The wetlands on Luxor Linkage (Photo by NCC)

The wetlands on Luxor Linkage (Photo by NCC)

A green light on stewardship: summer field work in BC

Northern leopard frog (Photo by NCC)

Northern leopard frog (Photo by NCC)

Once field season strikes, it’s go-time for the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) BC stewardship team.

After months of developing management plans, writing grants for stewardship funding and setting up projects for the spring, the lengthening spring days and warmth of summer allow NCC stewardship staff to get out on the land, check in on conservation areas and put their ideas to work.

Meet Richard

Richard Klafki, director, Canadian Rockies Program

Richard Klafki, director, Canadian Rockies Program

Richard Klafki knows something about getting to work. He describes his role as NCC’s Canadian Rockies stewardship coordinator as involving “a little bit of everything,” and he’s not kidding. In one day, he might go out to inspect signs on a conservation area, check up on property fences to see if any have been knocked down by elk, talk with ranchers about compatible grazing practices on leased lands and work with invasive species councils on managing encroaching species, such as the American bullfrog currently hopping its way up the Creston Valley and threatening the native, endangered northern leopard frog.

“It’s a lot, yeah. It’s all over the place.”

The work

This kind of on-the-ground habitat management is a fundamental part of NCC’s conservation work. The projects on a stewardship coordinator’s to-do list may be varied and wide ranging, but all are centred on the aim of supporting native, endangered and ecologically significant habitat and species.

Prescribed burn, Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, BC (Photo by Thomas Munson)

Prescribed burn, Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, BC (Photo by Thomas Munson)

Slashing — the act of thinning or removing excess trees from thickly forested areas — works to restore grasslands and open forests so that ungulates like bighorn sheep can thrive. Prescribed burns, which NCC has used to manage Garry oak ecosystems and is looking to implement in other parts of the province, similarly creates space for grasses, shrubs and forbs to be revitalized. Monitoring species from bats to badgers and the endangered woodpecker Williamson’s sapsucker allows NCC conservation staff to evaluate where they are meeting conservation targets and where the organization should focus its efforts.

The growing effects of climate change on ecosystems across the province pose significant considerations for the stewardship team, especially Hillary Page, director of science and stewardship for the BC region. “There are so many factors. How are species going to react? What will this conservation area look like in the future, and how can we ensure the work we do today will be relevant in a century?” says Hillary.

“Our priority is finding ways to create resiliency,” she says. “If we can support an ecosystem to become healthy, it will respond better to any rising pressures — whether it’s invasive species, climate change or an ATV riding over grasslands.”

Bringing the people out

Of course, taking care of conservation areas means not only managing habitat for wildlife, but working out how humans can best interact with the land. “Really, it’s making sure that the people who come onto the land are respectful and sensitive to it while still getting to be out and enjoy nature,” Richard says.

Golden Secondary students look out over Luxor Linkage wetlands (Photo by Caroline Carl-Osborne)

Golden Secondary students look out over Luxor Linkage wetlands (Photo by Caroline Carl-Osborne)

Over the spring and summer, Richard leads school and naturalist groups on tours of conservation areas in the Columbia Valley. In May, a tour for the Wings Over the Rockies festival had the good fortune to spot the first badger seen at the Columbia Lake—Lot 48 conservation area in more than a decade.  

On a recent field trip for Grade eight and nine students from Golden, Richard guided students around the newly acquired wetland portion of the Luxor Linkage Conservation Area. “I’m always surprised… sometimes it seems, when you’re out there, like the kids aren’t really into it, but then you get these comments back and it’s great to see how much they got a kick out of it,” Richard says.

Some of the highlights to the latest class of kids? Learning about native plants like lemonweed and the effect of invasive species, that it’s all right to throw apple cores in the forest to decompose (but not too many) and facts about scat.

Finding the spark

Although tours are only a small part stewardship work, they play an important role in conservation: “It’s a really great chance to get to open up people’s eyes and make them aware of the things going on around them,” Richard says.

Talking to groups also provides stewardship staff with the opportunity to bust misconceptions people have about certain species — for instance, that badgers are vicious creatures. “Only if you’re a ground squirrel,” Richard says. “Otherwise, if you’re respectful toward them, there’s no reason to be afraid.”

A bighorn sheep on Luxor Linkage conservation area (Photo by Bonnie-Lou Ferris)

A bighorn sheep on Luxor Linkage conservation area (Photo by Bonnie-Lou Ferris)

The importance of supporting native plants and animals and managing the threat of invasive species is another key point of clarification—“A lot of people, they just see plants and they think it’s all good,” Richard notes. Pointing out thick patches of invasive knapweed to the group, he had the chance to discuss the tug of war between species competing for space and the delicate balance of an ecosystem that can be thrown off by any number of factors.

“It’s always neat to see that moment of realization — that spark in someone’s eye when they realize oh, that’s why I see this plant at this time of year or that’s why this grows here,” Richard says.

That spark moment marks the entrance into the world Richard walks through every day. It’s a world under great ecological pressure from wide-spreading invasive species (not to mention climate change, residential and industrial development), but also one in which people, through stewardship activities like slashing, prescribed burns and species monitoring, are actively creating spaces that welcome essential native species like the bighorn sheep and badgers back in. In this world, gravel pits sit waiting to be restored to wetlands and fires can be not harmful but cleansing forces that make way for new life.

“This habitat-level management, taking care of the properties, it’s really about an all-encompassing, holistic view of the land,” Richard says. “We work with the natural systems to support species in need and to support the land.” That’s stewardship in a nutshell.

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