Research Priorities

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is continually identifying conservation research questions. The research projects listed below are real-life projects that are based on needs identified in NCC's conservation plans. They include a diversity of project types, ranging from review and synthesis, to monitoring and assessment, to experimentation and modelling.

Some projects may be conducted through online review, and others require field work. Some questions may be addressed by volunteers or through undergraduate coursework, while others will require longer-term study. This list will be updated on a regular basis as new research questions and priorities are identified.

All questions are listed within the following groups. To display all questions by categories click here.

For more information on these and other priority topics, please email
Angela Parillo (angela.parillo@natureconservancy.ca).

Field Experiments and Analysis

NCC staff members routinely identify novel research questions. These may focus on the importance of ecological relationships or the relative effectiveness of alternative conservation strategies. Addressing these questions requires research, which may involve field experiments, data analysis or ecological modelling.

Research topics include:

  • Assess and model aquatic connectivity in the Laurentians.

    Topic:  aquatic connectivity models
    Category:  Connectivity

  • Can grazing help rehabilitate degraded fescue or mixed-grass prairie in Manitoba?

    If so, what intensity, timing, and duration is optimal for communities dominated by: a) awnless brome (Bromus inermis), and b) non-native Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)?

    Topic:  grazing to rehabilitate fescue or mixed-grass prairie
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Develop a model to predict Maritime shoreline ecosystem (beaches, dunes, tidal flats, and salt marshes) ability to migrate landward in the face of rising sea level, incorporating the effects of anthropogenic development.

    Topic:  migration of shoreline ecosystems
    Category:  Connectivity

  • Develop cost-effective indicators to measure the condition of rocky shores at both property and landscape scales.

    Topic:  indicators for rocky shore condition
    Category:  Habitat

  • Develop cost-effective indicators to measure the condition of tidal flats at both property and landscape scales.

    Topic:  indicators for tidal flat condition
    Category:  Habitat

  • Develop quantitative thresholds for freshwater connectivity that can be used as indicators of watershed condition (e.g., number of unbroken stream segments >100 kilometres in length, number of barriers per 100 kilometres of stream).

    Topic:  thresholds for freshwater connectivity
    Category:  Connectivity

  • Do kestrel boxes accelerate recovery of American kestrel (Falco sparverius) in restored grasslands?

    Topic:  American kestrel boxes in restored grasslands
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Does the use of haying/brush mowing as a management tool result in increased abundance and/or distribution of the following species at risk in Manitoba:

    • Great Plains ladies'-tresses
    • Riddell's goldenrod
    • Small white lady's slipper
    • Western prairie fringed orchid
    • Sprague's pipit
    • Yellow rail
    • Poweshiek skipperling
    • Prairie skink
    • Western hognose snake

    Topic:  Use of haying/mowing as management tool to increase abundance and/or distribution of species at risk
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Does the use of herbicide application as a management tool result in increased abundance and/or distribution of the following species at risk in Manitoba:

    • Great Plains ladies'-tresses
    • Riddell's goldenrod
    • Western prairie fringed orchid
    • Bobolink
    • Golden-winged warbler
    • Yellow rail
    • Monarch butterfly
    • Northern leopard frog
    • Poweshiek skipperling
    • Western hognose snake

    Topic:  Use of herbicide application as a management tool to increase abundance and/or distribution of species at risk
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Does the use of prescribed fire as a management tool result in increased abundance and/or distribution of the following species at risk in Manitoba:

    • Culver's root
    • Great Plains ladies'-tresses
    • Eastern whip-poor-will
    • Red-headed woodpecker
    • Monarch butterfly
    • Poweshiek skipperling
    • Western hognose snake

    Topic:  Use of prescribed fire as management tool to increase abundance and/or distribution of species at ris
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Does the use of prescribed grazing as a management tool result in increased abundance and/or distribution of the following species at risk in Manitoba:

    • Culver's root
    • Great Plains ladies'-tresses
    • Western prairie fringed orchid
    • Bobolink
    • Common nighthawk
    • Eastern whip-poor-will
    • Golden-winged warbler
    • Yellow rail
    • Monarch butterfly
    • Northern leopard frog
    • Poweshiek skipperling
    • Prairie skink
    • Western hognose snake

    Topic:  Use of grazing as management tool to increase abundance and/or distribution of species at risk
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Does flexibility in easement conditions improve community perceptions of NCC within Regional Municipalities?

