The Creston Valley is one of the first four focal areas of Kootenay Connect where significant conservation and restoration work has been completed to protect species at work. Photo by Steve Ogle

Extended federal funding helps Kootenay region contribute to global biodiversity conservation targets

What do grizzly bears, badgers, and western painted turtles have in common? They are three of the more than 30 at-risk species in the Kootenays that will continue to be helped by a large-scale habitat conservation project thanks to a big boost in federal funding.

Managed by the Kootenay Conservation Program (KCP), the Kootenay Connect Priority Places project began in 2019 as a four-year project with a $2 million grant from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Community-Nominated Priority Places (CNPP) program. Kootenay Connect includes over 30 partners collaborating on over 50 restoration projects benefiting species at risk and the habitats they need for survival. 

KCP recently learned the project will receive an additional $1.95 million, which will extend this habitat restoration work another three years.

“Kootenay Connect is providing on-the-ground solutions to address the loss of biological diversity in our region,” said Marcy Mahr, KCP’s Kootenay Connect Manager. “From rolling grasslands and open dry forests to rich wetlands and towering stands of old growth cedar-hemlock, all of these habitats are essential to the day to day, seasonal, and long-term survival of the species who call the Kootenays home.”

Four landscapes totalling one million hectares have been the focus of Kootenay Connect: Bonanza Biodiversity Corridor (north of New Denver), Creston Valley, Columbia Valley Wetlands, and the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor (north of Cranbrook).

CNPP funding will now be extended until 2026 to support conservation and restoration projects in the current areas as well as three additional hotspots for biodiversity. This funding boost will expand the Kootenay Connect project area to 16.6 million hectares, which is about 20% of the Kootenay Region.

“We’re going to see new conservation projects that address the habitat needs of more species at risk along the Slocan River, in the Duncan Lardeau Valley at the north end of Kootenay Lake, and around Columbia Lake,” explained Mahr. “It’s an exciting time for enhancing and connecting more wildlife habitat with big implications for biodiversity in the Kootenays.”

In the Bonanza Biodiversity Corridor (BBC), multi-year Kootenay Connect funding supported the identification of over 55 species at risk, in a biodiversity rich and rare environment, that includes a wide range of lichens, fungi, birds, amphibians and aquatic species. It also supported the successful enhancement of three wetlands through nature-based solutions in support of improved hydrologic and ecosystem functioning that included the intrinsic value of beavers in the hydrologic functioning of this series of wetlands and riparian zones.  

“We now have a comprehensive view of species and sensitive habitats providing a common understanding to share and build upon with First Nations, resource managers and stakeholder groups in the ongoing effort to retain and hold those conservation values,” said Wendy King, Chair of Slocan Lake Stewardship Society and BBC project lead. “The BBC has now become recognized locally, regionally and nationally as a unique and special place for biodiversity and wildlife connectivity, as well as a climate refugia that will protect conservation values during periods of drought, wildfire or other habitat disruption.” 

In the Creston Valley, an internationally recognized RAMSAR site, 16 hectares of open fields were protected to provide breeding habitat for bobolinks, and 12 hectares of riverine and wetland riparian habitat were protected from impacts of cattle with new wildlife-friendly fencing. The work conducted will also help conserve a significant section of riparian area along the Kootenay River and the Duck Lake Nesting Area as well as improving east-west habitat connectivity for wildlife movement.

“The KCP Kootenay Connect funding allowed us to conduct habitat enhancement and restoration work to increase habitat complexity that will benefit a variety of species, including species at risk such as the endangered northern leopard frog,” said Marc-Andre Beaucher, Head of Conservation Programs at the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area. “Other species that should directly benefit from the activities we implemented are grizzly bear, bobolink, short-eared owl, and western painted turtle.”

The Wycliffe Conservation Complex is an important area for many species at risk, and funding from KCP’s Kootenay Connect and the Columbia Basin Trust’s Ecosystem Enhancement Program initiated a multi-year ecosystem enhancement project in 2019 to improve the health and quality of native ecosystems in the Wycliffe Complex.

Over the course of the last four years, over 80 hectares of dry open forests have been enhanced through forest thinning techniques to promote resilient ecosystems that benefit species at risk such as American badger, Lewis’s woodpecker, and Williamsons’ sapsucker.

“Kootenay Connect funding enhanced Williamson’s sapsucker habitat near a known historic nesting site in addition to enhancing the open forest and grasslands for burrowing badgers and foraging areas for Lewis’s woodpecker. These efforts are contributing to the larger landscape level ecosystem restoration for species at risk across the Wycliffe area in the East Kootenay region of BC,” said Richard Klafki, Canadian Rocky Mountains Program Director for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Kootenay Connect funding has also been used to complete 13 fencing projects at the Wycliffe Conservation Complex over the last four years, addressing approximately 17.3 kilometres of new fence builds, replacements, repairs and removals.   

“Installation of new wildlife-friendly fences along property lines, as well as repairs and removal of derelict fence segments, have been completed by dedicated, local contractors,” said Chris Bosman, Kootenay Conservation Land Manager for the Nature Trust of BC. “This work helps to reduce threats to both common wildlife species as well as species at risk. For example, securing conservation properties with perimeter fencing can reverse habitat loss and degradation that the common nighthawk, a threatened ground-nesting bird native to the Wycliffe area, is currently facing.”

In Columbia Wetlands,  an internationally recognized RAMSAR site, Kootenay Connect has supported important wetlands research within a package of interrelated projects to guide future conservation and management of the Columbia Wetlands and surrounding habitats. Examples include quantifying the importance of beavers to maintain water for thousands of hectares of Columbia Wetlands as well as restoring a beaver dam that provides water for 53 hectares of enhanced wetlands for migratory birds.”

“I think one of the most important contributions of our work is showing how vulnerable wetlands are to climate change. Our assessment will inform recommendations to support thousands of birds such as various species of grebes, American bitterns, tundra swans, and many other species at risk that depend upon the Columbia Wetlands for habitat and migration,” said Suzanne Bayley, President of the Columbia Wetlands Stewardship Partners.

Future projects in the three new targeted landscapes include restoring riparian areas, conserving wetlands vulnerable to climate change, using beavers to help reconnect floodplains, protecting turtle nesting sites and installing more basking logs, protecting mineral licks for mountain goats, and replacing fencing to be more wildlife-friendly.

“This is a critical time for conservation work locally, and also globally. Kootenay Connect is moving our region toward doing our part to protect 30% of Canada’s land and water by 2030, the recently agreed upon global conservation goal to minimize our planet’s ongoing biodiversity loss,” said Dr. Michael Proctor, Kootenay Connect Science Advisor. “We look forward to a network of healthy interconnected ecosystems that support a rich array of wildlife and important ecosystem services.” 

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