Assessing the effectiveness of reclamation guidance to create wildlife habitat in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) requires an assessment of wildlife use of reclaimed areas as well as the development of scientifically defensible and repeatable survey methods. The Reclamation Working Group of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) produces and maintains guidance documents that provide recommendations and best practices that ensure reclaimed landscapes within the AOSR meet regulatory requirements, satisfy the needs and values of stakeholders, and are environmentally sustainable.
As part of a pilot project funded by CEMA to assess the use of early successional stands (i.e., those ranging in age from 4 to 20 years) by wildlife (songbirds, small mammals, and winter-active animals), various wildlife monitoring protocols were developed and field tested from 2010 to 2012. The purpose of this project was to (1) assess the return and re-establishment of early successional wildlife species on reclaimed terrestrial systems; (2) evaluate the feasibility of the recommended protocols for monitoring on reclaimed terrestrial systems; (3) develop recommendations for the wildlife appendix of the Guidelines for Reclamation to Forest Vegetation in the AOSR (AENV 2010) for early successional wildlife monitoring based on the monitoring program results; and (4) collect monitoring data to assist in the development of wildlife indicators for the Criteria and Indicators Framework. The study achieved the following goals (1) an assessment of the return and re-establishment of early successional wildlife to reclaimed terrestrial systems; (2) an assessment of the feasibility of the recommended protocols for monitoring wildlife on reclaimed terrestrial systems; (3) the development of recommendations for the wildlife appendix of the Guidelines for Reclamation to Forest Vegetation in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region 2nd edition for early successional wildlife monitoring based on the monitoring program results; and (4) the collection of monitoring data to assist in identifying and developing wildlife indicators for reclamation certification.
Based on the detection of several of the 14 key indicator resources (KIRs) with relatively little effort, the methods proposed for sampling early successional wildlife on reclamation plots in the AOSR appear to be appropriate. The KIRs documented include Moose (Alces americanus), Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis), Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus), Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi), Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), 18 songbird species indicative of early successional mixedwood forest communities and American Black Bear (Ursus americanus). The combination of standardized sampling techniques and incidental observations continue to provide the data necessary to characterize wildlife use of reclaimed plots in the AOSR. Ultimately, comparisons between reclaimed and natural stands of similar age should provide the necessary data to determine if wildlife use in reclaimed plots is comparable to that in natural stands.
The standardized monitoring techniques used to document the presence and distribution of wildlife on reclaimed plots are appropriate for reclaimed plots in the AOSR. The inclusion of Incidental observations can benefit early successional wildlife monitoring programs because they often (and in the case of this pilot program) increase the number of species using a reclamation plot. For example, Ruffed Grouse is one species that was documented via incidental observations as were Canada Lynx, emphasizing the need to document all wildlife and their sign observed on each plot. Additional monitoring of the reclamation plots will provide the data necessary to assess trends relative to reclamation stand age and type. Sampling wildlife from natural stands of similar age using the same methods will provide an indication as to how wildlife use of reclamation plots compares to natural stands over time.