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Webinar – Climate Change: Habitat Impacts and Wildlife
2021-11-17 @ 12:00 – 13:00 MST
With each passing years, the impacts of climate change become more apparent in our daily lives. From air thick with wildfire smoke to visibly shrinking glaciers in unprecedented heat waves, we are all witnessing the impacts of climate change. With large and intense wildfires, wildlife habitats are also changing dramatically. Habitats are changing in terms of availability, extent, quality, and other aspects. These three talks will focus on how our forests are changing with climate change and what that might mean for habitat availability, predation, and overall species resilience.
Climate change, wildfires, and habitat impacts were the focus of our November Hot Topic Webinar. All three of our speakers have conducted research in boreal ecosystems where wildfire severity is increasing in intensity and extent. Although high intensity fires are a natural part of this ecosystem, climate change is contributing to an increased frequency of wildfire and changing ecosystem dynamics. The area burned in the boreal could increase by up to 5 times by the end of century.
Marc-André Parisien kicked off the webinar by sharing large landscape scale analyses examining short interval burns (areas that burn more than once before a forest can re-establish). When these stands burn in short intervals, conifer seedling density decreases but broadleaf (e.g., aspen) density does not change. With a reduced fire interval, there is less moisture in the soil and less conifers creating more grassland ecosystems. Although these kinds of reburns are rare, they are becoming more common with climate change. Marc-André and his team modeled future vegetation and found that as we move closer to 2090, we can expect less confiders and mixed-wood forests and more grasslands, particularly on the uplands. This will be due to an increased burn rate and drought, but whether you think this is a good or bad thing depends on your management objectives. These models can help inform mitigation strategies to improve ecosystem resilience.
With an understanding of how the boreal landscape may change with climate change and wildfires, our next speaker, Mélanie Routh, shared her research about how these shifting habitats will affect moose and white-tailed deer winter habitat. Climate change will decrease the winter severity both in terms of temperature and snow cover. Higher temperatures could increase heat stress for moose, even if forage availability also increases. These higher temperatures could also create increased range availability for white-tailed deer. Mélanie estimated habitat landcover based on three variables: nutritional resources, predation risk, and winter survival for each species. By 2050, winter habitat for moose could decrease by 14%, but there was quite a bit of variation in the models. Similarly, white-tailed deer lost habitat by 2050. Overall, winter habitat quality will likely remain similar to current conditions and will likely be sufficient to maintain moose and white-tailed deer populations. The change in vegetation, however, could compromise the long-term persistence because there will be less habitat available (grasslands are not good winter habitat) and potentially increased predation risk.
Eric Neilson wrapped up the webinar by presenting his work focusing on caribou habitat availability with a changing boreal climate and wildfire extent. As caribou prefer old growth forest habitat, increasing wildfire extent that alters forest age composition could significantly affect caribou habitat availability. Eric conducted vulnerability assessments to define risk associated with certain management actions. He evaluated the risk by comparing hazard (wildfire) to the value (caribou habitat). Results showed that in the early winter there is not much overlap between burn volume and caribou habitat patches. The next phase of this research is examining how forest composition and age will change with fire, pine beetle infestations, and harvest. Eric has found that areas with high disturbance have a higher error in his connectivity model yet including movement parameters did improve the model. Without understanding the effects of disturbance, population forecasts are biased.
This webinar was attended by 39 people and 92% of them were satisfied and 92% of them were likely to recommend ACTWS webinars to their network. Only a quarter of participants had attended an ACTWS webinar in the past; it’s so great to see so many new people joining us each month!
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Fire-induced fingerprints of climate change in Alberta forests
Abstract: The direct effect of a changing climate on forested ecosystem is usually gradual and may take years or decades to become evident. By contrast, large-scale disturbances like wildfires and insect outbreaks can catalyze and accelerate ecological responses in a landscape that is primed for change. In Alberta, the dual effect of climate change, which often takes form of moisture stress, and large wildfires lethal to trees may indeed lead to ecological surprises such as a change in vegetation types or even deforestation. While such dramatic wildfire-induced changes remain rare, they are increasing and climate projections foretell considerable province-wide changes to forested habitats. In light of this, aggressive mitigation and adaptation strategies aimed at retaining—and even increasing—forest resilience may be required in the not-so-distant future.
