Do highway underpasses work?

This is a large question. Here’s one answer to it, provided by a Bow Valley elk bull:

Look at the time stamp. I’d say, if you asked this elk if underpasses work, he’d reply that yes, they can make great napping places, and he’d come back any time, thank you for asking. He also didn’t seem too concerned he’d get attacked in there. This, despite the fact that this particular underpass is a favourite with grizzlies and wolves. That said, even a busy underpass sees maybe a dozen carnivore crossings each month in summer, so at any given time it’s highly unlikely to actually meet a predator in there.


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A Volunteer Perspective round two: moving images this time!

One of our volunteers this winter has put together a very descriptive movie from his recent outing with us. Very accurate, especially the “Watch for Splatter” part!!

Sit back and enjoy:

Thanks a lot, Gord!

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Staff are getting addicted to wolverine work

Seems that the wolverine work is taking over the lives of some of our staff. Even on their birthdays they can’t get the beavers that get nailed to trees out of their heads!!

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A Volunteer Perspective

The wind has picked up and the snowflakes are thick and heavy in the light of our headlamps. The trees are shedding the loads of snow they have been accumulating all day, showering us with wet, heavy, mini-avalanches.  Although it is not cold, we have a sense of urgency about finishing our work – we have a tricky ski back through the trees to the cabin, it is getting dark and the visibility is getting worse. But we are nearly done; the camera is in place, the malodorous lure is raised high in a tree, the barbed wire is coiled tightly around another tree’s trunk, and the skinned beaver carcass has been impaled head-down at eye level above the wire. It is a macabre sight, made more so by the swirling snow and strange shadows cast by our headlamps, but it’s just another day at the office for the dedicated scientists who are responsible for wolverine research in Canada’s mountain parks.

My Wife and I have been volunteers in Banff National Park for many years and have had the good fortune to be involved in many rewarding projects. We volunteer for reasons that I think are typical; we have a passion for the outdoors, a life-long love of wild places and wild things, and a concern for conservation and preservation of our wilderness. We eventually realized that perhaps we can do more than just enjoy the parks and that maybe, in some small way, we can contribute to their ongoing sustainability, vitality and continued availability for everyone to enjoy. The volunteer program provides us with that opportunity.

And what does the Wolverine Project hope to accomplish? In their own words, “our research will address for the first time the crossing structure design requirements of wolverines in western North America. Additionally, it will provide the first information on wolverine occupancy and habitat relationships in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks”. In other words, we don’t know how many wolverines there are in the parks, or how major highways effect the population. Important stuff.

Given that a small team of scientists must maintain over fifty bait sites across Banff, Yoho and Kootenay parks, most of which are accessible only by ski or snowshoe, and that they must each be visited monthly, it seems like a natural fit for volunteer help. When Tony asked us to help them set up a site in the Ottertail region of Yoho, we thought it would be a great opportunity for us to contribute while enjoying a little adventure.

The actual site is about a sixteen kilometer ski from the highway, so an overnight at a nearby Parks Canada cabin was arranged, and four of us (my Wife and I, Tony, and retired Parks employee Ian) set off skiing about mid-morning with full packs – including one frozen, skinned beaver. The snow was falling, but there had been someone in recently so trail breaking wasn’t too bad. We arrived at the cabin in mid-afternoon, and after getting a fire going to warm the place and having a snack and some warm tea, we headed out towards the bait site to replenish it.

The bait sites consist of a stinky lure that wolverines find irresistible raised high in a tree so the wind can catch and spread the scent, a tree with a frozen beaver nailed to it, barbed wire to snag wolverine hair for genetic analysis, and a motion-activated camera to capture the action as the wolverine tears into its tasty beaver snack. It took us a while to find the site, and by the time we did darkness was starting to fall and the snow and wind were picking up, but once we started work, it went quickly. The ski back through swirling snow and darkness turned out to be exhilarating, with our headlamps casting small pools of light in front of us, the shadowy pines looming around us, and only the sizzling sound of skis on snow and the wind in the tree tops to disturb the silence.

The cabin was warm and inviting, and a nice dinner (prepared by Tony), good conversation and a cozy sleeping bag followed. The next morning, after a fine breakfast, we closed up the cabin and skied the fifteen kilometers back to the waiting truck.

It might be just another day at the office for Tony and perhaps Ian, who did many research projects for Parks Canada before retiring, but for my Wife and I, a memorable, satisfying and unique experience.

