Over the past three summers ecologist Bob Brett has scoured the bottoms of ponds, sifted the tops of local mountains and all places in between, cataloguing local species of plants, trees, fungi, reptiles, amphibians, insects and mammals while building his biodiversity database. Most of his investigations were conducted with leading experts in their fields, brought in from around the province.
To date, the Whistler Biodiversity Project has recorded more than 1,100 different native species, as well as close to 90 invasive species — many of which have the potential to drive out native species if their presence isn’t mitigated.
Now entering its fourth year, Brett’s project is widening its scope by inviting everyone to detail their sightings on a new website, www.whistlerbiodiversity.ca, using a new mapping feature integrated into Google Maps. The feature lets people add sightings, photos, and other information, which Brett will review for interesting or rare species to confirm to the inventory.
“I was just out this week and talked to some people that were watching otters this past winter on Nesters pond — that’s an example of information that’s invaluable, because I didn’t know there were otters on the pond,” said Brett.
“Rather than a few of us looking, (the website) gives us all these sets of eyes across Whistler, spotting lizards on Alta Lake road, snakes and salamanders in Emerald, and that’s information we can follow up on and can turn up some real surprises. We can find out if the species are rare locally, or endangered provincially, and are of interest that way.
“For example, river otters seem to be making a comeback, the number of reports are increasing, but right now it’s anecdotal. We need a formal storehouse of sightings that can make it easier to track them over time, and to get a better idea of their numbers, their distribution and presence.”
Brett is always amazed by the level of expertise residents have, whether it’s identifying birds or species of plants, and wants to tap into that expertise and enthusiasm for nature.
“A lot of us are here one way or another for nature, and spend a lot of time poking around the area. They see far more out there than I can in a few days that I spend in the field with experts looking for different species.”
Not that Brett plans to do anything differently. This year he already has plans to work with experts to do more research on bats, beavers, amphibians and reptiles. That includes looking for more red-legged frogs, which surfaced in the municipality for the first time last year, tailed frogs (discovered the year before in mountain streams), as well as learning more about the blue-listed western toads in Lost Lake Park.
Surveys planned include a search for beavers, reptiles and amphibians July 7-15, and a search for invasive species July 16-18.
Another priority for this year is to start dealing more aggressively with invasive species that have the ability to supplant native species and change the ecosystem. Working with the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Brett says there are plans to remove Scotch broom from the side of the highway and local roadways at the end of the month. Broom is already a significant problem throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, and is starting to take root in Whistler.
As well, some work will be done with the municipality to identify and remove any Japanese knotweed, a species of plant that clogs waterways and wetlands and is extremely hard to remove — its roots can go down three to four metres. Even a small sliver from a destroyed plant can take root somewhere else downstream.
“A lot of these species are moved with gravel and silt during winter snow clearing, and widening the highway has actually taken out a knotweed and some of the broom,” said Brett. “Ironically, widening the highway also means bringing in more gravel, and broom does very well in marginal areas like the side of the road.”
Another focus for the Whistler Biodiversity Project is the second annual Whistler Naturalists Bioblitz, which takes place Aug. 9-10 at Lost Lake. Last year almost 300 people took part, with teams working with experts to catalogue as many species as possible in a 24-hour time frame. While BioBlitz is a fun way to bolster the biodiversity inventory, Brett also has an ulterior motive for hosting the event — identifying biologists and scientists that he hopes to lure back to Whistler and fill in any gaps in the inventory.
“It’s a great opportunity to get a lot of different researchers and experts up here in the days surrounding the event and do a real beating of the bushes to see what’s here,” he said. “It’s a really active time for Whistler, late summer, guaranteeing that we’ll get the maximum number of species from the alpine to valley bottom.”