Photo by Jared Hobbs

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada (WCS) is heading up the process of identifying Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) across Canada, and Cranbrook-based wildlife biologist Ian Adams is leading the charge in British Columbia. Since Ian joined WCS as the BC Regional Coordinator for KBAs last June, his days have been spent locating and identifying sites where various species meet the KBA criteria, which he describes as “a very data hungry process”.

“My job is mapping those sites and preparing proposals for review,” he said. “There is a fairly extensive review process of KBAs to ensure the criteria are being properly met, and it’s very strident. One of the strengths of the KBAs is that they’re not negotiable, so a site either meets the criteria or doesn’t.”

The KBA process was developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Taskforce for Biodiversity and Protected Areas as a way for countries to identify sites that are important for the persistence of biodiversity. Sites can be designated under one of five criteria: threatened biodiversity; geographically restricted biodiversity; ecological integrity; biological processes; and irreplaceability. The KBA initiative got underway in Canada in 2018-2019, with detailed work starting in B.C. in early 2020.

“We primarily look for nationally listed species, but all species are potentially eligible so it isn’t necessarily only species at risk,” said Ian. “Any large aggregations or areas that are essential to a species’ life history are potentially eligible, so things like bat hibernacula could potentially qualify if there are enough bats within the species that are using it.”

The one species group that Ian doesn’t deal with much is birds. When the global KBA initiative started, a partnership formed with BirdLife International, which was leading the global Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) program that was co-led in Canada by Birds Canada. Now, all IBAs worldwide are moving to the KBA designation. In Canada, IBAs are being reassessed by Birds Canada to meet KBA criteria and the vast majority do. In B.C., 94 IBAs that were established in the early and mid 90s are being moved to KBAs and, since the KBA program began, another 85-90 sites have been identified. In B.C. alone, while only one KBA site has been finalized (the Trial Islands off the coast of Victoria), there are currently approximately 180 draft KBAs in the review process.

“The objective is to find recent data,” Ian said. “We do want to make sure that sites that are recognized as KBAs are still supporting those species. If, for example, a certain butterfly was seen once in 1975 that isn’t good enough. We need more recent data and a minimum threshold to population size. One of the criteria is if 10 per cent of the national or global population occurs within an area then that is eligible for a KBA.”

The scoping process involves pulling data from the Conservation Data Centre, iNaturalist, provincial databases and more to help map out where potential KBAs might be located. A KBA can also be nominated with the provision of necessary data to support the nomination. Once the criteria are met and the mapping is done, a draft KBA is submitted for review, first a technical review by people familiar with the trigger species and area. Next, a general review is done by a national secretariat committee that oversees the KBA process in Canada. Lastly, the draft is reviewed by a global committee.

“The advantages to the KBA process is that it’s very grassroots led, so it’s local information, very bottom-up driven because of the data that underlies it,” said Ian, “and it’s a robust enough process that a KBA in B.C. will meet the same criteria as a KBA in Ghana or in Australia.”

While the KBA designation provides a means of highlighting the importance of an area, it does not provide any protections, similar to a RAMSAR or UNESCO Biosphere designation.

“One common complaint is it doesn’t come with any management prescription, nor offer legal protection,” said Ian. “It’s strictly an information layer. However, the federal government especially, and the B.C. government, are very interested in looking to KBAs for direction and in using that as a process for identifying potential protected areas and land-use planning.”

KBAs are also being considered by many First Nations to help identify or support Indigenous Protected Conservation Areas (IPCAs), as well as by regional and provincial government land use planners who are looking to KBAs to inform OCPs around environmentally sensitive areas, and by land trusts for land acquisition decisions.

“Right now we’re looking at a few possible KBAs in the Kootenays. Mountain caribou are potential triggers so areas where herds are in sufficient numbers will likely become KBAs. We’ve also been looking at the Columbia Wetlands, and the sturgeon in Kootenay Lake are a trigger, as well as areas with Rocky Mountain Tailed Frogs and many lesser-known species like lichens.”

Ian’s far-reaching professional experience as a wildlife biologist has laid a broad foundation for the demands of his role as the province’s KBA Coordinator. After earning a BSc in Wildlife Biology and a MSc in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Guelph, he left Ontario to work as a wildlife ecologist in Northern Alberta, and landed in the East Kootenay shortly thereafter, a move he attributes to “matters of the heart” (i.e. his wife Kari Stuart-Smith had the opportunity to do her PhD in the Kootenays). Setting up shop in the East Kootenay was an easy choice, and it’s where they’ve been based ever since. His career portfolio has ranged from providing professional project management and ecological services, to specializing in management of species at risk, including the development of a provincial program for badger protection, and leading an urban deer translocation program in the East Kootenay. He’s also worked stints as a species at risk biologist for the BC Ministry of Environment, consulting with Cranbrook-based Vast Resource Solutions Ltd, a coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Trench Ecosystem Restoration Program, as an ecological consultant for the Ktunaxa Nation Council, and as a biology instructor at the College of the Rockies. Beyond biology, Ian has nurtured his passion for arts and culture as a long-time Board member of the Symphony of the Kootenays and is currently President, a position he has held for the past several years.

“The diversity of what I’ve done has been result of following different opportunities as they came up,” said Ian. “It’s been a lot of developing experience and a network of people.”

Now as the BC KBA Coordinator, this diversity is paying off. Much of his work requires talking to researchers, academics, biologists, conservationists and naturalists all over the province in trying to dig up the evidence needed for KBA designations.

“The unfortunate part of it means I sit in front of a computer far too much instead of being on the ground, but we are connecting with people who are out and on the ground and know the areas and know the species,” he said. “It’s really rewarding work.”