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Jun 11, 2019

Conservation in the Canadian Rockies is Underway!

A young grizzly in Waterton Lakes National Park
A young grizzly in Waterton Lakes National Park

Last fall, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg wrapped up her 3rd season of data collection as part of Earthwatch’s Restoring Fire, Wolves and Bison to the Canadian Rockies expedition taking place in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. Here, volunteers are helping to study the reintroduction of wolves, wildfires and bison to the region, all of which were key elements to sustaining a healthy and balanced alpine ecosystem, prior to their eradication by European settlers in the late 1880s.

Dr. Eisenberg recently shared her analyses and findings from the 2018 season:

Our 2018 data show many interesting things, most notably the vigorous positive response and resilience of this ecosystem to extreme-severity wildfire. Together we learned that prescribed burning creates more open aspen stands, and that elk browsing on burned aspen was negligible, likely due to a variety of factors, including plant defenses and risk of predation by wolves. You helped us discover that the Eskerine prairie is so healthy that it continues to be nearly completely composed of native grass species. You also helped us find Pleistocene bison and wolf bones in our study site, near a buffalo jump, and Blackfoot artifacts, such as stone tools and arrowheads, which remind us that the relationships we’re studying are ancient.

Specific accomplishments and discoveries:

1. We found that the Kenow wildfire burned our study site with 75.4% extreme and 12.6% high severity, which is unprecedented for any large fire in North America, and even perhaps globally. We wrote and submitted a journal article about this surprising finding.

2. Per our microhistological elk and bison diet analysis, we found elk and bison eating almost no aspen. Elk browsing on aspen dropped after fire, but we didn’t expect it to decline to nearly nothing as it did. The extremely low amount of browsing on aspen, an important elk food, is perhaps due to predation risk or to the defense compounds aspen produce to make them less edible after a fire.

3. After the Kenow wildfire, the proportion of native grass on the prairie increased, and the proportion of invasive non-native grasses decreased, demonstrating the benefits of even extreme-severity wildfire.

4. Wolf activity was moderate in the park and high on tribal land. Wolves shifted their activity to portions of the national park that were closed to the public because of fire damage.

5. On the Timber Limit we found deer the dominant herbivore by number, but not by biomass. This differs from the park where elk are the dominant herbivore by number and biomass.

6. We implemented the third year of the Kainai First Nation Community Fellows Program and continued to gather data on tribal land adjacent to Waterton Lakes National Park to prepare for the return of bison to this landscape. We were delighted to have 34 teachers and community members from the tribe join us as Earthwatch team members. They shared important Traditional Ecological Knowledge insights and provided much inspiration for all, supported by four Kainai First Nation field technicians.

Because wildfires are increasing in severity globally, understanding the ecological impacts of a fire such as the Kenow wildfire is crucially important to science. Thanks to you and other Earthwatch citizen scientists, our project will be contributing significantly to humanity’s understanding big, severe fires, and of how to restore landscapes and create more resilient ecosystems in their aftermath. Looking ahead to 2019, we’ll be asking how the effects of wildfire differ from the effects of very carefully controlled prescribed burn set by humans—and how plant and animal community responses to wildfire and prescribed burns might differ.

Data collection for 2019 began last month, and will continue through August. We look forward to sharing findings from this season after the data has been analyzed in the fall. In the meantime, thank you for all you do to support multi-year conservation studies like this one. Together, we are making a real difference in the fight to sustain our planet, one species, one donation, and one day at a time.

With gratitude,

Heather Wilcox
Director of Annual Giving
978-450-1208
hwilcox@earthwatch.org

P.S. Remember, you don't just have to read about this research from afar... you can be at the center of the action as an Earthwatch research volunteer! Please follow the link below to see which teams are still accepting volunteers for 2019 and 2020.


** All photos provided courtesy of Dr. Cristina Eisenberg **

Volunteers head to a research site to collect data
Volunteers head to a research site to collect data
Earthwatch volunteers in the field
Earthwatch volunteers in the field
Wildfire reveals an ancient bison skull
Wildfire reveals an ancient bison skull
Wildfire also triggers stunning wildflower blooms
Wildfire also triggers stunning wildflower blooms

Links:

Nov 27, 2018

Thanks to You, Another Year of Killer Whale Conservation is Complete!

A killer whale leaps out of the water
A killer whale leaps out of the water

Earthwatch’s Killer Whales in Iceland research expedition has completed its second research season, which ran from June – August. During this time, five teams of 30 volunteers joined Dr. Filipa Samarra and her staff in Iceland to collect important observations on the health and behaviors of killer whales.

