This is part of a series of articles about forest management practices and designing clearcuts and cutblocks for the habitat needs for animals of special concern. Other articles in this series include: The Purpose of a Clearcut, Designing Cutblocks for Caribou, and Growing Lichen for Caribou in the Working Forest.
We are continuously on the lookout for opportunities and methods to improve our sustainable forest management practices. One of our goals is to responsibly harvest timber while also ensuring the right mix of habitats are on the landscape to support the animals that depend on the forest environment we share.
Grizzly bears, for example, are a high-profile species associated with Canada’s western boreal forests. In 2010, the Province of Alberta implemented a grizzly bear recovery strategy to improve bear habitat and increase their numbers. Research shows grizzly bear populations are trending up in Alberta, including areas where we harvest trees.
West Fraser’s forestry team was curious – using an evidence-based approach – if we could better understand how our timber harvesting planning process works for grizzly bears.
We gathered a team of foresters and biologists to collaborate on a research project to learn what the effect would be if we changed the order of our planning steps, putting grizzly bears first.
Mapping Out Harvest Plans
Our professional foresters and biologists design harvest plans by mapping out planned activities over several decades. Harvest plans typically start by identifying what timber is needed for our operations. Our foresters then layer in elements which include, government requirements, protection of watercourses like streams and aquatic habitats, recreational and cultural activity, and animal habitats; all while ensuring we replant and grow a healthy new forest for the future. These are just a few examples of the variety of factors we plan for.
In a harvest plan, we include the location of temporary and permanent roads necessary to support the harvesting activity. Conventionally we focus on timber harvesting early in the planning process and make adjustments for other values prior to submission for final government approval.
We aimed to answer a simple question: what if we put grizzly bear requirements first and designed the landscape for them, using harvesting as a tool?
For the study, the research team selected an area of forest in west-central Alberta called the Chungo, where the forest is mostly continuous (few roads or other trails), of similar age and where there is little historical industrial activity. We wanted to control for other variables so we could better tease out which harvest planning process would result in better outcomes for bears: the current process we called the “business as usual” (BAU) plan or a “grizzly bear friendly” (GB) plan?
Both plans incorporated what we call an “active adaptive management” approach, which is a way of defining a structured process that implements new learnings as planning takes place, so we are consistently improving our operating approach.
Our first step was to digitally model two planning processes on the same area. Next, we looked at the results of re-arranging the steps in our planning process for grizzly bears.
We learned that the comparatively smaller, spread out harvest openings typical of our “business-as-usual" plan benefited bears in that it created more of the high-quality habitat they preferred than the other approach. That may strike you as a surprising result, but grizzly bears prefer open and semi-forested spaces, like the kind of forest created by harvested and replanted cutblocks. The plan also created 24% more road. A more extensive road network increases the potential for bears to encounter humans, and when they do, these encounters can result in more potential for grizzly bear fatalities.
The grizzly-bear-first approach reduced the amount of temporary and permanent road network needed for timber harvesting, but in the end, it produced less of the ‘edge’ habitat bears prefer. The bear-friendly plan mitigated the amount of road needed by condensing many cut blocks into larger single openings and as a result, fewer roads are required to access trees for harvesting. However, the bigger openings also reduced the forest edge habitat grizzly bears love. As the greater priority was to reduce bear mortality risk over habitat quality, the bear-friendly plan demonstrated the most significant effect in reducing this risk for the bears. Once we get on the ground and in to the layout phase of planning, foresters can create more forest edges by retenting stands of trees in the area. This practice can attain high quality bear habitat and lower bear mortality risk.
One of the most important findings was that both harvest plan approaches resulted in the creation and sustainment of both primary and secondary habitat for bears.
Finding that both approaches achieved the sustainment and creation of suitable habitat is an outcome we wanted to have. It provides some objective evidence that both procedures meet preferred bear habitat in working forests, and it points at more opportunities we can explore.
For example, if we have planning approaches that can reduce roads for the benefit of bears, it’s a potential “win-win” because it could also decrease operating costs while reducing impacts on the environment by avoiding a significant amount of road building.
The study results are also a reminder of how complex practice choices on the landscape can be. It is important to note that this study was conducted through a digital model to explore the effect of changing the sequence of harvest planning steps, using innovative tools that are still in development and do not include important practices that could be implemented in a real-world scenario.
For example, the two planning approaches did not adjust for steep slopes (topographic constraints), the habitat needs of other animals, indigenous and cultural areas of importance, retaining trees to manage visual concerns or practices like rendering roads inaccessible in between harvesting periods. The use of technology tools to map the land was certainly a worthwhile approach. However, the research team found that the creativity and past experience of professional foresters can play a huge role in implementing approaches that employ more ingenuity than computer modelling.
All in all, the research team found that advance planning for grizzly bear habitat can work well for forest harvesting and grizzly bears. The study also underlines the complexity of choice and reinforces that while it is helpful to build understanding, a single approach for a species is not a holistic answer for effective planning in a complex natural environment.
If you’re into visuals, check out Foothill Research Institute’s (fRI) ‘heat map’ where you can follow grizzlies’ movements as they go about their day feeding, resting and interacting or avoiding other bears in a forest managed area in Alberta. West Fraser’s research project leveraged the fRI Research Grizzly Bear GIS tools, developed within fRI’s award-nominated Grizzly Bear Research program.