    Topic:  community perception and easement conditions
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation

  • Does grassland rehabilitation increase pollinator density? If so, how do increases in density vary with distance from the restoration site?

    Topic:  effects of grassland restoration on pollintaor density
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Does insect pollinator diversity differ between restored native prairies and adjacent agricultural fields?

    Topic:  insect pollinator diversity in restored native prairies vs. adjacent agricultural fields
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Does livestock class (American bison [Bos bison] versus cattle) influence the balance of increaser plants to decreaser plants on large, unfenced pastures in the mixed grass prairie?

    Topic:  livestock impact on mixed grass prairie
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Has the status and viability of buffalograss in Manitoba's Souris River Valley been impacted by recent flooding (2011-present) and how much of a threat does continued flooding pose to buffalograss based on its distribution in the river valley and expected length of future inundation?

    Topic:  Impact of flooding on buffalograss
    Category:  Species

  • How do biotic outcomes differ among restoration projects using various perennial grassland types (tame, locally-sourced seed, non-locally sourced seed)?

    Topic:  grassland restoration using different perrenial grassland types
    Category:  Habitat management

  • How does bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) recruitment vary between restored grasslands and managed hayfields in southern Ontario?

    Topic:  bobolink recruitment in restored grasslands vs. managed hayfields
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • How does community perception of NCC change with an increase in land holdings within a Regional Municipality?

    Topic:  community perception and land holdings
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation

  • How does naturalization of riparian buffers affect stream water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and nitrogen concentration? How do these effects change with distance downstream of a rehabilitation site?

    Topic:  naturalization of riparian buffers
    Category:  Habitat management

  • How effective is grazing in preventing woody encroachment in various Manitoba prairie types in comparison to controlled burning and other burning methods?

    Topic:  preventing woody encroachment in tall grass prairie
    Category:  Habitat management

  • How is the distribution of great plains toad (Anaxyrus cognatus) related to the distribution of ephemeral and temporary wetlands?

    Topic:  Great Plains Toad distribution
    Category:  Species

  • How is vascular plant biodiversity affected by grazing in the sandhills of extreme southwestern Manitoba?

    Topic:  effects of grazing on vascular plant diversity
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Identify active river areas for salmon rivers of Gaspé and the Bay of Chaleur in the context of prioritizing these systems for long-term conservation.

    Topic:  prioritizing salmon rivers
    Category:  Species

  • Identify potential and established non-native terrestrial plant species posing the greatest ecological risk in Canada's Maritime provinces.

    Topic:  non-native terrestrial plant species
    Category:  Species

  • Identify priority areas for wildlife connectivity along highways in the Chignecto Isthmus in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

    Topic:  wildlife connectivity along highways
    Category:  Connectivity

  • Identify shoreline ecosystems (beaches, dunes, tidal flats, and salt marshes) of the St. Lawrence River with the capacity to migrate landward with sea-level rise in the context of prioritizing these systems for long-term conservation.

    Topic:  prioritization of shoreline ecosystems
    Category:  Habitat

  • Is grazing an effective tool to maintain and expand early successional eolian sandhill communities in Manitoba?

    Topic:  Effects of grazing on eolian sandhill communities
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Is grazing an effective tool to maintain biodiversity of species dependant on early successional eolian sandhills in Manitoba?

    Topic:  Effects of grazing on biodiversity of species depedent on eolian sandhills
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Is open sand blowout occurrence related to land ownership or land management patterns?

    Do land ownership and land management patterns affect the occurrence and/or extent of early successional eolian sandhill communities in Manitoba?

    Topic:  open sand blowout and land ownership/management
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation

  • Is the distribution of ephemeral and temporary wetlands in southwestern Manitoba related to soil type, vegetation cover and land use

    Topic:  distribution of ephemeral and temporary wetlands
    Category:  Habitat

  • Model historic vegetation cover in Prince Edward County and ground truth the results to identify potential sites for grassland restoration.

    Topic:  historic vegetation cover and grassland restoration
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Model potential effects of storms, flooding, erosion, and sea-level rise on coastal ecosystems due to climate change, and identify the most resilient coastal habitats of Gulf of St. Lawrence.

    Topic:  resilient coastal habitat models
    Category:  Habitat

  • Model the human footprint in natural spaces in the St. Lawrence Lowlands and Southern Laurentian Ecoregions.

    Topic:  human footprint models in natural spaces
    Category:  Habitat

  • Model wildlife corridors essential for maintaining eastern wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) populations in the Laurentians.

