A Typical Day Isn’t Typical For Alberta Government Wildlife Biologist

By Jeannine Goehing, AEP Office of the Chief Scientist

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, senior wildlife biologist Dr. Anne Hubbs shares her experience working with Fish and Wildlife at Alberta Environment and Parks for over 20 years.

Dr. Anne Hubbs was surrounded by three humpback whales, each one the size of a standard school bus. The professional wildlife biologist was in her sea kayak exploring Antarctica with her husband during a three-week trip that turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of her life.

“I’ll never forget the moment when I saw one of the whales’ heads go underwater right beside my kayak,” she recalls, adding she has been fascinated with whales since childhood. 

Anne has had special wildlife encounters throughout her career, including one with a black wolf in the Yukon and a face to face encounter with a moose suffering from Chronic Wasting Disease. In Alberta, she has worked with harlequin ducks, goshawks, caribou and bighorn sheep among many other species, and it’s where her passion lies.

“I believe that most Albertans are interested in wildlife, and see their intrinsic value and that of natural ecosystems,” she explains. For instance, when talking to the general public or hunting community about their motivations, she often finds a common appreciation. “They like to be out in nature and they appreciate that pristine, isolated environment.”

As a wildlife biologist, a lot of her work touches on those environments and species that so many Albertans value.

“We’re working to protect ecosystems and maintain healthy wildlife populations for Albertans, whether they want to view wildlife on public land, in provincial or national parks, or whether they are hunters or general recreationists,” Anne explains. “What we do on provincial lands may affect populations in adjacent national parks or bordering provinces and states, and we’re trying to minimize any potential negative impacts from human or industrial development on wildlife.”

Dr. Anne Hubbs kayaking in search of western grebes.
Photo credit: Brendan McGlynn

Anne’s passion for the world around her and her dedication to conservation and species recovery started at a very young age.

Ants in the kitchen

Anne has been interested in science as long as she can remember, and she grew up exploring nature and wildlife whenever possible.

“My dad and I used to go out looking for crayfish or collecting ant farms that invariably escaped in the house – much to my mom’s shock,” she recalls with a smile. “My dad instilled a love of nature in me.”

That interest in the world around her also led to an admiration with some of the biggest names in the conservation world: “I was hooked on French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and English primatologist Jane Goodall from a very young age.”

Growing up in Toronto, Anne followed her passion and enrolled in an undergraduate degree studying biology at the University of Toronto and taking field courses on monkeys in Hong Kong and tundra wildlife in the Canadian Arctic. She also worked as a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo, marine biologist off the coast of Ireland, and a primatologist in Germany.

“I really enjoyed studying a variety of species and seeing different environments. It broadened my perspective and got me hooked,” she explains.

She followed up with a Master of Science in Zoology at the University of Toronto where her interest in ecology only deepened during fieldwork in Kluane National Park in the Yukon, which led to her PhD in Ecology at the University of Western Ontario. It was her PhD fieldwork that led her to Alberta, and ultimately to her position with the Government of Alberta.

When she arrived at Alberta Fish and Wildlife, things looked very different than they do today.

“When I started out there were less than half a dozen female colleagues across the province, but the dynamics have shifted so much that it’s about fifty-fifty now,” she says. “Women can bring a different vision or perspective to the position – part of this is potentially more of an emphasis on relationship building and also a feeling that they need to work harder than their male colleagues to be the best candidate.” 

For Anne, the key was always learning and innovation.

Quest for learning

Anne has most valued and enjoyed learning, engagement and collaboration throughout her career. As a biologist working in the department, she has had unique opportunities to tap into a province-wide network of biologists, scientists from universities, and experts from other jurisdictions.

“Everybody has different skillsets that they bring to the table and when I work with somebody, I try to learn from them,” she explains. For one of her current projects on bighorn sheep management, she learned a new tool that has also proved helpful for personal life decisions.

“A colleague, Wendy Aupers, introduced me to Structured Decision Making, which is a step-by-step process that combines values from stakeholders or agencies with scientific information. We’re using it to develop a bighorn sheep management plan in collaboration with Cornell University,” she explains. “It can be useful for personal life decisions as well – whether it’s deciding where to go for dinner or how to choose our next holiday destination.”

Anne’s openness to learning also led to her current role as co-chair of the Alberta steering committee for a large collaborative project called WildCam – Wildlife Cameras for Adaptive Management.

“Remote cameras are non-invasive and can collect information on multiple species at the same time, such as lynx, moose and deer,” she says. “It’s a very innovative method and we’re trying to develop guidelines and tools to support its use across Alberta and British Columbia.”

Developing new approaches like these have helped her throughout her career, and keep her engaged with her work.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to collaborate and partner, particularly on large-scale projects – whether it’s with researchers, stakeholders or other jurisdictions across North America. It’s very rewarding.”

Unique opportunities

Anne’s career with Alberta Environment and Parks has spanned over 20 years and four locations including Hinton, Athabasca, Rocky Mountain House and a secondment with the Wildlife Policy Branch in Edmonton as the province’s big game specialist. Each of those posts provided her with unique opportunities –– the sort of opportunities she recommends every aspiring biologist to seek out.

Dr. Anne Hubbs collaring elk with researchers at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, Alberta.
Photo credit: Julia Wachowski

“Think of things that make you stand out at the end of the day,” she advises. “Take on unique opportunities, either through volunteering or international travel, and develop special skillsets that showcase your passion.”

But she believes there’s more to those opportunities than just developing technical skills like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or modeling.

“As biologists, we need those technical skills, but we also need the soft skills such as effective communication,” she asserts. “We’re lucky to have unique experiences with nature in our work. Knowing how to effectively tell those stories and engage with people in a meaningful way is key.”

