This Atlas has been applied to a variety of conservation purposes since soon after the first season of field data collection was complete in 2008. The main conservation applications to date fall into the following categories: species-at-risk, purchasing and prioritising land for conservation, landscape management and habitat stewardship, environmental impact assessment, and informing urban planning and treaty processes. These applications are explored in more detail below.
Species-at-Risk Status, Recovery and Habitat Protection
New inventory enables better-informed assessments of conservation status. The Atlas database is shared with the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Environment Canada, in particular to facilitate species assessment processes, recovery planning and conservation habitat designations.
Breeding bird atlas data play an important role in the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessments of wild species that are suspected of being at risk of extinction in Canada, especially for more widespread, numerous species, like Canada Warbler Cardellina canadensis, Olive-sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi and Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus, because they are one of the few sources of standardised data collected across large geographic areas capable of highlighting shifts in distribution and abundance of a species. Birds assessed by COSEWIC using data from this Atlas include (date assessed is in parentheses):
Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis – Special Concern (2014)
Northern Goshawk laingi subspecies Accipiter nisus laingi – Threatened (2013)
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus – Special Concern (2011)
Barn Owl Tyto alba (Western population) – Threatened (2010)
Flammulated Owl Otus flammeolus – Special Concern (2010)
Western Screech-Owl kennicottii subspecies Megascops kennicottii kennicottii – Threatened (2012)
Western Screech-Owl macfarlanei subspecies M. k. macfarlanei – Threatened (2012)
Lewis’s Woodpecker Melanerpes lewis – Threatened (2010)
Bank Swallow Riparia riparia – Threatened (2013)
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica – Threatened (2011)
Black Swift Cypseloides niger – Endangered (2015)
Sage Thrasher Oreoscoptes montanus – Endangered (2010)
Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens auricollis (Southern Mountain population) – Endangered (2011)
Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus – Threatened (2010)
COSEWIC status recommendations are invariably adopted for listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, which triggers legal protection and recovery planning. Atlas data also play important roles in the recovery process, including the identification of nest locations for protection, critical habitat, and conservation management priorities. The Atlas data for several Species at Risk have been used to inform the actions of conservation stewards and managers in Important Bird Areas, particularly in British Columbia’s southern interior. Data from this Atlas have been used to define habitats and geographic locations of importance, and inform development of monitoring plans as part of the recovery processes for Lewis’s Woodpecker and Barn Owl, and are now being applied to the recovery of other species listed above.
The geographic survey coverage of a project like an atlas is a very useful tool for corroborating geographically restricted, species-specific surveys. In the case of the Williamson’s Sapsucker Sphyrapicus thyroideus, listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act, this Atlas confirmed that the species’ extent of occurrence and area of occupancy in British Columbia have not changed since at least 2007, enabling the most confident estimate of the Canadian population yet, and confirming where and how conservation investment should be targeted (Gyug et al. 2014).
The Province of British Columbia is using Atlas data extensively in the provincial conservation status ranking process. New information from the Atlas has to-date contributed to small changes to the rankings of up to about 20 species. For some birds, like the Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis, Atlas data have led to a better-informed status assessment, but no actual change in status.
Some Red- and Blue-listed provincially at-risk species may not be as restricted-range or scarce as was previously thought, either because they are recovering, or because data were lacking from some areas prior to the Atlas. Species whose conservation status might be reassessed more positively in the light of Atlas results include the Red-listed Swainson’s Hawk Buteo swainsoni, the anatum subspecies of Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Yellow Rail Coturnicops noveboracensis, Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina, Nelson’s Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni, and the Blue-listed Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus, Purple Martin Progne subis, Black-throated Green Setophaga virens and Canada Warblers.
Atlas data combined with dedicated Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) survey results are being used to support the establishment of Wildlife Habitat Areas (WHAs) at known breeding sites or sites with highly suitable nesting habitats for Nelson’s Sparrow. This sparrow is included under the Identified Wildlife Management Strategy as a species at risk, enabling the identification of WHAs on provincial Crown land, under the Forests and Range Practices Act (FRPA) and the Oil and Gas Activities Act (OGAA), to protect significant breeding sites or limited habitats. Breeding and other limited habitat for this and four other priority Conservation Framework wetland species (Yellow Rail, Le Conte’s Sparrow Ammodramus leconteii, Rusty Blackbird, and American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus) is increasingly impacted by activities under the Oil and Gas Activities Act including well-site and pipeline development, and water extractions.
Setting Conservation and Land Purchase Priorities
The first ever report on the State of Canada’s Birds (NABCI Canada 2012) drew heavily on Atlas data from across the country, including this Atlas, to highlight the issues and bird guilds of greatest conservation concern in Canada.
Atlas data have been used extensively in the development of conservation plans for Bird Conservation Regions, ecologically distinct regions that are defined by similar bird communities, habitats, and resource management issues (e.g., Rickbeil et al. 2013). Bird Conservation Regions are conservation management units that frame work plans of federal management agencies in Canada, the United States and Mexico under the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, with an overarching goal of ensuring that populations and habitats of North America’s birds are protected, restored, and enhanced through coordinated efforts at international, national, regional, and local levels, guided by sound science and effective management.
At a more local scale, atlas datasets are increasingly valued and utilised to identify priority conservation land parcels for future purchase or conservation easement/management. In British Columbia, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the Nature Trust of British Columbia (NTBC) are two organisations applying Atlas data to this purpose; NCC is doing so in other provinces also (including Ontario and the Maritimes).