Biosketch: Marc-André Parisien is a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre, (Edmonton, Alberta) where he has been working with the fire research group since 2000. He was trained as a forest ecologist and holds a BSc from McGill University, a MSc from l’Université du Québec à Rimouski, and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. His research on wildland fire is focused on understanding biophysical controls on fire regimes, mostly within the boreal biome of North America. He specializes in quantitative analysis methods, including process-based simulation modeling, a tool he uses for mapping wildfire risk. He has authored over 100 peer-reviewed publications and his work has been featured in the scientific and popular media.
Make-or-break: will future winter habitat conditions be suitable for two northern ungulates?
Abstract: Climate change is altering vegetation composition and reducing winter severity for ungulates in the western boreal forests of North America. Winter browse availability for generalist ungulates, such as moose (Alces alces) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), is expected to increase following more frequent wildfires. Recent studies have focused on climate-change responses of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), but the spatial and temporal consequences of changing wildfire regimes, vegetation types, and winter severity on the distribution and quality of moose and white-tailed deer winter habitat are much less understood. Here, I developed a winter nutritional habitat index for moose and white-tailed deer for the boreal forest of northern Alberta, Canada, based on projected changes in vegetation and fire regime in 2040, 2070 and 2100. Contrary to my expectations, projected changes in vegetation in the 21st century were predicted to decrease nutritional resources by 13–72% for both moose and white-tailed deer due to the potential replacement of deciduous and mixedwood forests with more grass-dominated systems. Predation risk and winter habitat for both moose and white-tailed deer would decrease slightly under climate-change scenarios that assume current vegetation persists. However, under fire-mediated vegetation change scenarios, predation risk was projected to increase by 105–126% for moose, and decrease by 40–43% for white-tailed deer by 2100. Depending on the relative contribution of predation risk to the habitat index, moose could experience from a 74% reduction to a 77% increase in winter habitat, while winter habitat for white-tailed deer could decrease between 33–76% by 2100. Without major vegetation change, winter habitat conditions for moose and white-tailed deer will remain similar to current conditions, but climate-induced changes in vegetation could compromise the long-term persistence of moose and white-tailed deer in the boreal forest of Alberta.
Biosketch: Mélanie Routh is a Cumulative Effects Wildlife Biologist with the Government of the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife, NT. She recently completed a M.Sc. in Wildlife Ecology and Management in the Applied Conservation Ecology (ACE) Lab at the University of Alberta. Mélanie studied the impacts of wildfires and climate change on moose and white-tailed deer winter browse succession and winter habitat quality in northeastern Alberta with implications for boreal woodland caribou conservation. She also graduated with a B.Sc. in Environmental Sciences at the University of Ottawa in 2018 where she undertook an Honour’s project on the neophobic response of black-capped chickadees to urbanization under the supervision of Dr. Julie Morand-Ferron. Mélanie has a broad interest in the cumulative effects of wildfires, anthropogenic disturbances, and climate change on wildlife populations and their habitats; she hopes her research provides useful information on knowledge gaps of interest to other academics, land managers, stakeholders, and governments involved in managing wildlife populations in northern Alberta.
Assessing the vulnerability of caribou recovery to climate change: A comparative approach
Abstract: Climate change has the potential to alter forest composition through increased wildland fires and forest pest outbreaks. Climate vulnerability assessments provide insight into how these changes affect forest values and evaluate trade-offs among objectives including fibre supply and habitat for species at risk, such as the Threatened woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). Climate change is projected to exacerbate caribou habitat loss because frequent fire and pest infestations may increase caribou predator populations by providing younger, high-productivity forest habitat for other ungulate populations. We are conducting a vulnerability assessments in several regions of western Canada that simulates caribou habitat at future time points under various climate and management scenarios to prioritize actions that mitigate these climate effects. Our assessment will also examine how animal movement and demography interact with the rate and severity of disturbance to increase populations of other ungulates and predators in proximity to caribou habitat. We will investigate how biogeographical context including forest cover, topography, climate, presence of alternative ungulate populations, and human disturbance, affects the vulnerability of various recovery actions in order to optimize region-specific measures for maximizing boreal caribou recovery and fibre supply.
Biosketch: Eric Neilson is a Wildlife Research Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, where he contributes to woodland caribou science and recovery. He and his colleagues investigate the distribution of woodland caribou and their habitat as it relates to natural disturbance and climate. In addition, they are investigating the vulnerability of caribou protection and restoration activities to climate hazards such as wildfire and pest infestation. Eric holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of Alberta and an MSc in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes University. Eric has a background in wildlife biology and spatial ecology, and has researched wildlife camera trapping methodology. He has studied various vertbrate taxa from around the world, ranging from Alberta to Cambodia to Indonesia.