When it comes to developing these abilities, Anne advises young scientists to seek out mentors familiar with the unique challenges and complexities of working in the public service.

“When you’re fresh out of graduate school, the speed at which government works can be surprising,” she explains with a laugh. “For somebody from outside government, it may seem like a long time to move a policy forward, and it absolutely does. But I don’t think some people understand the complexities and number of different divisions, outside agencies and stakeholders who are often involved in the process. It’s not all fieldwork, but also partnerships, and working with stakeholders and industry.”

The diversity and complexity of the work is one of the things Anne most appreciates about her role as a biologist in the department. It also informs the advice she shares with aspiring scientists considering a career path like her own.

“If an opportunity for new learning or leadership role comes up, it’s well worth doing,” she says, before sharing one of her favorite quotes from Albert Einstein “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

It’s this philosophy that led Anne into a kayak beside humpback whales off Antarctica. “Challenge yourself, and don’t be afraid to push the limits.”

Interested in resources and networks supporting women in environmental sciences, technology, and conservation? Please find more information below:

  • WiSER (Women in Science, Engineering & Research): Founded in 2008 as a sub-community of University of Alberta’s WISEST aiming at serving the needs of graduate students and early-career professionals. The community is comprised of individuals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the academia, government, and industry.
  • Women in Nature Network: Founded in 2013 to promote women’s leadership and participation in the sustainable management of natural resources and their conservation; an Associate Group of Global Wildlife Conservation.

  • Women Entrepreneurs-in-STEM (WESTEM) Program: Program for women entrepreneurs offering training, networking, mentorship and access to current and emerging technologies created by Economic Development Lethbridge and Tecconnect with funding from the Government of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy.
  • Cybermentor: Encouraging young people interested in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) to pursue post-secondary education through online mentorship and outreach programs.

International Women & Girls in Science Day: Alberta’s Changing Climate and What It Means For Our Water Resources

By Dr. Brandi Newton, Alberta Environment and Parks

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, Dr. Brandi Newton from Alberta Environment and Parks shares her experience working as a hydroclimatologist in the department.

Alberta’s winter climate with its plentiful snow is ideal for outdoor recreational activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and fat-tire biking, and we take advantage of it. The snow that accumulates in the mountains also serves as an important source of fresh water during spring and early summer for traditional uses such as river navigation, for aquatic and riparian ecosystem health, drinking and household use, agricultural irrigation, industrial needs, and snowmelt fills reservoirs used in hydroelectricity generation.

Alberta also serves as the source region for several major river basins in Canada making us stewards of a resource essential to both Albertans and numerous downstream users.

We know that climate is changing across the world and here at home in Alberta. Climate models indicate average global temperatures will increase by 1.0°C to 3.7°C above the 1985-2005 global average temperature by the end of this century (IPCC 2013). We also know that higher latitudes and land surfaces are warming at a faster rate and that the biggest temperature changes occur during winter, which will significantly impact when and how much water is available to us through the amount of snow that accumulates each winter and the timing of snowmelt.

Brandi at the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. During the summer, Rocky Mountain rivers are fed by glacier melt and high elevation snowmelt.
Photo by Dr. Thomas Edwards.

Knowing what the changes to our winter climate will look like is critical to managing Alberta’s water resources. As part of our stewardship work, we have started to examine how climate has changed in Alberta to better understand future risks to water resource availability.

Alberta’s Changing Winter: Early Results

Our goal is to determine which regions of the province are most at risk for annual or seasonal shifts in water supply when it comes to winter climate change. This is particularly important because snow is not evenly distributed across the province, with much greater snowpack in the mountains compared to lower-elevation areas.

One of my favorite parts of being a research scientist is solving complex scientific questions involving water and climate, and more specifically, understanding how a changing climate will influence an uneven distribution of winter snowpack and associated water availability from spring and summer melt.

It all starts with Alberta’s networks of meteorological and hydrometric monitoring stations, and passionate staff who conduct field measurements and maintain equipment to measure snow depth and distribution. This data is critical to provide the best available information to decision-makers.

One of the results of our ongoing study to analyze this data shows that winters appear to get shorter. For example, spring temperatures have been rising above freezing significantly earlier in the last ten to 15 years over the period 1950 to 2017. This trend is more pronounced in the Prairie region of southern Alberta where spring temperatures are occurring two to three weeks earlier.

Historically, Alberta’s southern prairies have experienced the greatest climatic variability – meaning there could be very high temperatures and precipitation one year and very low the next. As a result, the prairies rely heavily upon water management strategies, primarily for agricultural purposes.

High elevation snowpack remains in early July 2019 in Banff National Park. We rely on high elevation snowmelt for summer water resource availability. Photo by Dr. Brandi Newton.

The next steps in this work are to compare our results with future climate scenarios to determine if spring will continue to arrive earlier, further shortening the duration of winter and time for snow to accumulate. Future projections are based on medium- and high emissions scenarios, similar to the 1.5°C and 3.5°C global warming scenarios.

Knowing how Alberta’s winter climate and snowpack may change under these scenarios is important for managing water resources, and foreseeing potential risks.

For example, the amount of winter snowpack and the timing of spring melt will not only affect water availability, but also may affect spring flooding. When snowmelt is combined with spring rainfall and river ice break-up jams, it can cause severe flooding, such as the 2013 flood in southern Alberta and the recent ice jam flooding in Fort McMurray in May 2020.