Killer whales have long been known to inhabit Iceland but this study represents the first long-term research program dedicated to understanding their ecology, behavior and conservation status. Our work to date suggests that within this population there are remarkably different feeding strategies; while some whales appear to follow the herring migration exclusively, others appear to supplement with other prey, including marine mammals. Such prey switching is unusual for killer whale populations observed elsewhere. However, the extent to which different whales may be adopting different strategies is unknown. Understanding if a large proportion of the Icelandic killer whale population feeds primarily on herring, or has adopted a more generalist feeding strategy, is particularly relevant in the face of changing environmental conditions and will help our ability to predict how these whales will adapt.

Killer whales were consistently observed throughout the season, however, sighting numbers fluctuated daily. Some days involved observations of large aggregations of whales (>50) and on other days only small groups were found. Over 10,000 photos were taken and analysis so far has identified 103 individual whales that were re-sighted from previous years. Analysis to determine sighting frequencies is still ongoing, and will be used to calculate the amount of time the study area was used by different individuals. This will provide information on the importance of this area and how habitat use may vary across different individuals. Combined with the behavioral observations of feeding events, this data will allow us to determine whether individuals are specializing on herring or have adopted a generalist feeding strategy.

More broadly, the monitoring of different cetacean species will also allow us to help characterize the local marine ecosystem, as well as its importance for different top predators. With the continued support of generous donors like you, Dr. Samarra’s work will contribute significantly to our understanding of Iceland’s marine ecosystems in the face of increasing pressures from climate change and human activities such as fishing, hunting, and coastal development. We look forward to sharing new insights from the 2018 season once data analysis is complete, in early 2019.

In the meantime, thank you for all you do to help multi-year conservation studies like this one. Together, we are making a real difference in the fight to sustain our planet, one species, one donation, and one day at a time.

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season,

Heather Wilcox
Director of Annual Giving
978-450-1208
hwilcox@earthwatch.org


P.S. Remember - you don't just have to read about this research from afar... you can be at the center of the action as an Earthwatch research volunteer! Visit the expedition sign up page to see which teams are still accepting volunteers in 2019. 

** Photos provided courtesy of Dr. Filipa Samarra and Earthwatch volunteer Kathy Kelly **

A volunteer listens for whale calls
A volunteer listens for whale calls
A volunteer takes photos for whale identification
A volunteer takes photos for whale identification
A whale spyhops or leaps from the water
A whale spyhops or leaps from the water
A male and 2 female killer whales
A male and 2 female killer whales
A female killer whale and her calf
A female killer whale and her calf

Links:

Nov 27, 2018

Thanks to You, Another Year of Alpine Conservation in Alberta is Complete!

Bison grazing in Waterton Lakes National Park
Bison grazing in Waterton Lakes National Park

Earthwatch’s Restoring Fire, Wolves and Bison to the Canadian Rockies expedition has concluded research activities during its 3rd season, which ran from May – September. During this time, ten teams of volunteers joined Dr. Cristina Eisenberg and her staff to collect important data on the progress of rewilding efforts taking place in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. Specifically, Dr. Eisenberg is studying the reintroduction of wolves, wildfires and bison to the region, all of which were key elements to sustaining a healthy and balanced alpine ecosystem, prior to their eradication by European settlers in the late 1880s.

As wildfires increase in number and severity around the globe, understanding the ecological impacts of a fire such as the Kenow fire, which burned over 38,000 hectares in British Columbia last August and September, is crucially important to science. Wildfires occur naturally and fulfill critical ecosystem functions, with the positive ecological effects usually greater than the negative. Wildfires remove canopy cover, providing an opportunity for smaller, ground-based plants and tree saplings to establish.

These dynamic ecosystems evolved with fire, and will continue to change and adapt in response to natural forces. A complete understanding of the impact of this wildfire on the park’s ecology will take many years to assess. With the continued support of generous donors like you, Dr. Eisenberg’s work will contribute significantly to humanity’s understanding of big, severe fires, and of how to restore landscapes and create more resilient ecosystems in the aftermath of such fires.

We look forward to sharing findings from the 2018 season once data analysis is complete, in early 2019. In the meantime, thank you for all you do to support multi-year conservation studies like this one. Together, we are making a real difference in the fight to sustain our planet, one species, one donation, and one day at a time.

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season,

Heather Wilcox
Director of Annual Giving
978-450-1208
hwilcox@earthwatch.org


P.S. Remember - you don't just have to read about this research from afar... you can be at the center of the action as an Earthwatch research volunteer! Follow the link below to see which teams are still accepting volunteers in 2019. 

Earthwatch volunteers in an aspen sapling stand
Earthwatch volunteers in an aspen sapling stand
Volunteers head to a research site to collect data
Volunteers head to a research site to collect data
The view from the "office" of a field scientist!
The view from the "office" of a field scientist!
Earthwatch volunteers learn to use a mapping tool
Earthwatch volunteers learn to use a mapping tool
Volunteers measure vegetation in a research plot
Volunteers measure vegetation in a research plot

Links:

 
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