Fly By Night—Surveying Owls in Alberta’s FMAs

Lisa Takats Priestley’s job has turned her into a bit of a night owl. Late at night in the spring, she can be found along gravel roads in West Fraser’s Alberta Forest Management Areas (FMAs). She’s there, waiting to hear a hoot or two.

“There’s nothing quite like it when you’re out at night, and you’re listening to owls. There’s a lot still unknown about owls. We don’t even know where they are sometimes,” describes Lisa.

Lisa is the co-owner of Strix Ecological, which is an Alberta-based consulting company that specializes in wildlife and vegetation monitoring. They were hired by West Fraser to monitor the owls in the Company’s FMAs in Alberta. Lisa actually created the survey technique that’s now standard for owl research across Alberta. She gathers all the data from all of the different programs across the province to monitor the levels on a yearly basis.

Owls are often a good indicator of the health of the environment, which is something that’s important to West Fraser. As stewards of the forest, we balance the needs of every user of the forest. Monitoring our owl populations is one way that we do that.

“Owls need a readily available food source and a good place to roost. Those are only possible in a good environment, so the species are used as a tool to review how well a forest is being managed,” says Lisa.

Lisa and her team have been monitoring owls in West Fraser’s FMAs for several years, rotating through each FMA every three years. This spring, they were in Sundre. They go out to the same stations in an area to monitor what owls are there (or not there). Owls don’t breed every year, which is why there is a 3-year gap between surveys and also why this survey program is a long, thirty-year study.

The roadside survey will take place along random routes in the FMA. The group goes out at night, stands at a specific location, and listens for owls for two minutes. After that, the team plays a series of owl calls on a loud speaker to see if there are any responses. They will visit the same location twice during the survey and have a short period to complete it. If they wait any longer, they won’t be able to hear the owls as well because of other active and vocalizing wildlife, such as breeding frogs.

The work is just starting for this team, so it’s hard to make any conclusions about the data. But Lisa did complete her Master’s thesis on the Hinton FMA studying owls back in the 1990s, so they do have two sets of data from that area. They found that there were a similar number of owls detected then as there is now.

“None of Alberta’s owls in the forest are endangered, so we’re looking to maintain the populations. Owls move around on a landscape, so some will come back, and if there’s a forest cut, they’ll simply go to a nearby forest.”

West Fraser isn’t required to do this survey, but it’s a way to demonstrate how effectively our Company is managing a forest. By doing these surveys and showing consistent numbers of owls, it shows we’re effectively managing the forest for a variety of values and habitat.

“Long‐term monitoring programs and ecological research, like this owl program, are absolutely critical for providing key insights in environmental change, effective and resilient forest management and biodiversity conservation. Long term data allows us to get a glimpse of ecological processes that may play out over very long time periods. They are alsoa tool we can used to detect unfavorable changes in complex ecosystems, so it is important that we support these studies and work with others to leverage our investment. This data will be used by the Alberta Nocturnal Owl Monitoring Program, several graduate students at the University of Alberta and the Université Laval, as well as by conservation scientists that assess the status of species, such as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC),” says Laura Trout, West Fraser’s Wildlife Biologist.

The work in Sundre ends by the first week in May. During that time, the team will be tracking if there are any dramatic changes in the populations. This information helps inform our foresters on best practices in the forest and helps them monitor our influence on the landscape.

West Fraser’s owl surveys are one part of our Company’s forest management plan with wildlife.  We also: