In search of biodiversity: Bioblitzing in the Flathead

Earlier this summer, I joined the rest of the Flathead Wild team to head off into the wilds of the Southern Rockies, side-by-side with some of the best field biologists from B.C., Alberta, and Montana, for the fourth annual Flathead bioblitz. A bioblitz, for the uninitiated, is a rapid assessment of an area’s biological diversity – essentially, a group of people head out into the field and do as much collecting and identifying of species as possible in a short period of time to get a snapshot of what the region’s biodiversity is like. This year, we were also lucky enough to have naturalist, adventurer and CBC reporter Brian Keating join us for the week.

The sites we were surveying had been logged on and off over the course of the past half century, but in 2012 were purchased for conservation purposes, meaning no more logging or other industrial development on any of them. The history of logging made for an interesting mix of habitats within each land parcel – there were areas with fairly recent (less than 10 years) clearcuts, some areas of thick second-growth forest, some open prairie, some higher altitude talus slopes, a little bit of alpine, and some small patches of older-growth forests.

The entomologists were drawn to the rocky talus slopes like moths to black lights (a fitting comparison, I figure, since this was how they collected moths at night). The ornithologists were out early in the morning, trying to spot as many birds as they could, even though birding at this time of year was less than ideal, and the torrential downpours we were getting almost daily weren’t helping. The botanists seemed to have their work cut out for them no matter where they were, and spent more time than I’d ever care to, differentiating between different grasses and sedges.

That's me on the right, looking for spiders with Darren Copley of the Royal BC Museum (Photo: Ruth Midgley)

I tagged along on as many side-expeditions as I could, climbing up moss-covered talus slopes to find spiders hiding out under rocks, clambering through underbrush to see what mushrooms were growing there, and every now and again borrowing a pair of binoculars to spot a bird or two. I even came to learn the difference between many of the common species of lichens we kept coming across, which may not sound all that exciting, but was probably one of my favourite things about the bioblitz (coming in at a very close second was our camp food).

An awesome magnified look at a common lichen found at the Flathead Townsite called Witch’s Hair (Photo: Ruth Midgley)

Starting off our morning with some of the best camp food I’ve ever had! (Photo: Peter Wood)

Dr. Ric Hauer sharing his expertise on aquatic invertebrates, at the Alexander Creek survey site (Photo: Peter Wood)

In addition to compiling species lists, we also took the opportunity while we were out there to do a general assessment of each site’s conservation value and suitability for the various types of wildlife we were out there to find. All three of the sites had good potential in supporting a wide array of biodiversity, with the Flathead Townsite ranking highest for its overall conservation value and quality of habitats. Restoration of some of the sites in certain places was advised, while in other places the biodiversity is already notably high and the management recommendation for those areas was to stay the course and maintain the site’s natural evolution.

An impressive view of the Flathead Valley and townsite, one of the three areas we were surveying for the bioblitz (Photo: Nick Nault Photography)

Although it’s not entirely the same kind of deep wilderness you can find elsewhere in the Elk and Flathead, each of the sites we surveyed play vital roles in supporting connectivity and facilitating wildlife movement through the region. None of the sites have management plans yet so the results of our fieldwork will be used to feed directly into the process of creating a management regime for each land parcel - it’s rare that we get to see science get to influence policy so directly, which is really exciting.

All told, we spent nearly a week in the field, hiking, collecting, species-spotting, and gearing up to do it all again the next day and the next. It felt like much more than a week’s worth of new experiences crammed into six short days, and I can’t say it was at all what I was expecting when we first headed out, which was part of what made it so special. I learned more about the region’s landscapes, ecology, and the factors that influence its biodiversity than I ever had before, and came out of it with a much better sense of how these smaller parcels of land fit into the bigger picture of regional wildlife connectivity.

The full results of the bioblitz won’t be available until later in 2015, but in the meantime if you want to hear more about it, here’s a link to Brian Keating’s interview from the Flathead. You can also head over to our campaign website where you can find lots of information about the bioblitz and the campaign to connect and protect B.C.’s Flathead River Valley, or check in on our Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up to date with the campaign.

The Flathead Wild Team, July 2015 (Photo: Mark Worthing)

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