Many thanks to Tony for allowing us to participate in a project that we think is very important for Mountain Parks and the preservation of the wolverine, and for the dedication and passion he and his team have for conserving our wild places.

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Road Ecology goes South…

I’ve been part of a group of about a half dozen university professors from Central America that have been organizing workshops and training courses in what we might call “road ecology”, but specifically the ways to mitigate the impacts of human infrastructure on wildlife. In many Central American countries today industrialized resource exploitation activities are providing an economic rationale for building new transportation infrastructure and expanding current road systems.  In these rapidly developing nations, improving and expanding transportation infrastructure is considered a prerequisite for economic growth. Large-scale efforts to grow regional road networks in Central and South America are a cause of special concern given decades of forest fragmentation and deterioration in this biologically rich and diverse region.

Given the accelerated pace of new transportation projects, the need for an improved understanding of road impacts and mitigation measures is just beginning to be recognized by transportation practitioners, environmental organizations and decision makers throughout Latin America.  Unlike most developed countries, there are few if any regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure that transportation projects are done in an environmentally sustainable manner. The workshops and training courses we’ve given strive to inform and educate students, practitioners and decision makers about the current science and best management practices for planning, designing, and evaluating mitigation measures.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two previous workshops – in Guanacaste National Park (Costa Rica) in June 2009, and another in Tabasco, Mexico in June 2011. This last month I got an email from our ring leader, Joel Saenz, professor of wildlife ecology at the Universidad Nacional Heredia (Costa Rica) who wanted to organize another course around an important Central American Conservation Biology Congress in Panama City on Sept 21 & 22. I figured why not. And besides, we always have a great time together. We’re a mixed group of biologists, all ‘hispanoparlantes’. Joel from Costa Rica, Salvador Peris is a professor of Animal Biology at the Universidad de Salamanca (and was on my PhD ‘tribunal’ in Spain), Tom Langan is a professor at Clarkson University (New York) and a herpetologist/natural historian of Central American fauna par excellence, Juan de Dios Valdez and his wife Coral Pacheco are both professors at Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco.

The session we held at the Congress was given to a packed room. There was a lot of interest by all in the growing road networks in many of the participants countries, the threats they pose to tropical wildlife and biodiversity conservation. The following day we taught a day-long course, addressing the impacts of roads, high tension powerlines, wind energy farms, and oil and gas exploration – all big and fast-developing industries in tropical regions today.

I”m not sure who gets more out of these training courses, me or the participants. The tropics are another world and least because of politics. We really have to stretch our imagination to think of how best mitigate roads in developing nations in tropical regions – the North American model most times means very little. For example, we often use crash, collision or road-kill data from transportation agencies or the police to determine where roadkill hotspots occur. What do you do, say in Nicaragua, where the police don’t record roadkills (and rarely motor vehicle accidents), there are no highway maintenance crews to clean up the road-killed tapirs or jaguars, and there are no incentives to report accidents for insurance purposes, because less than 1% of the drivers have insurance. Well, in the workshop, this question came up and we had a spirited and fruitful discussion on how to tackle this problem…which we think will make a great pilot project that, if successful, could be used throughout Latin America. Stay tuned..details of this pilot project will appear later in this blog.

Q&A at end of training course. From L to R, Coral, Alberto, Joel, Tom, Salvador, Tony

Some of the participants and instructors of "V Curso Taller Internacional de Impactos de Infraestructuras Humanas sobre la Vida Silvestre in Latinoamerica"


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Reconciliation and Smoke

How time flies…it’s fall already. The summer was packed with work, field-work and office-work. Mirjam and I spent all summer and into fall working on two big projects: 1. Database overhaul: After nearly 16 years of data collection at the Banff crossing structures we finally took on the onerous task of “reconciling” two types of data that were collected during a transition period from monitoring animal movement with raked track pads to our current monitoring method using cameras. It ends up there was an overlap period of about 4 years where we collected data using both methods at nearly all the crossings. Summarizing the data has always been a bugger since we couldn’t use duplicate data. So now, once this is done, we’ll have everything in order and will be primed for not only summarizing the data with much more certainty, but working on some long-awaited analyses using this amazing, one-of-a-kind, long-term dataset. Stay tuned…