Conducting routine snow surveys in Banff National Park with an Alberta Environment and Parks monitoring team. Snow surveys are a critical source of information for flood forecasting.
Photo by Dr. Brandi Newton

Ongoing Research

Understanding these factors is to the benefit of all Albertans and the economy and, not surprisingly, generates a lot of interest. Most recently, there’s been a lot of attention on the impact of climate change on glaciers and the possible consequences for communities that rely on glacial meltwater for part of their water supply.  

At Alberta Environment and Parks, we aim to look at all the drivers influencing climate and water availability, including glacier loss and changes to winter precipitation. From a water supply perspective, glacial meltwater reductions are of particular concern in late summer, during drier years, and for communities in closer proximity to glaciers.

For most municipalities in Alberta, glacier melt contributes a small fraction of the overall water supply, particularly during the summer when contributions are the highest. Seasonal and year-over-year variability of precipitation has a major impact on water supply across Alberta.

Understanding the impacts of climate change on water supply requires us to understand many factors and how they interact with each other, so ongoing research is crucial.

Beyond new scientific knowledge, our research will inform Alberta’s water policy and management decisions and help inform community resilience to ensure Albertans have access to water now and in the future.

Dr. Brandi Newton is a hydroclimatologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. She studies climate and hydrology in Alberta to better understand relationships and changes in climate, streamflow, and the drivers of extreme hydrological events such as floods. This helps inform environmental monitoring, management and policy decisions, and public understanding of environmental conditions in Alberta. Brandi has previously worked on projects including the atmospheric role in the Arctic freshwater system, the climatic redistribution of western Canadian water resources, mid-winter river ice break-up, and other winter extreme climate events in western Canada and Alaska.

Learn More

For more details on historic and projected climate change globally and in Canada, see the following reports:

AEP’s Wetlands Replacement Program restores nearly 160 hectares of wetland in Alberta

Wetlands in Alberta

Several municipalities across Alberta are the stewards of new or restored wetland ecosystems within their communities. Funded through Alberta Environment and Parks’ (AEP) Wetland Replacement Program (WRP), the program provides financial support for wetland restoration and construction initiatives that reverse the trend of wetland loss and ultimately enhance and enrich communities throughout Alberta. To date, the program has funded seven projects across the province equating to $3.7 million, and resulted in the restoration and or construction of 158.23 ha of wetland – truly a significant accomplishment.

Wetlands sustain life in many ways and are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are rich with an abundance of diverse plants and animals, are a source of substantial biodiversity and provide a host of important benefits to society such as for fish and wildlife habitats, natural water quality improvement, flood storage, shoreline erosion protection and a myriad of opportunities for tourism, boating, bird watching, nature photography, hunting, fishing and other activities.

They are a vital part of Alberta’s ecological landscape and necessary for a sustainable economy and healthy communities. Protecting wetlands can, in turn, protect our health and safety by reducing flood damage and preserving water quality.

Since the establishment of the province more than 100 years ago, land development, urbanization and settlement has resulted in a significant reduction of wetlands. These natural areas continue to be under direct and indirect pressures from a variety of sources including dredging, draining, and/or filling wetland areas for conversion to agricultural, industrial or residential lands. Thus, careful management and restoration of wetland ecosystems are important tools in reversing those impacts and the resultant loss of ecosystem goods and services.

In Alberta, the province’s wetland policy plays an important part in both recognizing the value of wetlands and retaining them on our landscapes.

In 2019, AEP began the design and development of its Wetland Replacement Program – a program that aims to re-establish wetlands in partnership with Albertans by providing resources for collaborative replacement projects across the province.

Since January 2020, AEP began extensive engagements with municipalities throughout Alberta, alongside Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and to date, through a series of virtual meetings and presentations, they have engaged with over 15 municipalities and DUC on the program.

They have also signed memorandums of understanding to work together with nine municipalities to establish wetland replacement projects – municipalities including the City of Leduc, City of Red Deer, County of Grande Prairie, County of Leduc, Lac La Biche County, Municipal District of Greenview, Parkland County, Strathcona County and Sturgeon County as well as with DUC.

This is how it works. AEP works with participants of the program – any non-profit organization or municipality, to identify potential wetland replacement projects. Once the projects have been assessed and approved, replacement projects are funded by the WRP which can include financial compensation for private landowners hosting wetland replacement projects on their private lands.

Another positive outcome of the program is the impact it has on a range of employment opportunities for Albertans. Private consultants – in the areas of environmental, construction operators, equipment rentals, and vegetation nurseries – can participate in the program through contracts with the municipality, resulting in job creation and community growth.

Having the program operate through AEP provides financial oversight and accountability of the revenues and expenditures of the money collected through the program.

In addition, the WRP also supports Alberta’s Wetland Policy (AWP) priority policy outcomes in the following ways: a) Wetlands and their benefits to the environment and society are conserved and restored in areas where losses have been high. b) Wetlands are managed by avoiding and minimizing negative impacts, and where necessary, by replacing lost wetland value.

Matthew Wilson, wetlands team lead with AEP, attributes much of the success of the program to collaboration, particularly through the high level of participation from DUC and their ability to restore hundreds of hectares of wetlands annually, as well as through the commitment by municipal stakeholders to deliver wetland replacement projects.

“It has been a great experience developing new relationships with municipalities and working with DUC, who has so much experience in wetland restoration. Working together fulfills a policy commitment by AEP that municipalities play a key role in planning and prioritizing wetland restoration and conservation within their jurisdiction. The program delivers on AEP’s Wetland Policy outcomes to restore and replace wetlands in areas of high historical loss and in areas where recent wetland losses could not be avoided,” he says.

The WRP is currently focused on funding projects in wetland restoration and wetland construction.

