Jason Fisher holding a female fisher who has just been fitted with a GPS collar to track her movements for the research project. (Photo by Frances Stewart)

UVic PhD graduate’s work emphasizes importance of forested wildlife corridors

Frances Stewart’s work in Alberta shows that wildlife corridors are necessary for animal well-being

A new study by a recent University of Victoria PhD graduate calls for the expansion of protected forested areas in Canada for the sake of wildlife.

Frances Stewart’s work with fishers — a weasel-like creature — in central Alberta shows that wildlife corridors are necessary for protected areas to successfully maintain animal populations and support the movements of species through landscapes.

Canada’s commitment to meet international targets and protect 17 per cent of natural environment in the country by 2020 cannot ignore the fact that animals have trouble travelling between protected forests through urban areas, said Stewart who is originally from Ontario. The disconnected zones of safety for animals may not improve the lives of wildlife as desired.

READ ALSO: How should B.C.’s private forests be managed?

“In some landscapes, protected areas stand alone in a sea of cleared and developed land,” said Jason Fisher, an environmental scientist at UVic who supervised the research. “We hope that protected areas expand to include not only squares of natural forest, but also these long, linear forested corridors that connect protected areas.”

Stewart’s study tracked 10 fishers with biologging technology — devices that collect data about the animal’s behaviour, movement and body.

The animals were equipped with GPS collars that recorded information about their locations in the Beaver Hills biosphere east of Edmonton. This allowed the research team to study how the fishers move about their habitat. They noticed that the animals move through the landscape via protected and unprotected forested corridors — some of the corridors the animals use are on private properties.

It is often assumed that animals will simply “hopscotch” between protected areas, said Stewart, but in studying the fishers’ movements, she and her team noted that the corridors are important for the well-being of the animals.

READ ALSO: Premier’s office one of 17 rallies across B.C. calling for protection of old-growth forest

The fisher was chosen for the study because while it is preyed upon by bigger animals, it also preys on animals smaller than it. Its central location in the food chain allows its movements within protected areas to emulate the needs of many other species in Canada such as moose and hare, said Stewart.

She explained that Canada’s protected areas need to be designed intentionally to be effective.

A connected network of protected areas with different types of corridors would work best, she said. The quality of the protected areas and corridors is also more important than the quantity.

Stewart’s work was funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, Alberta Environment and Parks, Royal Canadian Geographic Society, MITACS Accelerate and other local sources.


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Frances Stewart holding one of the fishers from her PhD research on the importance of the forested corridors for wildlife. (Photo by Ian Brusselers)

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