The second task occupying all our time this summer was to continue monitoring how small and medium-sized mammals use the newly constructed small passages (and drainage culverts) between Castle Jct and Lake Louise (see Post “Field-Prep”). This was a continuation of work we conducted last winter. But we felt a need for more data and these micro-passages and summer is (usually!) slower-paced than winter. We sooted so many track plates I started dreaming about them at night. We put out the silky black plates at the culverts and also outside the culverts in triangular shaped boxes and track tubes to obtain information on the ‘expected occurrence’ of mammals around the monitored passages. We ran many back-to-back sessions. With Mirjam taking on the database, I was the soot master painting those plates with deep rich smoke. My son Ian helped me twice a week. It was a great time to get out just the two of us. Ian perfected his art at “Instagraming”; taking photos of Castle Mountain every time out, reminding me of the morning photographer in the Paul Auster book “Smoke”. The highlight of summer was the two of us getting stuck on the wrong side of the July mudslide near Banff. We made it home after a crawl of 6 hours on the TCH from Castle Jct to Harvie Heights.

The aspen leaves are nearly off the trees now. The nights are turning cold and our attention is beginning to focus more on our upcoming wolverine research this winter. There’s lots to do still and preparations to be made. We made a trip to the Beaverfoot drainage (west of Yoho NP) yesterday to scope out the Moose Creek drainage (which we didn’t sample in 2010-11) and access; looks very do-able. Not far away from Moose Creek is the upper Ice River drainage, another hole in our sampling grid, that would be great to put a hair trap this winter…if we can manage it.


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Hunting Trip

Did the wolf get the deer? It all happened within 11 seconds, so there’s maybe a good chance, but I’m no wolf expert. We don’t see it very often that wildlife crossing structures get used as hunting venues. On the contrary, it seem that on the eastern end of the park, wolves lose their prey once these run through an underpass.

It’s been a worry for many people that predators will “abuse” wildlife crossing structures as an easy place to ambush ungulates. So far, this hasn’t happened. While there’s the occasional animal that explores this strategy, an analysis of our data that got published in 2010 (Ford, A.T., A.P. Clevenger. 2010. Validity of the prey-trap hypothesis for carnivore-ungulate interactions at wildlife-crossing structures. Conservation Biology 24 (6): 1679-1685) showed that there’s no evidence that this happens frequently.

I wonder, thus, if that wolf in the photos above crossed paths with the deer at the overpass by chance, and then decided to have a go at it. It would be quite the lucky encounter, since it’s a fairly new overpass that sees regular, but not enormous deer traffic. Judging from the deer’s total oblivion, the wolf (which is a young adult from last year’s litter, I believe) seems to have just started the hunt. Any opinions?


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Fox vs. underpass

Yesterday when working on the database, I stumbled upon a neat series of photos of a red fox facing a difficult decision.

You may be surprised that the fox can just slip through the fence, when everybody is so proud of the success of the mitigation measures along the TransCanada highway in Banff NP. It is important to know that the fence really is only an ungulate-proof fence, not designed to keep carnivores off the road. For the larger carnivores (bears, wolves and cougars) it’s fairly effective, if only for the fact that it’s easier to use an underpass than scramble above or below (at one of the many holes, gaps, …) a wobbly fence . However, at this point, these large carnivores seem to find their way onto the highway whenever they really want to. It’s different for the small carnivores: Lynx and foxes can just “walk through” the fence, coyotes squeeze through any gaps, wolverines can climb it (or maybe squeeze through, too). They seem to be interested in the many rodents living along the right of way. Or maybe they just don’t feel like walking to the closest crossing structure, or maybe they don’t like the crossing structures. We don’t know yet. In any case, this is where we are at right now, that there’s still a good number of animals making their way onto the highway. Getting a “large carnivore-proof” fence would be feasible (if expensive), but I doubt that we’ll ever be able to keep the small carnivores off the road. Maybe with smaller mesh size and barbed wire on top?

All this means, keep your eyes on the road at all times, even when driving the fenced parts of the TransCanada. The 90 kmh speed limit is there for a reason, and it’s not only to keep the many tourists alive who pull over without warning to take that perfect holiday shot!

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Field-Prep: a day on the dirty side

Next week, in July, our summer culvert monitoring season will begin. If the rains stop in time, that is. I’m excited to see if we’ll find any difference in culvert use compared to winter, and if there will be new species leaving their footprints. First though, a big task loomed: Cleaning the nearly 100 dirty-from-winter track plates. Something I’ve delayed and delayed, because the prospect of spending a full day scrubbing soot, road salts and dirt off plates just didn’t sound very pleasant.