Landscape Management and Stewardship
Combined Atlas distribution and abundance data can be used to identify important landscape and habitat patches where individual species requiring conservation action are found, and to reveal “hotspots” of priority and at-risk bird assemblages, or overall bird diversity. Strongholds for particular species and hotspots for sets of species can then be targeted for conservation through land acquisition or, more importantly, stewardship through public and private land management. An excellent example of this is provided by the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Cadman et al. 2007) dataset, which was used to define previously suspected but unproven bird conservation hotspots and boundaries in “The Land Between” – the transition zone between the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence biome and the southern Canadian Shield biome. This work highlighted that as boundaries in landscape features and species’ distributions shift in response to factors including climate change and anthropogenic disturbance, hotspot/boundary analysis can quickly identify this movement and anticipate species distribution changes, informing management actions and long-term planning (Polakowska et al. 2012).
In British Columbia, we modelled Atlas point count data using multi-species kriging to assist identification of areas of high diversity and abundance of species at risk and Bird Conservation Region priority species. The results of this pilot “proof of concept” project can be viewed here.
Louisiana Pacific Canada Ltd. applied Atlas data and species habitat preferences to help identify harvest strategies in Louisiana Pacific Ltd.’s forest license areas in northeast and southeast British Columbia, as part of a wider project to apply Canadian breeding bird atlas data to inform the management of forests for species at risk and biodiversity values under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s forest certification standards.
The Babine Watershed Management Trust is using Atlas data to help evaluate the effectiveness of post-harvest retention of deciduous trees and structure at maintaining biodiversity in this watershed in northern British Columbia.
In partnership with the National Research Council and others, The Nature Trust of British Columbia is using Atlas data to prepare a landscape level management plan for a series of critical conservation holdings in the White Lake basin (South Okanagan region), to maintain natural grassland and fresh water ecosystem habitats for species at risk whilst simultaneously supporting a viable biodiversity ranching operation in a large contiguous landscape.
Environmental Impact Assessment
Many requests for breeding bird atlas data are to inform federal and provincial environmental impact assessments under the relevant legislation and regulatory frameworks. With over 16,500 new records of rare or sensitive species, the Atlas of Breeding Birds of British Columbia is a must-acquire database for any proposed development project, to inform and allow planning around the regulatory risks, help guide any modifications to construction plans, and advise on what species or habitats to target for further surveys. Atlas data also provide a context and baseline from which to assess long-term impacts of these projects on bird species and communities post completion. Many development proponents and their consultants who undertook field surveys during the Atlas period have contributed their data to augment the volunteer-gathered dataset. Projects have ranged from highway realignments and development of subdivisions, to transmission and pipe line routes, mine, dam, and wind farm siting.
Some examples of development projects that have acquired Atlas data include:
- Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) proposals for Digby Island, Grassy Point, Kitimat Estuary and the Douglas Channel (north coast).
- Proposed Crown Mountain coal mine site in the Kootenays.
- Sukunka and Gething coal mine initiatives in the Peace River – Tumbler Ridge region.
- Taylor and Sundance wind energy proposals in the Peace River watershed near Tumbler Ridge.
- Natural gas pipelines in the Peace River watershed, and west to Kitimat.
- Port terminal developments at Roberts Bank (Fraser River Estuary), in Burrard Inlet (Vancouver Harbour) and Prince Rupert port.
- Siting of gas plants in northern British Columbia.
- Assessment of Trumpeter Swan nesting habitat at natural gas well sites in Fort Nelson River basin.
Environment Canada’s Cumulative Effects Assessment (CEA) process – a modelling process that evaluates the cumulative, additive, and synergistic effects on ecosystems as a result of multiple natural and anthropogenic disturbances – used Atlas data to evaluate the cumulative effects on landbirds of multiple proposed projects in the southern Peace River region of British Columbia.
Urban Planning and Traditional Territory Treaty processes
Intensive point count sampling following Atlas protocols (including Atlas point count locations) in 2012-13 led to British Columbia’s first urban bird atlas, for the City of New Westminster (Butler et al. 2015), which is helping to inform green space planning there.
The City of Surrey has taken Atlas nest location data, applied appropriate buffers based on Best Management Practices and built it into their COSMOS web mapping application to ensure known nests of species like Great Blue Heron, Bald Eagle and Osprey are incorporated into city planning and development.
The Atlas database has also been queried to develop wildlife population information to inform treaty negotiations for the traditional territories of at least two First Nations in British Columbia.
Butler, R.W., A.R. Couturier, E. Jenkins and C. McKenzie. 2015. New Westminster Breeding Bird Atlas 2012-13. British Columbia Birds 25: 17-39.
Cadman MD, Sutherland DA, Beck GG, Lepage D, Couturier AR (eds). 2007. Atlas of the breeding birds of Ontario, 2001–2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, Toronto.
Gyug, L.W., J.M. Cooper, and C. Steeger. 2014. Distribution, Relative Abundance and Population Size of Williamson’s Sapsucker in Southcentral British Columbia. British Columbia Birds 24:9–19. First published on-line October 2013.
Polakowska, A.J., Fortin M-J., and Couturier, A.R. 2012. Quantifying the spatial relationship between bird species’ distributions and landscape feature boundaries in southern Ontario, Canada. Landscape Ecology 27:1481–1493. DOI 10.1007/s10980-012-9804-6
Rickbeil, G.J.M., N.C. Coops, M.E. Andrew, D.K. Bolton, N. Mahony, and T.A. Nelson. 2013. Assessing conservation regionalization schemes: employing a beta diversity metric to test the environmental surrogacy approach. Diversity and Distributions 1-12.
North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) Canada. 2012. The State of Canada’s Birds, 2012. Environment Canada, Ottawa.