Wetland restoration can be defined as the manipulation of the physical, chemical, or biological characteristics of a site with the goal of returning natural / historic functions to a former or degraded wetland. Examples of wetland restoration include, but are not limited to, installing a ditch plug in a drained wetland, or a partially drained wetland or the removal of tile drainage.

Wetland construction is the manipulation of the physical, chemical, or biological characteristics of a site with the goal of creating a wetland on a site location that was historically non-wetland. This results in a gain of wetland area and function. AEP is also considering the expanding existing wetlands, by broadening the scope of the wetland area into upland areas or deep water sites.

Red Tape Reduction

Other progression in wetland policy includes a new Code of Practice (COP) for Wetland Replacement Works (WRW) that has been approved for Wetland Replacement Projects that meet the requirements of the code.

The new COP will be for low risk restoration and construction activities. For projects that do not qualify for the new COP, proponents will still have to obtain an approval. What this means is that people will be able to get started on the project more quickly, reduce burden on approvals staff and enable AEP to spend the WRP money to get people back to work.

Wetland Replacement Projects

Location: County of Grande Prairie

Number of wetland hectares restored: 0.5 ha

Participants: In association with private landowners

Location: County of Grande Prairie

Number of wetland hectare restoration and construction: 2.0

Participants: In association with private landowners

Wetland benefit: Both projects in Grand Prairie will contribute to better water quality in Saskatoon Lake.

Location: Municipal District of Greenview

Number of wetland hectares of construction: 0.5.

Wetland benefit: This project will address water quality issues in Victor Lake, which is the primary source of drinking water for Grande Cache.

Location: City of Leduc

Number of wetland hectares of construction: 0.38

Wetland benefit: This project will contribute to improved water quality in the adjacent Telford Lake and provide additional habitat for wildlife and an educational opportunity for residents as it is adjacent to the city’s existing nature trail that extends around Telford Lake.

The City of Leduc successfully restored 0.38 hectares of wetland at the Telford Lake site. All of the earthwork was completed in November 2020 that included installation of snags and coarse wood debris as habitat features and to create structure. Seeding occurred immediately and the planting of aquatic species will be completed in Spring 2021.

 “We are pleased to have worked with the Province on the wetlands restoration project at Telford Lake,” says City of Leduc Councillor Lars Hansen. “Once complete, it will bring many ecological benefits to the area and provide unique opportunities for community education and engagement among local residents.”

Ducks Unlimited Canada Projects

Willow Creek

Number of wetland hectares restored: 13.74

Location: Municipal District of Willow Creek, in partnership with private landowners

Wetland benefit: This project will contribute to increased flood storage protection within the watershed and provide wildlife and waterfowl habitat.  

Silver Sage

Number of wetland hectares restored: 29.39

Location: County of Forty Mile, in partnership with the Alberta Conservation Association (their land).

Wetland benefit: This project will contribute to increased flood storage protection within the watershed and provide wildlife and waterfowl habitat.

Lochend Lake

Number of wetland hectares restored: 111.72

Location: Rocky View County, in partnership with private landowners

Wetland benefit: This project will contribute to increased flood storage protection within the watershed and provide wildlife and waterfowl habitat. The project is located within the headwaters of the Big Hills Springs Creek, which then flows into the Bow River System upstream of Calgary.

In 2021, the Wetlands Replacement Program will continue to engage with municipalities and other non-profits to participate in the program and get more projects on the ground!

Controlling Aquatic Invasive Species with new Technology

A first-of-its-kind machine in the country is in Alberta to help seek out in controlling Aquatic Invasive Species

In the fall of 2019, while walking the shoreline of Lake McGregor, a diligent Albertan reported coming across some unusual looking shells. Lake McGregor, located within the Lake McGregor Provincial Recreation Area, is situated 100km southeast of Calgary in the Vulcan County. Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) staff investigated the report and discovered these shells meant a presence of the Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis). To date, this is the first and only documented location of the snail in the province.

The Chinese Mystery Snail, discovered for the first time in the province in the fall of 2019.

Native to Eastern Asia and known to alter water quality and disrupt food chains, the Chinese Mystery Snail is one of the 52 prohibited species under the Fisheries (Alberta) Act. As a prohibited species, it is illegal to possess, import, sell or transport the snail into our province.

 “Research shows the Chinese Mystery Snail can pose both an economic and ecological threat to freshwater ecosystems. The snail is known to have the ability to host multiple human parasites and diseases, and pollute beaches with shells that can injure beach users, outcompete native species, and clog infrastructure,” said Nicole Kimmel, Aquatic Invasive Species Specialist with AEP.

Populations of the snail abound across the country. They are typically found in British Columbia, Quebec, southern Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

With limited information on effective eradication methods, AEP has focused on helping people identify these snails to stop further spread of this invasive species to other water bodies in the province. To do this, the government helped install a CD3 machine at Lake McGregor last September, which made Alberta the first jurisdiction in Canada to have a machine of this kind.

“We’re proud that Alberta is leading the way in the use of modern technology to control invasive species in Canada. These machines have previously been used in a number of US states and have had very successful results,” added Kimmel.

CD3 machine at Lake McGregor.

The CD3 machine is used as a tool to help boaters clean, drain and dry their watercraft and equipment at the Lake McGregor Recreational Area boat launch.  In addition to being powered by solar energy, the unit is a waterless, free-of-charge cleaning equipment that includes an array of tools to clean, drain and dry watercraft as they exit Lake McGregor. The machine is equipped with a wet/dry vacuum, blower system, tethered hands tools and lights.