Last week, though, help arrived in the form our two of our amazing Banff National Park Volunteers. We have a small but dedicated team of long-term volunteers who greatly contribute to doing the photoclassification, wildlife crossing structure camera checks, and wolverine work. When I mentioned the dirty plates to Pam, she very quickly assured me that she and her husband Dale would be willing to help out, so on the next sunny morning we staged an extreme-scrubbing session (including stylish dust masks):

Two and a half (!) hours later the plates were clean, the overalls black, and, best of all, it had actually been fun.

This whole project wouldn’t be doable without the help of volunteers, and I really appreciate that they will also jump in when there’s less than glorious work to be done.

…they will get dirty again, and there will be more scrubbing, but not all 100 plates at once. Now, if only the rain stopped falling!!

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Victoria Day

We hear a lot about bears being killed on roads and rails this spring. This message came across my computer screen in a flash of electromagnetic radiation and pixels…

UTM: E. 0560373  N. 5669757                                                                                          Kootenay National Park, Hwy 93S

- 1.5 km south of Marble Canyon, southbound ditch.

Wolverine                                                                                                                                            - Female with distinctive white patches on chest                                                                          - Appeared in good health                                                                                                                  - Teeth may indicate it is a young adult                                                                                          - Weighed less than 10km, but the ravens had taken a lot out of the abdomen/thorax.        - Cause of death was most likely from a vehicle on the road but that is an assumption

- Carcass was spotted and picked up by our law enforcement staff, complete with a UTM. It was found at approx. 1130am. By it’s appearance and amount of scavenging, it looks to have been dead less than 24hrs, probably the night before (?).

Young female wolverine on side of Hwy 93 South, Kootenay NP. Credit: Alex Taylor/Parks Canada LLYK

These were the details that we received on Monday May 21st. Wolverine mortality on highways is a pretty rare occurrence in the mountain parks. In the combined Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks, there have been only 3 recorded mortalities of wolverines on highways since record-keeping began over 30 years ago: 1981, one of unknown sex and age on the same Hwy 93 South (Kootenay Parkway) near Vermilion Pass; 1988, adult male on TCH (unmitigated section); 1989, adult male on TCH (unmitigated section).

Wolverines may interact with highways less than other large carnivores, may have a greater aversion to roads, which might result in fewer road-caused mortalities.

There is little information on how frequently wolverines cross highways. In John Kreb’s wolverine study near Revelstoke, a radio-marked male crossed the TCH regularly. Matt Austin found during two winters that wolverine tracks crossed the TCH near Kicking Horse Pass 50% (3 of 6) of the time they approached the highway. Extensive wolverine snow tracking in the early 2000′s found only a handful of wolverine crossings of the TCH between Lake Louise and the Lake O’Hara junction – believed to be the creme de la creme of wolverine habitat in the Canadian Rockies.

Highly localized species that live in isolated habitat patches (think pika, mountain goat, etc.) may rarely fall victim to traffic-related mortality. These species may rarely be present in valley bottom habitat, but might need to cross long expanses of unsuitable  habitat such as the Bow Valley during important dispersal events that serve to connect populations within their larger “metapopulation”.

The same is true for wolverines. They are typically associated with high subalpine/alpine habitats far from areas of human activity, including highway corridors. But for their metapopulation to persist over the long term, they need to be able to migrate, successfully disperse, and carry their genes across these “matrices” of suboptimal (even deadly) habitat. For this “connectivity” to be fully functional, these dispersing individuals need to not only cross the highway, but they need to survive and reproduce in the new area they occupy.

We can imagine many scenarios that might have been playing out on or shortly before Victoria Day. The young female wolverine may have been dispersing from it’s maternal range, trying to locate a new territory for itself. It might have been traveling with a sibling, exploring areas away from the maternal range, and it was the unlucky one.

We’ll never know the what’s or why’s. But we do know that the loss of any individual in a population that is extremely low density and has one of the lowest reproductive rate of any terrestrial mammal, and especially the loss of a female, can have big demographic consequences and potentially genetic too.

That is the objective of our wolverine research – to determine the effects of transportation corridors on wolverine dispersal, gene flow and population connectivity. This female was killed within our study area. We had wolverine visits to our Tokumm Creek hair trap site 2 of the 3 sessions last winter. We had other sites down valley along Hwy 93 South visited by wolverines too. We have DNA samples (tissue and hair) from the Victoria Day victim, so will be able to determine who was this young female and possibly who she’s related to in our study area. Ultimately, with all the sampled genetic data from our 6000+Km2 study area, we will be able to better understand the effect these highways have on slicing habitats and populations into smaller, isolated, more threatened units, and what that means for wolverine conservation.

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