Developing practical theory in support of real-world solutions. Our lab studies the conservation ecology of species to ecosystems with the goal of understanding the processes affecting their distribution, dynamics and interactions. We seek to apply our results to land use planning and stewardship problems in order to prioritize the conservation of species diversity and landscapes, the sustainable management of our natural capital, and the recovery of our endangered and threatened biological resources.
Our research approach
Our lab in the Dept. of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta combines field-based studies with laboratory computer modelling and analysis, including extensive use of Geographic Information Systems, landscape simulations/scenarios, remote sensing (UAVs), and other methods. We are not tied, however, to any single methodology or discipline. In fact, we encourage problem-orientated approaches to our research whereby the question (hypothesis) and application are the most important elements, not the method itself or traditions associated with a particular discipline.
Our lab broadly works across the following 3 complementary topics / research themes (see the Projects page for specific examples of our work):
1. Biodiversity conservation & restoration
Our biodiversity conservation research focuses on studying species, community and ecosystem processes in threatened or managed ecosystems. First and foremost, we are studying the responses of plant, butterfly and bird taxa to habitat fragmentation associated with in situ oil sands developments in northeast Alberta. As well as understanding biodiversity responses to disturbances and identifying mitigation strategies, we are also investigating active and passive restoration of seismic line disturbances which dominate the habitat fragmentation process. A second major emphasis is understanding the effects of variable retention forest harvesting (residual unharvested patches of trees left within harvest blocks) on biodiversity as part of the long-term, large-scale EMEND (Ecosystem Management Emulating Natural Disturbance) project. This project seeks to understand the potential biodiversity gains in using modified forest harvest designs that ’emulate’ landscape patterns associated with natural fire regimes, such as using fire patterns (including remnant forest island patches) as a model for designing harvest patterns. We are testing whether this hastens the recovery of biodiversity to the disturbance first by ‘life-boating’ species in the remnant patches and second by facilitating more rapid colonization in the disturbed part of the harvest (rescue effect).
The new sub-discipline of Conservation Biogeography emphasizes the use of biogeography principles for biodiversity conservation questions such as climate change, protected areas management and landscape ecology, and more generally around questions of habitat loss and fragmentation. Our biogeography research focuses at two complementary scales: (a) regional to global studies that often emphasize climate change and conservation planning topics; and (b) local scales mostly around island biogeography questions. Our island biogeography research uses boreal lake islands as a model system to better understand biodiversity-fragmentation, biodiversity-landscape, and biodiversity-disturbance questions. Here we can control for area (nested subsets of island sizes) to separate fragmentation from simple species-area relationships, while also examining how biodiversity changes in the presence of disturbances (fire) that themselves are affected by island characteristics (area and isolation). This is particularly interesting since island area-disturbance relationships can further alter local extinction rates, while island isolation alters colonization/recovery rates (rescue effects).
3. Animal ecology & conservation
Our animal ecology research focuses on single-species conservation issues. One species – grizzly (brown) bears – has been a key study organism in the lab for 15+ years. Recent work on grizzlies emphasize the integration of both bottom-up limitations (food supply) and top-down regulation (human-caused mortality) to better understand the species for improving management of small, threatened populations. This involves integration of remote sensing, nutritional landscape modeling (spatial-temporal patterns in food supply), habitat selection, bioenergetics, individual animal performance (body size, reproduction & survival) and population processes. We also work with other species, often flagship conservation icons, such as wood bison, cougar and greater short-horned lizards. Habitat selection (resource selection functions) has been a significant emphasis of our prior work from methods and their applications to more emphasis now on their relationships to individual animal performance (e.g. body size, growth) and population measures. As with most folks working with apex predators, we are also interested in trophic interactions among species, particularly around losses of apex predators and what the implications of their loss is to biodiversity (i.e., trophic cascades).