Conservation Biology Institute

This American research instite analized huge amounts of data to produce maps that show the most critical areas in need of protection. Kananaskis is one of them.

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Mapping High Conservation Value and Endangered Forests in the Alberta Foothills Using Spatially Explicit Decision Support Tools

James R. Strittholt, Ph.D. Conservation Biology Institute

1.  High Conservation Value Forests (HCVFs) are forests that possess noteworthy characteristics that are globally, nationally, or regionally significant. Endangered Forests (EFs) are those HCVFs, or portions of them, that are so biologically distinct, rare, or ecologically important that industrial use would be incompatible with maintaining these values. HCVFs and EFs include landscape integrity and biodiversity components. Landscape integrity components include intact forest landscapes, remnant forest blocks, and landscape connectivity. Biodiversity components include rare forest types (composition and structure), forests of high species richness, forests containing high concentrations of rare and endangered species, forests of high endemism, core habitat for focal species, and forests exhibiting rare ecological and evolutionary phenomena.

2.  Protected areas form one of the main pillars of biodiversity conservation throughout the world. Although a large proportion of the neighboring Rocky Mountains are well-protected, only 1.2 percent of the Alberta Foothills is currently protected, which is woefully inadequate by any scientific standard. The Alberta Foothills contain numerous biological values that help support the values of the mountain protected area network (e.g., important seasonal habitat for caribou) as well as its own set of ecoregion-based values.

3.  Protecting the full array of native biodiversity (representation) is an extremely important consideration in a regional protected areas strategy. Approximately 75 percent of the natural variability present in the Alberta Foothills (measured as enduring features) is not adequately represented in the current protected areas network. Internationally, representation targets have been set at 12 percent (ten times the amount that is currently protected), but more scientifically defensible targets are typically between 25-75 percent depending on the system being addressed.

4.  Approximately 82 percent of the region is comprised of logging tenures and much of this same area is subjected to intensive oil and gas development – the ecoregion contains over 36,000 wells, numerous pipelines, and thousands of kilometers of seismic exploration. Change detection analysis has shown that nearly 9 percent of the ecoregion (~640,000 ha) has been impacted by activities visible from space since 1990 and much of this has been by these two activities.

5.  The Alberta Foothills no longer possesses large intact forest landscapes (undisturbed blocks >50,000 ha), but approximately 1/3 of the region is comprised of smaller forest remnants (over 2,100 with mean size of 1,500 ha), which forms the natural backbone of the region and becomes one of the major building blocks for protecting the many ecological values identified in the region.

6.  Biodiversity values evaluated in the HCVF and EF mapping included:
(1) rare forest types (old growth and less fragmented forests),
(2) locations of rare and endangered species and their special habitats,
(3) woodland caribou,
(4) grizzly bear,
(5) freshwater species such as bull trout and arctic grayling, and
(6) forest and water-dependent bird species. Many of these values are being seriously degraded and some threatened with local extinction.

7.  The study area examined centered on the Alberta Foothills, but was extended slightly to include all portions of the major logging tenures that intersect the ecoregion. Analytical units were comprised of 4,045 cells 5km x 5km resolution. Spatially explicit decision support modeling was carried out using an interconnected bundle of computer software – NetWeaver®, Ecosystem Management Decision Support (EMDS®), and ArcMap®. Over 40 different attributes were assigned to each cell and subjected to a well-defined knowledge diagram based on carefully assigned operators and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic essentially allowed for the inclusion of shades of gray rather than simply black and white treatments of the data inputs. Numerous maps were produced summarizing the results.

8.  Draft decision support mapping highlighted areas within the Alberta Foothills that still contain high conservation values and some of these values are of global or national significance. The highest scoring areas should be considered priority candidates for an expanded protected areas network for the region. These areas correspond to but are not limited by: (1) the remaining woodland caribou populations, (2) areas of relatively unfragmented forest especially in areas with high levels of old growth, (3) important habitat for grizzly bears, (4) watersheds of high quality and occurrence of threatened fish species, (5) locations of notable biological value for a wide range of species, and (6) areas in support of key ecological function (e.g., winter range or regional connectivity).

9.  To be effective, an expanded protected area network alone will not be enough to maintain the conservation values present in the region today. New protected areas should be established strategically in the context of a region under dramatic pressure from development and extractive use. Because of the high level of human disturbance already occurring in the ecoregion, management and even restoration in some areas should also be considered in an overall plan to achieve ecological sustainability that protects the values identified and mapped.

10.  The map-based decision support model can be used in a very active way (e.g., used in future meetings or negotiations) as the scientific foundation upon which land use decisions will be made. With the basic model already constructed, it is relatively easy to include additional data and information as it becomes available, test different assumptions, or evaluate iterative conservation decisions. All of this can be carried out in a very transparent fashion with open participation.