“The machine is easy to use by boat users with instructions displayed on the unit that walk them through on how to use all the various tools provided. The state-of-the art CD3 machine is also equipped with technology that logs tool use, provides automatic reports, and maintenance alerts,” said Kimmel.  

A person using the CD3 machine to clean their boat.

Getting this modern machine to Alberta required many partners working together. AEP collaborated with the Invasive Species Centre and the Bow River Irrigation District to ensure this machine arrived to Alberta.

“Getting the CD3 machine here in Alberta was truly a national collaborative effort. The Invasive Species Centre initially purchased the unit, with funds from the Canada Nature Fund provided by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to be installed in the prairies region. The Bow River Irrigation District is helping us store and properly maintain the unit, while Alberta Parks provided the location for public use,” expressed Kimmel.

Preventing the spread of invasive species while protecting species at risk is a share goal for each of the partners. The machine is also monitored, well cared for and stored appropriately year-round as a collaborative effort. 

The installation of the CD3 machine is one example of how collaboration can help us maintain the health of Alberta’s lakes and continue to allow for memories to be made. But remember that we still need your help! If you spot any invasive species in an Alberta waterbody, please report them promptly, either through the AIS hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628) or on EDDMapS Alberta.

Ensuring the Protection of Alberta’s Environment – the 2020 Compliance Assurance Annual Report

The compliance team within Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) is responsible for responding to known or potential environmental emergencies or complaints from the public.

“We deal with everything from the release of toxic substances into a waterbody to the unauthorized use of public lands in the province,” says Owen Butz, AEP Compliance Manager.

Responding to environmental emergencies

The compliance team tracks every complaint or report received and its related response. This action not only tracks trends over time but also ensures that compliance work is open and accessible.

All the compliance activities conducted over the last year by AEP are listed in the publicly-released Compliance Assurance Annual Report, providing documented statistics that show how each reported incident is acted upon.

“We take every report, complaint and call very seriously – we’re all stewards of the environment,” adds Owen.

The Compliance Assurance Annual Report includes the work of the department’s Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT). This team – as the name implies – is responsible for responding to environmental emergencies.  A key part of that work is to ensure preparedness and coordination of response with other agencies, partners, and provincial or federal governments.

The ASERT team continually seeks out new technologies or best practices to improve Alberta’s emergency preparedness and response. For example, last year they used drone flights to document the appearance of an aquatic invasive species in Alberta. Drones have also been used to assess the extent of environmental contamination in the event of a collision, and to identify spills and their extent.

“Drones have made safe and affordable to access difficult-to-access or unsafe locations. In the past, it would have been very costly to get aerial image or video because you would need a plane or a helicopter,” expressed Owen.

Compliance isn’t just about responding to emergencies, though – a significant part of the compliance team’s work involves education and prevention to promote compliance long-term. If education and prevention efforts aren’t enough, the team is equipped with a diverse enforcement toolkit to track and reverse non-compliance, and if required, punish offenders. 

“We want to be as proactive as possible and use education to increase awareness and compliance,” says Owen. “Regulatory requirements are in place to protect our environment – and Albertans.  Most people want to do the right thing. However, we do have tools in place to ensure enforcement and we will use them if necessary.”

Enforcement measures include the use of creative sentencing in the court process, such as taking the funds from paid fines and diverting them to environmental improvement projects.

For example, the Edmonton Native Plant Society received creative sentencing funds to re-establish natural vegetation in two former farmers’ fields that are part of the Wagner Natural Area near Spruce Grove.

Creative funds were also diverted to the Telus World of Science following an air pollution incident in Hinton. The funds are being used to increase air quality awareness and knowledge among Alberta students, teachers and the public. The funds will create a classroom-teaching unit on air quality, a hands-on monitoring tool to allow students to take real time air quality measurements. More examples of creative sentencing projects are listed in the annual report.

To learn more about environmental response and preparedness, while ensuring the accomplishments of Alberta’s compliance team are accessible to everyone, visit:  Compliance Assurance Annual Report.

Quick stats about the 2020 Compliance Assurance Annual Report

From April 2019 to March 2020, Alberta Environment and Parks:

  • Received almost 10,000 environmental emergencies or complaint calls – every complaint and report is followed-up
  • Completed more than 2,000 inspections
  • Sent 130 warning letters
  • Issued 36 orders to either prevent and/or correct damages, compel parties to prevent environmental harm, properly manage water or vacate public land.
  • Issued 16 administrative penalties
  • Completed nearly 200 surface material lease royalty audits
  • Charged one company, seven individuals and three municipalities for offences under legislation administered by the department.
  • Concluded four prosecutions

Stocking fish into remote access lakes – one heli of a ride!

Another year, another completed season of fish stocking into Alberta waterbodies!

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) stocked a variety of fish species into various waterbodies across the province in the spring and fall, as water temperatures are too warm in the summer. Stocking is simple: fish are transported from provincial fish hatcheries directly to a waterbody that doesn’t usually see these game fish species. Fish are traditionally stocked into the water through a large hose; however, if road access is challenging, these fish need an extra lift to get there.

Fish are transferred from the hatchery truck into buckets, which are then carried onto the helicopter.

Helicopter stocking (or heli-stocking) is the ideal choice (and just plane awesome!) to stock waterbodies that cannot be accessed with a vehicle. Access can be remote and require hiking, ATV, snowmobiling or other methods. However, it is worth the journey as these areas are well-used and loved by anglers since they provide a unique and secluded destination for fishing. The use of heli-stocking allows fisheries biologists to deliver these exclusive angling opportunities whilst reducing angling pressure on natural fish populations. This year, AEP staff documented the stocking process for Lily Lake in the Slave Lake region.

