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Strangers Amongst Us

The race to record Sea to Sky rare flora and fauna before they are gone forever



The warning was clear — participation in an outing with the Vancouver Mycological Society entailed one mandatory requirement, namely a great deal of patience. Group leader Daryl Thompson attested to that fact. "We don't move fast," he said with a smile to the gathered group of roughly 15 people. "We stop and move from rocks and stumps and patches of ground ... quite often it is negative progress."

He was right — when I accompanied the group earlier this month as it descended upon the North Vancouver Outdoor School property in Paradise Valley to conduct a survey — we covered a mere 200 metres in two hours.

It is one example of an army of citizen scientists, working tirelessly alongside biologists and scientists to meticulously document our flora and fauna in the Sea to Sky corridor. It's a race against time to prevent the vanishing of rare species before we fully comprehend their role in the complex web of life.

When the Vancouver Mycological Society last conducted a survey, back in 2006, 165 species of mosses, liverworts, fungi, ferns, herbaceous plants, grasses and invertebrates were recorded.

Kent Brothers, the other group leader, said that somewhere between 4,600 to 5,000 fungi species have been recorded in the province. Compare that to the bird species, which number at about 300.

The reason for this, he explained, is due to the fact fungi can live on a very wide variety of substrates and environments.

"As a general rule the world over, in any given habitat, there are six times as many fungi as vascular plants. In B.C. we have 3,000 vascular plants, so there should actually be 20,000 species of fungi but they're hard to study — the main body of the fungus grows underground in microscopic little threads."

As we meandered along, the weird and wonderful world of fungi was revealed to me. Peering closely at mosses and slime moulds through hand lenses and crinkling our noses at specimens which smelled distinctly like bleach, I was amazed at the astounding diversity of life forms often hidden right at our feet.

Some of the species discovered on these surveys were rare findings, Thompson informed me. A moss called Roell's Brotherella (Brotherella roellii) was found in the 2006 survey by biologist Steve Joya — a find that extends its range further north than previously recorded.

The moss is designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and according to its 2010 assessment report, today the moss is known to grow in 26 current and four historical sites. A small, yellow to golden green moss that forms turf-like mats, populations of Roell's Brotherella, currently only exist in B.C.

"There are a number of sites in Washington where it was originally discovered and now there's nothing there," Thompson said, adding that the moss often grows in areas that become disturbed by human activity.

Endemic to the Pacific Northwest, it may not be well known to the public, but it is a significant find.

"It's not like the spotted owl shutting down the logging industry, in those terms, but it's interesting to find new species," said Thompson with a grin.

Mycologist Paul Kroeger agreed.

He stated that he's interested in working out plant distributions and notes that this could have great significance as the climate changes.

"It can be quite indicative of the degree of disturbance that's occurring," Kroeger said.

Brothers, an applied mathematician by trade, is currently undertaking the task of building a database on fungi for B.C., which is no small feat.

"We don't actually know how many there are so I'm trying to determine that," he explained, adding that he originally thought it would take him six months, now he estimates it's going to be another two and a half years before completion.

The Vancouver Mycological Society is not alone in its fervent passion for researching rare flora and fauna in the Sea to Sky corridor.

Squamish biologist Edith Tobe has been at the helm of the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS) as executive director for 14 years and during that time has come across many unusual species.

She points out that the Pacific water shrew is a species most people would never have heard of, let alone seen, in the corridor.

As the name suggests, the shrew lives around the waterways and due mainly to habitat destruction, is today on the provincial red list and is listed as endangered in Canada. Tobe said she's concerned that a decline in these populations demonstrates degraded natural habitat, describing it as "the slippery slope" that leads to reduced biodiversity.

Tobe hopes to obtain funding to undertake research to determine Pacific water shrew populations in Squamish.

"I definitely want to find out more about their presence and if there are actions we can do to improve their habitat," she said.

The red-legged frog is another candidate for population research, Tobe noted. A blue-listed species in B.C., she said population numbers in the corridor are unknown. SRWS has focused efforts on habitat restoration, particularly in the wetlands areas affected by highway construction. Just off Loggers Lane in Squamish the group has constructed new wetlands and erected a frog fence to keep frogs off the road.

"I am just delighted, tickled pink," Tobe laughed, "to tell you that all the wetlands we created last year, every single one is full of red-legged frog egg masses."

Tobe stressed that we know little about rare flora and fauna.

"The bottom line is we've got species at risk and endangered here but we don't even know what we need to protect because we haven't done an inventory."

She blames lack of financial support and resources from the provincial and federal governments.

"It's just not seen as a priority right now. We're not funding enough of this type of research."

That's where citizen science has had to step in.

Just look at the ambitious and volunteer-driven initiative, the Whistler Biodiversity Project. Getting off its feet in 2005, this project to document all species of plants and animals in the Whistler area has been declared an enormous success. In fact, when it commenced there were about 600 species documented – that number is now nearing 3,000.

One species discovered, which has attracted a lot of attention is the spotting of Keen's Myotis (Myotis keenii), a rare bat not seen in the Whistler area since 1944.

"Keen's Myotis was our highest priority species for three reasons," writes biologist Bob Brett on the Whistler Biodiversity website. "It is one of the rarest bat species known or suspected in Whistler and it's on the B.C. government's red list."

Confirmed sightings of the bat in 2010 have spurred on the need for more bat conservation work, Brett explained.

"We need to expand surveys to better describe which bats occur where in Whistler. We need to prioritize habitats they require for roosting and foraging. And we can also help provide habitat within developed areas by providing bat boxes, plus simple refinements to bridge and building design," he wrote.

There is still much to do and Brett remains hopeful.

"If initiatives such as the Whistler Biodiversity Project are successful, future generations will inherit a Whistler where rare species and habitats have been protected and common species and habitats remain common."

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