We are working on a variety of field research projects directed towards developing a better understanding of the relationships between today’s climate and Alberta’s biodiversity. These projects include identifying climate-related threats to species that are already at risk because of land-use changes and examining potential conservation actions that could support these species as climate change progresses.
We’ve also initiated research on the current relationships between elevation, climate and the diversity of plant and bird communities to better understand how these species may respond to climate change.
One prediction for climate change in Alberta is an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like extreme rainfall and wind storms. The nesting success of Burrowing Owls and Ferruginous Hawks, two threatened birds in Alberta’s Grassland region, is sensitive to these events.
We are using detailed weather data, including the timing and location of storm events, to learn more about the impacts of extreme weather on the nesting and foraging behaviours and nest success of Ferruginous Hawks. Our collaborative field research has also tested whether targeted interventions such as supplemental feeding of Burrowing Owl chicks and installation of artificial nest platforms for Ferruginous Hawks can improve chick survival and nest success. Ultimately, these strategies could help mitigate the risks imposed by potential increases in extreme weather on these iconic Grassland birds.
Many plants in Alberta may not be able to disperse far enough to shift their ranges in response to a rapidly changing climate. We are testing the utility of translocating plants with limited ranges to areas where the climate is predicted to become more favourable in the future. These field trials will not only determine the ability of plants to establish outside their current climate space provided they have sufficient dispersal ability, but will also help determine whether assisted migration could be used as a large-scale intervention for a species at risk under climate change.
One way species may adapt to climate change is through phenological adjustments – changes to the timing of life events like reproduction and hibernation. For Columbian ground squirrels, which occur in the northwest Rocky Mountains, the end dates of hibernation can differ by as much as one month between high and low elevation populations.
Using translocations between high and low elevation populations, we’re testing the potential for this species to shift the timing of hibernation in response to climate. These translocations are also helping to test ways to move mammals between populations, which could be soft-release systems that may be required if re-location is to be used as a conservation strategy.
Our climate-based species projections have shown that Alberta’s hill systems, like the Marten Mountains and Buffalo Head Hills, may act as important remnant locations of suitable climate, called climate refuges, for boreal birds and plants as climate change progresses. But, these rugged places are typically under-surveyed, so we know little about the patterns of biodiversity in these hilly regions.
We have initiated a project to identify the species currently present in hill systems throughout the province. These data will help us to validate current and future model predictions of species distributions, and better understand the potential responses of boreal biodiversity to climate change.
Storms during fall migration and above-average precipitation on the wintering grounds are both associated with reduced apparent survival in some Canadian Burrowing Owl populations.
Summary of 2013 field research on the influences of climate on the hibernation patterns of the Columbian ground squirrel.
Status of Alberta’s Burrowing Owls The Burrowing Owl is facing serious threats: its range in Canada has contracted by approximately 36% in the last 30 years.