Approximately 3,600 brook trout and 325 tiger trout fish first took off from the Cold Lake Fish Hatchery to arrive for stocking in Lily Lake. But first, the hatchery truck had one stopover: the Marten Fire Tower on Marten Mountain where it would meet the helicopter and specially-trained Agriculture and Forestry wildfire staff to bring the fish to their final destination. Marten Mountain is a well-known look out point with access to a popular hiking trail down to Lily Lake. This is also the perfect location to meet, land and load the helicopter for fish stocking.

The helicopter hovers about 1m from the water surface in order to release the fish into Lily Lake.
Alberta Wildfire staff stocking Tiger Trout into Lily Lake.

Three loads transported a total of nine buckets of fish on a short 1km flight down to Lily Lake. This was an especially exciting trip as the tiger trout were first-time fliers in Lily Lake, whereas the brook trout are known as frequent fliers and have historically been stocked in this area. Once the helicopter arrives, it hovers about a 1m from the water surface, so the staff can dump around 1,800 fish from the buckets into the waterbody (per trip!) – now that’s one heli of a ride for these fish!

One of the 325 Tiger Trout ready to be released into Lily Lake for the first time, alongside 3,600 Brook Trout.

Staff and fish were literally flying high! For anglers, this provides you with diverse fishing opportunities within Alberta, as 240 waterbodies are stocked every year.

Always be sure to #KnowBeforeYouGo as sportfishing regulations differ at each waterbody! If Lily Lake is on your radar, a fishing licence is required and only two brook trout are allowed to be kept, whereas tiger trout are solely catch and release.

Safe travels!

Peregrine Falcon Recovery Taking Flight in Alberta

Peregrine falcon – taken by Gordon Court

Did you know that in Alberta, we are successfully recovering peregrine falcons, a predatory bird at the brink of extinction?

Species at risk recovery is not easy – but it is possible – and very rewarding for all involved.

In the late 1960s, the pesticide DDT had devastating impacts on a number of organisms, including predatory birds like peregrine falcons. The pesticide caused peregrine eggshells to be thinner than normal. The egg shell broke before the baby birds could be born. As a result, the population declined significantly; almost wiping out peregrine falcons across the world. By 1970, only one pair of peregrines existed in Alberta and by 1975, they were considered extinct locally in Canada south of the boreal forest and east of the Rocky Mountains.

“I was only 12 or 13 years-old when they announced the disappearance of the last pair peregrines to nest in the prairies in Canada” says Gordon Court, Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. Gordon is now one of the provincial leads on peregrine falcon recovery in the province.

DDT was banned in Canada in 1969 and in the early 1970s, provincial and federal governments started the peregrine falcon recovery program. They took every pair of peregrine falcons they could find and brought them to Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alberta. At the Base, they started a captive breeding program. The peregrines were bred and held at the Canadian Forces Base until the pesticides disappeared enough from the landscape to re-introduce the birds. Peregrine falcons were slowly introduced back into their habitats starting in 1976 until the mid 90s.

More recently, Gordon and his colleagues are continuing the work on peregrine falcon recovery – and they are seeing success.

“We have seen tremendous success” said Gordon “There are now over 500 pairs that have been re-established across southern Canada.”

The City of Edmonton has nine peregrine falcon pairs. They sometimes like to nest on industrial buildings and wildlife biologists keep a close eye on those pairs. For example, one adult female laid five eggs on top of the Bell Tower in Edmonton. She successfully laid and hatched all five – something that would never have been recorded during the DDT era in southern Canada.

A brood of peregrine falcon young on the Bell Tower in downtown Edmonton.

Peregrines seem to be making themselves right at home across their former habitats. “We hear of so many interesting peregrine stories,” says Gordon. “This year, we had peregrines return to nest sites they haven’t occupied in over 60 years and came back to nest within metres of where their ancestors nested.”

Even though these birds never nested in these sites themselves, whatever attracted them to the cliffs in the 1950s still attracts them to the same cliffs today.  

One of the more interesting facts about peregrine falcons is they have a fantastic flying ability. “Peregrines were recognized as the fastest thing that ever lived – before airplanes were invented” said Gordon. “Nowadays, people go skydiving with them. One skydiver took a GPS with him and recorded a peregrine diving at 389 kilometres per hour!”

When asked what a typical day of peregrine falcon recovery looks like, Gordon said “we make sure as many young peregrines that are born every year fledge successfully from their nests.” Fledging is the stage in a flying animal’s life between hatching or birth and becoming capable of flight – the more young birds fledged, the faster the recovery.

“In nests that show high mortality, we take them out and move them to release sites where they are more likely to survive. We do lab work – measuring peregrine residues and tissues to make sure the species is doing well – and we have the best peregrine tissue studies in Canada. It really explains why the bird is recovering so well now.”

A technician prepares peregrine falcon eggs for analysis.

The biggest task though is the peregrine population survey, which happens every five years – and the next step for peregrine falcon recovery in Alberta is to count them one more time.

“We had three recovery goals for peregrine falcons in Alberta. Two of them have been met already and the third is to count more than 70 pairs in Alberta. If we meet the final recovery goal, the species could be re-listed from Threatened to a species of special concern” said Gordon.

The next provincial survey is scheduled for 2020-21.

This is great news for the species – and for Alberta. Peregrine falcon recovery has given us important information about species recovery in general. “As a young person, the sense of doom that we had regarding peregrine falcons was very present. We got the sense that the issue was way bigger than we could control. What we learned though, is that the world is remarkably resilient. Who would have thought we could recover these birds in less than 50 years? It’s very encouraging.”