    Topic:  wildlife corridor models for Eastern wolves
    Category:  Connectivity, Species

  • NCC is planning to establish experimental treatment and control plots to assess the effects of various grazing (e.g., density, frequency, timing) and other management regimes (e.g., prescribed fire, herbicide) on rangeland health in Saskatchewan. We are seeking a partner to help develop the experimental design for a long-term field research program on this topic.

    Topic:  effects of grazing on rangeland health
    Category:  Habitat management

  • What are the effects of open forest and grassland forest thinning on wetland water balance in the Rocky Mountain Trench of British Columbia?

    Topic:  effects of forest thinning on wetland water balance
    Category:  Habitat management

  • What are the long-term effects on grassland obligate bird populations of American bison (Bos bison) versus cattle grazing?

    Topic:  effects of grazing on grassland bird populations
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • What is the current extent of sandhill prairie in the Routledge and Lauder Sandhills, Manitoba, and what percentage of historical extent does this represent?

    Topic:  sandhill prairie extent
    Category:  Habitat

  • What is the effect of prescribed fire on American bison (Bos bison) distribution in hummocky mixed grass landscape?

    Topic:  effects of prescribed fire on American bison distribution
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • What is the historic and current extent of coastal sand ecosystems surrounding the Salish Sea?

    Topic:  extent of coastal sand ecosystems
    Category:  Habitat

  • What is the most efficient and effective way to inventory and assess the health of wetlands at a landscape scale in British Columbia?

    Topic:  wetland health inventory and assessment
    Category:  Habitat

  • What is the potential for the spread of brown trout (Salmo trutta) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the Laurentians, and how is this affected by barriers to aquatic connectivity?

    Topic:  barriers to trout movement
    Category:  Connectivity, Species

  • What methods of engagement (e.g., advertising, open houses) with Regional Municipalities are most effective in creating positive community perceptions of NCC?

    Topic:  methods of community engagement
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation

  • What mowing and burning regimes maximize bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) recruitment in managed restored grasslands?

    Topic:  mowing and buring regimes to maximize bobolink recruitment
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • What socio-economic drivers shape local residents’ attitudes toward conservation lands, land management, NCC and other conservation agencies in the tall grass prairie region of southeastern Manitoba?

    Topic:  socio-economic drivers shaping resident attitudes towards conservation
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation

  • What was the historic distribution of wetlands in Alberta, and how has it changed over time?

    Topic:  wetland distribution
    Category:  Habitat

  • What, if any, are the effects of aggregate extraction operations and aggregate pit restoration characteristics (e.g. footprint, noise, visual barrier) on grassland-obligate birds in Manitoba?

    Topic:  Effects of aggregate extraction operations and pit restoration on grassland-obligate birds
    Category:  Species

  • Which barriers to movement pose the greatest threat to aquatic organisms in Canada?

    Topic:  barriers to movement of aquatic organisms
    Category:  Connectivity

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Review and Synthesis

The scientific knowledge base expands daily, and it is time-consuming to remain up to date. Staff at NCC benefit from recent reviews, summaries and best practices guidelines that highlight the best-available science on key topics.

Students and volunteers who wish to undertake short to medium-sized projects to review and summarize key topics can greatly inform our work. In some cases, more formal literature reviews or systematic reviews may be undertaken by researchers, and results can inform the global conservation community.

Potential review topics include:

  • Compile observation data on breeding birds in the Laurentians.

    Topic:  breeding birds in the Laurentians
    Category:  Species

  • Develop three measurable quantitative indicators for the ecological viability of the marine pelagic zone in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

    Topic:  marine pelagic zone viability indicators
    Category:  Habitat

  • How is the carbon balance of fire-maintained forests affected by low-severity fires versus selective logging?

    Topic:  carbon balance of fire-maintained forests
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Review and synthesize best management practices for forest restoration in aspen parkland old fields

    Topic:  forest restoration in aspen parkland old fields
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Review and synthesize opportunities for purchasing mining rights in the two Marine Protected areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

    Topic:  purchasing mining rights in marine protected areas
    Category:  Habitat management

  • Review and synthesize the effects of brown trout (Salmo trutta) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) on freshwater ecosystems, focusing on the Laurentians.

