoned wild west town.  A great little visitor centre and helpful Parks Canada staff sent me on a diverse walking trail on the plateau top, looking down over badlands and the Frenchman river.

Canadian prairie, Grasslands NP

A driving ‘Eco-tour’ took me past a prairie dog town and down to see prairie restoration of previously tilled land, nicely explained by Rob Sissons later who made time for my unannounced visit.  The revegetation programme involves attempting to recreate the species-rich prairie (20-40 species per sq m, equivalent to UK ancient grasslands) by reseeding with native grass species, collecting herb seed by hand and herbicide treatments where necessary. More importantly it involves re-establishing processes and prescribed burning is one of these, together with the introduction of native grazing animals, the bison.

Later, it was a bit of a shock to discover that only 20% of former native prairie remains undisturbed (Canadian data) and in some areas, down to  10% of native prairie. This is comparable (but we are worse)  than native grassland in the UK (3% left). When I met Dr Cormack Gates the next day, professor in Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, he echoed those figures and explained how a charismatic species, the sage-grouse, had  declined associated with such losses and disturbance from oil and gas exploitation. We discussed stakeholder collaboration and the similarities of  isolated rural communities in the prairies and England.

Dog towns and ferret camp

Prairie dog town and inhabitant

Driving past some of the nearly 500 ha of prairie dog town in UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge , serenaded by their yelping was a great introduction to ‘ferret town’, the study site for the Black footed ferret, North America’s rarest animal. Randy Matchett of USFWS has been studying the nocturnal animals for 15+ years. We prepared for a gruelling night of catching ferrets by helping right the coyote fences knocked over by heavy rain and wind before grilling steaks, a cocktail and stories of ferret recovery (from a handful of animals) and behaviour.

Yeeha! I get to drive thge big truck

The technique was to drive around spotlighting ferrets, inquisitively looking out of burrows giving green reflections of their eyes. Next find your burrow – ferrets sometimes staring back at you in torchlight- and shove a long trap down the burrow. After a quick sleep during a period of low activity we carried on patrolling accompanied only by burrowing owls, mule deer and a coyote (outside the fence).

Coyote fence exclosure maintenance

 Black-footed ferret, six injections laterTwo ferrets were caught and processed in the hospital trailer, where they were marked with transponders, inoculated against the plague and canine distemper and marked with paint before being released. The last one was liberated as dawn broke after a beautiful sunset and sunrise

Steve with first of tonights catch

A happy bunny.

Renee releasing ferret, dawn breaking

The difficult truth of this apparently small colony, the source for six reintroductions in the US and Canada, is that sustainable ferret populations require huge prairie dog colonies of c 5,000 ha. Once common in the Prairies, they have disappeared by poisoning, shooting and tillage.

This reserve and others like it, may be able to save the ferret in the short term, but only wider acceptance of the keystone species, the prairie dog, and associated ecosystem of Ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, sage grouse, larks and wildflowers will ultimately work.

Sunrise

The Big Open and Bison

Reintroduced Bison

Who can describe the impression of how vast and open Montana is?  Not me.  Driving 5 hours from Bozeman on roads, 1 hour on gravel roads, then 1 hour on the thin crust of dirt roads made nearly undrivable (2-3 days earlier they would have been) by the  previous Thursday’s unusual rainfal, gave the passage  into the Prairies a fitting start.

I was guided by Steve Forrest of the World Wide Fund for Nature, working in partnership with the American Prairie Foundation to protect and create a large reserve of native prairie in N Central Montana, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.

APF field station

Our accommodation was a trailer – more like a house on wheels.

The next day we found the reintroduced bison herd, and got a feel for the prairie vegetation and how dry they are (= 30 cm annual  rain).

A dryness indicator

We also met Bryce and Christine Christensen and Dennis Lingohr of the APF to discuss their work.

Later we travelled to UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge for the main event….

Dusk at Yellowstone

Driving through most of the night, missing seeing any of Idaho, and sleeping in a rest area to get a spare day to visit the oldest National Park in the world paid off. I arrived in time to make contact with the daughter of one of Natural England’s stalwart voluntary wardens, who works at Yellowstone National Park. Within minutes of driving in and paying the $25 fee, a large herd of elk (like a very large red deer, and recently recognised as a separate species) by the road were causing a ‘bearjam’ with cars and people stopping to get pictures.

Yellowstone River

After a view at the extreme limit of my binoculars of three wolves in the Lamar valley and some bison on the road,  I met her husband Brian, a ranger at the Park. Armed and law enforcement officers as well as doing more normal park ranger work, we talked about bears, wolves and park management before a cold night in the van.

Pronghorn

The reward for this side excursion was a hike up Specimen ridge equipped with bear spray. A close encounter with a male bison and great views of a pronghorn antelope feeding immediately topped views of a badger, regarded here as a rewarding wildlife sight, not a pest carrying disease!

The sight of a 300+ bison herd, grazing freely in a bowl of grassland and wetland surrounded by snow-capped mountains was hard to beat and even for a non North American, evoked a strong feeling of how the first pioneers must have felt.

It was good to get off the road on the trail as the front-country experience, along the road, is not particularly pleasant. It is the experience of most visitors however. As visitor numbers increase causes more problems for the Park. Habituation and accidents involving both cars and humans have increased and increasingly need interventionist management.