When asked what advice Gordon would have for younger generations, he said “what this teaches us is that no issue is too big to tackle. If you have the right momentum, you can turn things around. This is a story I like to tell young people who are facing similar concerns in the world right now.”

Citizen scientists, industry and government working together to monitor Alberta’s grizzly bears

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

Innovation sometimes starts with little handwritten paper notes –– notes like the ones Courtney Hughes, Biodiversity and Landscape Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, and her team used to get from locals to report grizzly bear sightings in Alberta’s Lower Peace region.

“If they knew our phone number, people would call or text sightings and human-grizzly bear interactions, or they’d email us,” recalls Courtney. “A colleague, Lyle Fullerton, even received little handwritten notes reading things like ‘Saw grizzly down the road on the left’ on his truck windshield when parked in the field.”

While these grassroots efforts to contribute data were helpful, a more systematic approach was needed. “We needed a better way to collect this information while engaging the local land users and stakeholders to better contribute to scientific decision-making,” she elaborates.

The need for a more standardized and automated data collection tool to support citizen science lead to the new smartphone app ‘GrizzTracker’, which has transformed public grizzly bear reporting in remote parts of Alberta for the last few years, and is ready to go province-wide.

Tools like this app are giving us the chance to do better conservation science while engaging people,” Courtney says. “It’s an exciting time to be monitoring bears.”

Grizzly bear cub

A personal photograph of a grizzly bear cub in 2015, courtesy of Wanda Watts

Citizen science to fill knowledge gaps

In response to concerns about bear mortality and population sustainability, Alberta’s grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) have been listed as a threatened species since 2010, meaning they are protected by a provincial recovery policy that restricts hunting, and requires population and habitat research and educational outreach to address risks to bear survival.

The province’s grizzly bear population was estimated to be approximately 700 bears as of a 2010 status report, though recent population research across Alberta is providing additional information on bear density and distribution. Grizzly bear habitat spans from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the boreal forest in the northwest. In Alberta’s northwest – in the management zone called Bear Management Area 1 –  the number of grizzly bears and their distribution is not well understood, however. This is largely due to the difficult, wet and boggy terrain of the boreal forest and the associated costs of undertaking time-intensive population research.

However, understanding where grizzlies live and how many bears there are is essential to addressing the provincial recovery requirements and informing management decisions.

Citizen science is one approach to collecting better knowledge; by working together, citizens, industry operators, landowners, and government can cover large geographic areas and contribute data to help advance scientific knowledge. Enlisting citizen scientists was a no-brainer for Courtney and the team.

“Engaging people in reporting grizzly bear observations, especially across remote areas where we (staff) may not be, not only makes good sense to complement existing DNA-based population inventorying, it’s considered essential to achieving recovery objectives,” Courtney explains.

“I’m very passionate about the people side, because it’s people who do conservation. If we weren’t around, critters and landscapes would sort themselves out,” she says. “I’m interested in people’s perspectives, their beliefs, values and motivations, and, as a conservation practitioner, the ways we can work with people to advance conservation goals.”

Courtney’s passion for science and the role of humans in conservation is evident in her educational journey and career with the public service in the Government of Alberta. Holding a Master’s degree in environmental education, she started her career as a science and environmental education teacher before pursuing a PhD from the University of Alberta in conservation biology, looking at the importance and influence of the human dimensions in grizzly bear conservation. She has also worked on projects across Canada, Belize, Cameroon, Namibia and currently has two projects in Tanzania –– all focusing on people-wildlife issues.

“Whatever country you work in, the interaction between people and wildlife will have impacts, whether on livelihoods and safety or wildlife survival and sustainability,” she says. “The best way to understand the nature of that, and to develop relevant solutions, is to involve the people who are part of the interactions.”

Map BMAs

Alberta’s seven Grizzly Bear Management Areas (BMAs)

Harnessing local knowledge

Rural Albertans are helping advance scientific knowledge thanks to their detailed working knowledge of the province’s remote landscape, and the grizzlies that roam there.

“In Alberta’s northwest, there are a lot of industry operators who also happen to be landowners, farmers, recreational hunters or anglers, and these people want to see good things happen for the boreal landscape and the wildlife, balanced with economic or personal pursuits,” Courtney says. “We wanted to continue respecting and honoring that local knowledge and the fact that people want to contribute to scientific knowledge.”

With this in mind, the collaborative Northwest Grizzly Bear Team was founded in 2014 with representatives from Alberta Environment and Parks, Mercer Peace River Pulp Ltd., forest and industry stakeholders, the Miistakis Institute, the Alberta Conservation Association and public members, in an effort to help fill boreal grizzly bear knowledge gaps and management needs. GrizzTracker is one of the tools this team developed, to harness local knowledge and create engagement and education opportunities for specific land users and the general public.

GrizzTracker is a smartphone app platform that enables users to submit a grizzly bear sighting, or even tracks, scat or rub objects, using a standardized form with automatic data upload to a secure database. Available for download on Android or iPhones, anyone moving through an area where grizzly bears might be encountered can ‘Start a Trip.’ The app will then collect a location approximately every 90 seconds, which – importantly and innovatively – collects anonymous observer effort data. If a bear is spotted, the user can input the sighting using the form into the app, including a photo, if safe to do so.

Together, this data helps Courtney and the team receive accurate geospatial data about the sighting, which can be mapped to identify grizzly bear distribution across areas of human land use. In turn, this can be used to help inform bear management activities, such as conflict mitigation.

Courtney in Grande Cache

Courtney Hughes, Biodiversity and Landscape Specialist, Alberta Environment and Parks

From pilot to provincial scale

As with any new project, rigorous pilot testing was required to ensure the app worked the way it was supposed to. Throughout 2017, 187 different users contributed to 18 sightings and over 2,281 observer hours. By the end of 2019, 286 users have signed up to the app.