    Topic:  effects of trout on freshwater ecosystems
    Category:  Species

  • Review and synthesize the effects of invasive plants on invertebrate populations in southern Ontario and similar ecosystems

    Topic:  effects of invasive plants on invertbrate populations
    Category:  Species

  • Review and synthesize the effects of nature exposure on human health.

    Topic:  effects of nature exposure on human health
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation

  • Review best management practices for reducing the effects of moose (Alces americanus) on regenerating forests

    Topic:  effects of Moose on regenerating forests
    Category:  Species, Habitat management

  • Review the effects of hikers on eastern wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) to assess whether this activity can be permitted on NCC properties without harming the species.

    Topic:  effects of hikers on Eastern wolves
    Category:  Human dimensions of conservation , Species

  • Review the scope, severity, and irreversibility of acid rain on forests in the Laurentians.

    Topic:  effects of acid rain on forests
    Category:  Habitat

  • Review the scope, severity, and irreversibility of acid rain on freshwater ecosystems in the Laurentians.

    Topic:  effects of acid rain on freshwater ecosystems
    Category:  Habitat

  • Review the scope, severity, and irreversibility of acid rain on wetlands in the Laurentians.

    Topic:  effects of acid rain on wetlands
    Category:  Habitat

  • What Antelope-brush (Purshia tridentata) ecological community restoration projects have been undertaken or are planned in British Columbia, and what evidence exists of their effectiveness?

    Topic:  Antelope-brush restoration
    Category:  Habitat management

  • What are the best practices to support and restore connectivity of terrestrial ecosystems?

    Topic:  terrestrial connectivity
    Category:  Connectivity

  • When should controlled burns be applied to maximize biodiversity benefits?

    Topic:  timing of controlled burns
    Category:  Habitat management

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Inventory, Monitoring and Assessment

To properly manage species and ecosystems, we must understand their distribution and condition. These projects generally require field work, but may sometimes be addressed by compiling existing data, including analysis of remotely sensed datasets. Many assessments can be conducted through citizen science, where volunteers observe and report rare species occurrences or monitor habitat quality. Longer-term research projects also address these needs while also addressing questions about its ecological functions and relationships.

Assessment projects include:

  • What types of grazing management techniques are being employed on eolian sand dune systems in the Routledge and Lauder Sandhills, Manitoba? What is the extent and distribution of the different grazing regimes?

    Topic:  grazing management techniques on eolian sand dune systems
    Category:  Habitat management

  • What proportion of Salish Sea coastal feeder bluffs are armoured versus natural?

    Topic:  coastal feeder bluffs
    Category:  Habitat

  • What is the extent and landscape pattern of vegetation cover on eolian sand dune systems in the Routledge and Lauder Sandhills, Manitoba?

    Topic:  vegetation cover on eolian sand dune systems
    Category:  Habitat

  • What is the extent and distribution of ephemeral and temporary wetlands in extreme southwestern Manitoba?

    Topic:  extent and distribution of ephemeral and temporary wetlands
    Category:  Habitat

  • What is the distribution of wild boar (Sus scrofa) in Saskatchewan?

    Topic:  Wild Boar distribution
    Category:  Species

  • What is the current distribution of the noxious blueweed (Echium vulgare) in Alberta?

    Topic:  blueweed distribution
    Category:  Species

  • What is the current distribution of brown trout (Salmo trutta) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the Laurentians, and where does spawning occur?

    Topic:  trout distribution and spawning locations
    Category:  Species

  • What is the condition of lotic systems in the Whitemouth River Watershed?

    Topic:  lotic system condition
    Category:  Habitat

  • What are the population trends of green crab (Carcinus maenas) in eastern Canada?

    Topic:  green crab population trends
    Category:  Species

  • What is the extent and conservation status of tall grass prairie in the St. Laurent-Ste. Ambroise area of Manitoba?

    Topic:  Extent and conservation status of tall grass prairie
    Category:  Habitat

  • Map the distribution of coastal barrens in Gaspé.

    Topic:  coastal barrens distribution
    Category:  Habitat

  • Map the distribution of beaches in Gaspé.

    Topic:  beach distribution
    Category:  Habitat

  • Compile data on barriers (e.g., dams, road crossings, levees, natural barriers) to aquatic connectivity in Canada's Maritime Provinces. Identify and prioritize gaps in barrier data.

    Topic:  barriers to aquatic connectivity
    Category:  Connectivity

  • Characterize the plant communities of grassland bird habitat in the South of Quebec.

    Topic:  plant communities in grassland bird habitat
    Category:  Habitat

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