Environmental Sentinel

Cutting-edge biodiversity-monitoring agency commands respect on both sides of oilsands debate

This is the goal of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI), a not-for-profit organization independent of government and industry, which measures and reports on the status of land, water and living creatures using scientific indicators of environmental health.

Jointly delivered through the University of Alberta, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, the Royal Alberta Museum and the Alberta Conservation Association, the ABMI surveys more than 2,500 species and habitats at 1,656 sites across Alberta.

“We are in the business of providing objective facts about the health of Alberta’s living resources,” says Jim Herbers, the ABMI’s information director. “The ABMI is one of the few comprehensive biodiversity monitoring programs in the world, and as a result it helps position Alberta as a world leader in environmental management.”

Funded by the Alberta government and the energy industry, the ABMI was built to be an ongoing biodiversity performance–monitoring program for Alberta.

“The breadth of what we’ve been doing hasn’t been done anywhere else. By putting together the broader sweep, we are able to talk about the broad ecosystem, rather than just certain pieces of it,” explains Jim Schieck, the ABMI’s co-director of science. “The goal is to provide information that everyone trusts, and that everyone uses to make management and planning decisions.”

The innovative use of technology plays a major role in the wide-ranging work being done by the ABMI—which has been developing methods to assess current conditions and changes over time in an ecosystem’s health.

For example, the ABMI pioneered recording bird vocalizations digitally and interpreting the recordings in a lab, “a strong advance for surveying birds,” Schieck says.

Traditionally, he explains, people went out into the field to listen to birds and then wrote down which species they detected—but with this method, there were always individual variations and errors, since not everyone is an expert in bird calls. What the ABMI has done is standardize the process using technology that records bird calls at a very fine level, and then having an expert go through the calls to identify the birds correctly. “In addition, it gives you a long-term record,” Schieck says.

Work on the technology began in 2003, when the ABMI joined up with a small company in Saskatoon to develop the recording equipment using very sensitive microphones.

In another example, the ABMI is working with the University of Calgary to develop new remote sensing methods to assess vegetation composition throughout the province.

Remote sensing using satellite imagery has been under development since the mid-1980s, but invariably ends up creating maps filled with errors and uncertainty, Schieck says. What the ABMI has been doing is refining the algorithms in existing technologies to ensure consistent interpretation of satellite images and produce better maps of vegetation throughout the province. The institute has produced a prototype of a refined vegetation map, with the goal of producing a completed version by fall.

The ABMI also creates new technology by integrating existing data collection methods. For example, over the last few decades, a variety of field data collection techniques have been developed to survey organisms ranging from plants and lichens to insects, birds and mammals.

The ABMI has combined all this with remote sensing technology to create a series of integrated, cost-effective survey techniques allowing it to conduct structured sampling protocols of a diversity of elements, including animal species, habitats, forest structures, and soil and landscape characteristics. This allows it to evaluate the status of the entire ecosystem and how the ecosystem is changing over time.

“We’ve taken things that had been unlinked and linked them all together. The real gain was in creating methods that allowed the surveys to be conducted in an integrated fashion,” Schieck explains. “It’s an extremely powerful way to evaluate ecological effects.”

Pilot fieldwork in 2012 will use new acoustic technologies to reduce the logistics and safety challenges of working with nocturnal species.

As far as the energy industry is concerned, the ABMI seems to be hitting the mark on its goal of providing objective information.

“All parties see huge value in this initiative. What we are all looking for is sound scientific information to inform good public policy,” says David Pryce, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers vice-president, operations, who sits on the ABMI’s multi-stakeholder advisory board.

As just one example, Pryce points to the ABMI’s role in an enhanced environmental monitoring program in the oilsands region and across the province, announced this past February by the Alberta and federal governments. “ABMI competency is an integral part of that enhanced monitoring program, and will deliver an important element of biodiversity monitoring,” Pryce says.

As for oilsands developers, who must restore the land back to a viable level of biodiversity, “ABMI is absolutely vital to the long-term viability of oilsands development,” says Ken Chapman, executive director of the Oil Sands Developers Group. “ABMI’s research gives us a much better opportunity to do that in a more effective and science-based way.”

As Chris Fordham, Suncor Energy Inc.’s manager of sustainability strategy, puts it, “ABMI uses a sound scientific methodology involving regular ongoing monitoring so that changes in biodiversity can be understood and if necessary, addressed.”

From a technical and scientific rigour process, the ABMI is a world-class biodiversity-monitoring program, notes Simon Dyer, policy director at the Pembina Institute, which is represented on the ABMI’s board of directors.

“There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world, in terms of its comprehensiveness, the number of species it looks at and its ability to monitor changes in biodiversity over large landscapes over long time periods. What the ABMI provides, for the first time, is a meaningful metric of environmental impact or biodiversity performance that governments could use to inform decision making.”

In northeastern Alberta, the most pristine part of the province, “there is still time to do proper land use planning, identify conservation areas for biodiversity and ensure good planning going forward,” adds Dyer, noting that most of the criticism of oilsands development is not based on current impacts. Instead, there is more concern that the industry is projecting to quadruple production levels “without a proper plan in place to mitigate those impacts.”

What the ABMI does is provide a long-term data set that can help Albertans make better decisions about the oilsands and future development, he says.

This year, the ABMI will release two reports on the status of biodiversity, habitat intactness, and human footprint in the boreal plains ecozone and Athabasca oilsands deposit areas.

“Albertans should be very proud of this program,” Dyer says. “We need to work with government and industry to make sure it is fully funded going forward.”