Courtney and the Northwest Grizzly Team will continue to encourage local users in bear country to use the app, but now the team wants to expand beyond the original pilot in the northwest.

“Thanks to the geniuses at the Miistakis Institute, all the major bugs have been addressed, and we’re now ready to expand to a provincial scale,” says Courtney.

The team is also looking into potential partnerships beyond Alberta’s borders, including organizations in British Columbia where there is interest in the app and how it functions in different bear management areas.

“The bears don’t pay attention to provincial borders, but we still need to keep track of the ones who spend time here,” Courtney says. “Thanks to GrizzTracker and the citizen scientists who are using it, we hope to do that better into the future.”

Learn more

  • For more information on the app, visit the GrizzTracker website.
  • The GrizzTracker App is available on Google Play for Android devices and the App Store for iOS devices – search for “Grizztracker”. A training guide is available here (pdf).
  • Check out the mini documentary on the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team, their work on the GrizzTracker app, and more!

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear in northwest Alberta (photo: Lyle Fullerton, Alberta Environment and Parks, Peace Region

Digging deeper for native trout recovery on the eastern slopes

Assessing human impacts on fish habitat has never been easy, but thanks to a partnership between several organizations, we are digging deeper to learn more about sediment that is piling up on native trout habitat. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry & the Foothills Research Institute have teamed up with the Alberta Environment and Parks Fisheries Management team, Trout Unlimited Canada, Cows and Fish and the University of Calgary to learn how to assess the scope and severity of human-caused sediment deposition into native trout habitat.

With this training in hand, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) and our partner agencies will be locating and assessing sediment deposition areas in native trout recovery watersheds this summer. This information helps us target reclamation activities that will make the biggest impact to recovering native trout populations.

Where does all of this sediment come from?

When off-highway vehicles are driven through the water, plants are removed from the shoreline, or when roads and culverts are improperly built or maintained, fine sediment such as mud and silt enters the river from its usual resting place.

Sediment poses problems for native fish, including bull trout, Westslope cutthroat trout, and Athabasca rainbow trout. Floating sediment travels downstream and impacts water quality. When sediment settles to the bottom of these waterbodies, it can kill fish eggs by coating and cutting off their supply of oxygen and can reduce the quality and quantity of spawning habitat for future generations of fish. Native fish need access to clean, oxygen rich water at every stage of their life.

Unfortunately, sediment isn’t the only thing making life hard for native trout. Alberta’s fish populations are already threatened by loss of habitat, hybridization with other fish and over harvesting.

There are several initiatives taking place across Alberta to lend native trout a helping hand. The new Alberta Watercourse Crossing Inventory Mobile Application (ABWCI) was designed to empower all Albertans to report infrastructure around waterbodies, including crossings and culverts, which could lead to sedimentation. Users can capture the location and condition of crossings and share their findings to support effective watercourse crossing management.

Westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, and Athabasca rainbow trout are listed as Threatened or Endangered under the provincial Alberta Wildlife Act and federal Species at Risk Act. Addressing major sources of human-caused sedimentation is an essential part of native trout recovery and improves the overall watershed health with cool clean water for all our fish species.

How can you get involved?

Alberta’s Amazing Buffet of Fishing – All you can fish… within the regulations

Alberta anglers have diverse skills and desires when it comes to searching for their next big catch! From expert fly-fishermen, using only hand-tied flies suitable for art galleries, to kids using a Snoopy rod and reel set to catch their first rainbow trout from a stocked pond, this province offers a buffet of options for anglers to enjoy.

Meeting multiple needs can often be quite a tough one to reel in for fisheries biologists, who face several trade-offs between effective regulations, quality of fishing, and number of anglers on each waterbody. Given Alberta’s cold climate and low number of lakes and rivers, these trade-offs are a biological and social necessity that need to be tackled.

Alberta’s fisheries biologists aren’t wading around, they’ve cooked up a wide array of fishing opportunities and options to choose from – just like your favourite smorgasbord!

Your hankering may take you fishing close to home at a river bank, where you don’t mind sitting next to other anglers and don’t expect to catch a bucket full of tasty fish. Or perhaps you want a chance to catch a huge fish-of-the-summer at a lake but, of course, don’t expect to harvest that old-age beauty! Or maybe you just want a simple fish for dinner from a nearby stream but again, don’t expect to catch a whopper. The selection of fisheries in the province will definitely fill your plate and be able to offer you seconds!  Just decide what kind of fishery you want, and pair it with the right lake or river, and always remember that trade-offs… or trading bites will have to happen.

Similar to your favourite restaurant, every region in Alberta has selections of certain styles or types of fisheries – biologists refer to this as “Fisheries Management Objectives”. Check out the infographic below that describes some of the different opportunities Alberta has to offer. Although, it is a tricky choice to select what objective goes with what lake to make the perfect pairing, these decisions aren’t made alone as biologists work to consult as openly and widely as possible. Having a full and diverse menu of opportunities means that Alberta anglers get the best of all worlds, just not all at the same place and the same time!

fishing infographic 1

Alberta has one of the top rated fisheries buffets, an all you can fish style, but within the regulations! If you are looking to plan your next trip, decide what kind of fishery you’re yearning for and check out our new interactive menu. This menu (well… map) is part of a new initiative Alberta Environment and Parks is casting out to encourage Albertans to try out some reel local fishing opportunities and discover Alberta’s fish!

Check out all of the details, including the interactive map highlighting opportunities near you in this 5-star province!