Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

The Forest PAC met on May 4 at the Slave Lake Inn & Conference Centre. As usual, most of the people in attendance were there because they had to be (industry and government people, plus presenters). Besides those were a handful of members of the public. These included three trappers, a retired government forester and a newspaper reporter.

So far, so quiet on wildfire front

Fifteen fires so far in the Slave Lake forest area, reported Leah Lovequist, an information officer for the region. All human-caused. One was started by a spark from a saw. At least one was a ‘holdover’ from a winter burn. The biggest – a 136-ha. fire near Kinuso – is believed to have been caused by an off-highway vehicle passing through a cutblock. Two of the fires are blamed on powerline malfunctions.

Lovequist encouraged people to use the new ‘wildfire dashboard,’ which provides up-to-the-minute information on fires in the province.

“It’s a really cool new tool,” she said.

Migration monitoring

Patti Campsall of the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory (LSLBO) did an overview of the 2021 bird banding season at the LSLBO. It was a record-breaker, and not by a small margin. The fall season saw records tumble all over the place. It got so busy some days, Campsall said, the banders were simply letting birds go after extracting them from the nets. As it was, 5,372 birds were banded in 2021, several hundred more than the previous high.

Another highlight of the year was the discovery of four LSLBO-banded birds in other parts of the continent – two saw-whet owls and two Swainson’s thrushes. Two were alive and two were dead. One of the thrush bands was discovered courtesy of somebody’s cat, in Saskatchewan.

Besides migration monitoring and banding, the LSLBO hosts or assists in a couple of science projects. One is called the Citizen Science Project, in which volunteers count arthropods (insects and other little critters) at six sites. Another sees LSLBO staff collecting parasitic flies from the birds they band and sending them to researchers at the University of Guelph.

Other news: The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation (BCBC) re-opened for business this past winter after a combination of COVID and ill-advised government cost-cutting attempts shut it down the previous cold season. It saw a record number of visits. Many of these were school groups. In total over 1,750 people took part in BCBC activities over the winter.

Patti Campsall of the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory

Pine beetle

Things have been slow on the mountain pine beetle front. Jennifer MacCormick of Alberta Ag & Forestry said this past season, 24,000 infected trees were ‘controlled’ (I.e. cut and burned) in the province. That’s the lowest number in several years, she said. The year before, the number was 65,000; the year before that it was over 100,000.

In the Slave Lake region, only 99 pine-beetle-killed trees were dealt with. If the beetle is advancing anywhere, MacCormick said, it’s in the Calgary region. On the other hand, another type of destructive bug is showing up more than usual in forests in the area. It’s called the ‘ips’ beetle. It’s a bark beetle that can hasten the demise of spruce and pine trees.

Regional forest management

Trevor Lafreniere of Tolko provided a brief update on the regional forest management plan, which is jointly done by Tolko, West Fraser and Vanderwell Contractors. One slide in his show provoked quite a bit of discussion. It compared historic annual harvest numbers to the approved annual allowable cut figures. In some cases there were significant differences. The situation was not nearly as black and white as it first appeared, with various factors involved – as explained by Vanderwell woodlands manager Mike Haire.

Haire also fielded a question about whether and how much the timber losses in the McMillan fire (a 2019 incident that burned 273,000 hectares) affected the companies’ annual allowable cuts (AAC). It did, Haire said, but a lot of the burned area was cutblocks in various stages of regeneration. Thanks to a government funding program, much of those were replanted. Thanks to all the new growth, the affect on the AAC diminishes accordingly.

Haire said the last of the McMillan Complex cutblocks burned in 2019 will be replanted this year, starting in June.

Grizzly bears

The feature presentation of the evening was by grizzly bear researcher Gord Stenhouse. He spoke about the findings in a 2018 study of grizzly populations in the Swan Hills Bear Management Unit (BMU), as well as one in the Sundre area. The results were encouraging. The study came up with an estimate of 62 grizzlies in the Swan Hills, which was higher than expected. As it was the first-ever comprehensive study, there are no credible numbers to compare it with. However, studies in other BMUs had similar results. In the Sundre BMU, for example, the estimated number of grizzlies was more than twice that of a similar study done in 2005.

Making bear monitoring much easier and cheaper these days, Stenhouse said, is DNA identification. A significant database has been built up, via bear hair samples. He encouraged people to collect bear hair, should they come across any, and submit it.

An interesting finding of his grizzly studies, Stenhouse added, is the fact bears in the mountain parks are generally older, but also smaller than their lowland cousins. Food is better in the areas of Alberta outside the parks, but mortality risk is higher. Why? Humans.

One of Gord Stenhouse’s slides, showing estimated grizzly numbers in 2010. In most management units, the estimates are now higher.