From Forests to Facts
Measuring and Reporting on the Status of Biodiversity in the Oil Sands Region
by ABMI

“True to the reflections of past technicians, after a week into my first shift, I’m finding it a challenge to leave for work when it’s still dark (that’s 3 a.m.!), knowing I have to stumble through fields and forests for hours carrying a backpack full of equipment—to collect bird songs—while dealing with the relentless buzz of mosquitoes near my face.”
- Cody Pytlak, ABMI field technician, 2014

Audio equipment is used to capture recordings of bird songs, which can be used to inventory species presence. Photo: Marc La Fleche

The ABMI’s mission statement captures the essence of our organization: “We track changes in Alberta’s wildlife and their habitats from border to border, and provide ongoing, relevant, and scientifically credible information on Alberta’s living resources. For Alberta’s land-use decision makers. For Albertans.” But, how exactly does the ABMI monitor Alberta’s biodiversity? How do they convert data into information that can support regional planning and resource development?

Cody Pytlak’s quote above provides a flavour of the ABMI’s intensive, annual pan-provincial field operations. In 2014, data accumulated over several years by technicians like Cody stationed in northern Alberta contributed to the publication of the “Status of Biodiversity in the Oil Sands Region of Alberta” report. To learn about the various steps involved in monitoring and reporting process, see our infographic, “The Biodiversity Monitoring Cycle”.

ABMI-infographic1

Take a closer look.

The report is the first of its kind to describe the status (current condition) of an extensive range of plants and animals (425 species) across the Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River Oil Sands Areas, collectively known as the Oil Sands Region (OSR). To ensure uptake of the results by land-use decision makers in the region, the report was widely distributed to government officials, oil and gas and forestry industry representatives, and environmental non-government organizations.

In the report, the ABMI presents data on the predominant human activities that are transforming the OSR, and the species that are most sensitive to those activities. As of 2012, the total human footprintacross the region was 13.8%. Agriculture was the largest footprint type, covering 7.3% of the region, followed by forestry at 3.1%, and energy at 2.3%.

Forest Facts2

Black-throated Green Warbler. Photo: Paul Reeves

What about species abundance? The data showed several plants and animals were less abundant than expected, particularly those that rely on old-forests to forage and reproduce. Examples include the Black-throated Green Warbler (a species of Special Concern according to the Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee), the Fisher (a small mammal with few predators due to its speed and agility), and the delicate One-flowered Wintergreen. By contrast, species that thrive in areas with human development, such as the Coyote and the Black-billed Magpie, were more abundant than expected.

Forest Facts3

Teams of field technicians visit each site multiple times throughout the spring and summer to monitor biodiversity. Photo: ABMI

The ABMI’s work in the region, however, has just begun. “The Status of Biodiversity in the Oil Sands Region” set a baseline for the health of plants and animals in the region. In summer 2015, ABMI technicians began revisiting previously surveyed sites with the goal of monitoring Alberta’s species, habitat, and human footprint over time. Only with this data in hand can the ABMI determine how biodiversity in the OSR is changing and evaluate the factors driving these changes.

The ABMI is poised to monitor the OSR for years to come. Mosquitos and treacherous landscapes aside, ABMI field technicians relish the natural beauty of the region. As Cody reflects, they savour “how, within a half hour past sunrise, the forest and fields are alive with the songs of birds.”


1 The ABMI defines “human footprint” as the visible conversion of native ecosystems to temporary or permanent residential, recreational, agricultural, or industrial landscapes.


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