Conservation in the Kootenays: Restoring Wetlands for Wildlife

This past autumn, The BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF) had the unique opportunity to provide additional support at two previously restored wetlands, and to assist with the construction of a new wetland complex. On a whirlwind journey of close to 2,500 km, the Wetlands Education Program (WEP) team, along with two volunteer interns from the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Canadian Conservation Corps (CCC) embarked on a restoration blitz through the Kootenays. Over the course of three weeks, the WEP team planted over 3,500 shrubs and juvenile trees, with the express goal of enhancing habitat for wildlife. This work was completed at the tail-end of the field season, and it was a race against time to complete the work before the winter weather set-in.

Ministry of FLNRORD and BC Parks staff walking to the next planting site.

The restoration blitz started with a collaborative planting day at Earl Ranch, a 208-hectare ranch that was purchased by the provincial government in 1974. Several wetlands were restored on this property in 2018 by BCWF to provide ungulates in the area with a reliable source of food during the winter. Together with 8 colleagues from the Ministry of FLNRORD and BC Parks, we planted 2200 shrubs in the riparian zones surrounding the wetlands. This opportunity allowed us to not only supplement the natural re-growth of native plants, but also to see very clear evidence of wildlife using the site—a herd of elk that quickly left as soon as we arrived and clear tracks of ungulates and waterfowl were prominent on site.

This opportunity to revisit previous restoration sites in a maintenance capacity also helped us strengthen our relationship with project partners by collaboratively enhancing this habitat. The planting day was a complete success, and with the sun warming our cheeks, we couldn’t help but raise our planting shovels in recognition of the great work that we all accomplished.

Raising our shovels in triumph after a successful day of planting in the sunshine.

The next stop on this whirlwind tour was Sparrowhawk farm, a scenic private property just outside of Kimberley, B.C. With the beautifully snow-capped Rocky Mountains as our backdrop, we started a 5-day restoration project in what would quickly become frigid winter conditions, with temperatures dipping down to -21°C! This presented us with some unique challenges, which included frozen ground, a near white-out as a short-lived snow system moved through the valley, and one incident where one team member fell through the ice into one of the wetlands. Our team member was okay and he was able to get warm and dry quickly.

Despite these challenges, we did not let any of these events side-track us; one key aspect of wetland restoration is seeing the project through on time and in all types of weather conditions. Even though we often ended the day with frozen toes and aching limbs, we relished in the knowledge that our part in the restoration work was necessary for its success.

The project at Sparrowhawk Farm started on October 28th, using two excavators and one bulldozer to create 6 wetlands (click here for detailed steps on Building a Wetland). As assistants to the on-site Restoration Specialist Robin Annschild, our main tasks were to map the new wetlands and to gather additional GPS data on the wetlands that were restored the year previous. Mapping is an incredibly useful tool that can be used as a metric to visualize the extent of the newly created wetlands, to measure the total area restored, to outline the extent of the areas that were seeded to prevent the growth of invasive species, and to take note of key features. This data will then be used to generate maps that will provide a bird’s eye view of the completed work.

The last few days were dedicated to planting Willow and Red Osier Dogwood stakes (live cuttings taken from shrubs on-site) along the edges of the new wetlands and seeding the riparian zones with native sedges and grasses. The staking was incredibly difficult as the ground was mostly frozen solid! Another example of us racing the clock with Mother Nature. Thankfully, we were able to use one of the excavators to plant large stakes made from a large Black Cottonwood limb that had recently fallen from the tree; we removed the smaller branches (to be planted as well), and then had the excavator push them into the frozen ground. Planting native species directly after the wetland is completed adds stability to the riparian soils and discourages the growth of invasive species that could otherwise overrun the site. As the new wetlands mature, the plants will also provide valuable forage, shelter, and nesting habitat for native wildlife species.

Holding a bundle of willow stakes just before they were planted!

The time that we spent at Sparrowhawk was incredibly enriching, not only for the diverse habitats that we were able to create alongside our colleagues, but also for the incredible value that we imparted to the community. Throughout the week, we interacted not only with the landowner, but also with neighbouring landowners. We were able to convey the objectives of the project as well as the ecological values of restoring these highly functional habitats, which was enlightening for these curious community members; they gave us their full support of the work and left with a little more knowledge about how incredibly important wetlands are to biodiversity and to mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change.

Meadow Creek, a remote community at the north end of Kootenay Lake.

The next week brought us to our last site visit in Meadow Creek, a remote community at the north end of Kootenay Lake. Working alongside two contractors from Arrowstone Forest Contracting Ltd., we split our time between two properties to treat invasive species and to plant additional Red Osier Dogwood and Willow stakes, as well as juvenile Alder trees. Both properties featured wetland complexes that had been restored by BCWF several years ago, and while they were already established and thriving ecosystems, our goal was to enhance the restoration activities by suppress invasive plant species.

We started the final week of our tour at the Halleran farm. The landowner conveyed his desire to provide more grizzly bear cover from the highway, so we spent the better part of the afternoon collecting stakes along the banks of the creek, which could only be accessed by boat. Thankfully, the landowner graciously lent us his canoes. Leaving the newly cut live stakes to soak, we proceeded to plant the Alder plugs along the northern edge of the wetlands and along the edges of the creek that flowed through the property. At the Matthews-Grange Farm, we implemented experimental design; we used three different methods as trials to suppress reed canary grass, which is a fast growing non-native grass species that can quickly take over and create a thick mat of grass, causing the wetland to be less hospitable to native wildlife.

Habitat restoration is incredibly rewarding work. Every day that you spend out in the field brings new challenges, surprises, and opportunities for connection with the landscape and the community. No day is the same as the next and you are often required to think on your feet and respond quickly to dynamic situations as they unfold. It is not easy work by any means, but the benefits for wildlife and the connections that are made within these communities far outweigh the aching limbs and frozen toes; when you see a herd of deer moving in to a newly restored wetland where, just a couple of days before there was just an empty, open field, that speaks volumes. It shows us that this work is important, that it supports biodiversity, and that it ensures that our wildlife have spaces that cater to their needs so that they can continue to flourish from now and into the future.

The WEP Team on the last day of planting at the Matthew Grange farm.

We would like to take a moment to recognize our funders who made this work possible: Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, Wildlife Habitat Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Government of BC, BC Parks, The Nature Trust of BC, and the Ministry of FLNRORD.

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