Playing the long game: planting the seed of conservation and watching it grow
"There is an incredible story here in terms of how people live in this province and how they can delight in God’s nature and his wisdom in the creation. We are declaring God’s good works."
Vern Peters grew up in Winnipeg and when he was 12, his family moved to a property along the banks of the Assiniboine River. As a young boy, his passion for conservation emerged out of a desire for adventure. He loved to canoe, explore the banks of the river, and above all, fish! His parents, as most practical parents would be wont to do, insisted their twelve-year-old lad knew to clean any fish he kept. This small request turned Peters into a “catch and release” fisherman. It got him thinking intentionally about his role in conserving the environment.
As an aspiring wildlife biologist, Peters entered a Bachelor of Science program in ecology at the University of Manitoba. In time, his love and experience for exploring nature afforded him opportunities to work with senior graduate students on fire ecology projects – their research sites being located along the undisturbed remote waters of northern Manitoba and accessible only with the guidance of an experienced canoeist. Peters himself conducted his own senior thesis on urban biodiversity using his family home on the Assiniboine as one of 15 properties included in the course of his field research.
Although Peters’ first passion as an emerging professional was wildlife conservation, opportunities in plant and forest ecology presented themselves more readily. Amongst other things, he pursued employment with Ducks Unlimited Canada, working to restore natural grasslands on agricultural properties throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
While working on his Ph.D. from the University of Alberta, Peters gained valuable experience in the forest industry, applying findings from his research to the development of more sustainable forest management techniques and practices. He then landed his dream job as a fire researcher with the Canadian Forest Service. In that role, Peters observed patterns of fire behaviour all over Canada and explored various implications of climate change.
Though he was well on his way toward building an impressive resumé as a researcher, Peters had a feeling that it was all in preparation for a larger calling yet to come.
“I really had a passion for environmental education, specifically amongst Christian communities, in thinking about elevating our commitment to stewardship of creation,” states Peters.
He had known about King’s for the better part of his life, having had several childhood friends travel from Winnipeg to Edmonton to pursue an education there. As a graduate student at the U of A, Peters had also been invited to a conference at King’s exploring the role of Christians in creation care.
“I filed King’s away in my memory until, one day, I became aware that a position was open here.”
Since starting at King’s in 2005, Dr. Peters has conducted an extended research project with various annual summer field research focuses on the decline of the limber and white bark pines.
Unmitigated, the disappearance of these endangered high-altitude trees will affect many of the places Canadians love to live, visit, and vacation in each year. These two pines alone directly support over 35 species of vertebrates — the most charismatic of which is the grizzly bear. Indirectly, they support hundreds more. Should these pines be left to diminish, or vanish, the effects would be devastating.
Peters points out that the large mammal wildlife that visitors have come to expect and enjoy in Alberta’s mountain parks would certainly be detrimentally affected, but the effects on humans would be greater. For instance, after the 2013 Calgary and High River, Alberta floods, the restoration of the limber and white bark trees were noted as being critical in preventing and deterring similar disasters in the future.
Dr. Peters’ research on these trees at King’s started as a summer survey on seed production with a student worker back in 2007. In 2013, as a complement to his research, Peters began running active small-scale conservation and restoration projects with groups of friends and members from his home church in Edmonton. Ever since, Peters has engaged in annual summer restoration and monitoring projects with his students and faith-based community groups from across Alberta.
Summer 2020 was as close to business as usual as possible for Peters. As in previous years, Peters and a student researcher drove out to a designated research site—though in separate vehicles to maintain distancing—in the ongoing attempt to fill in knowledge gaps on the disappearance and recovery of these species.
This summer’s project was a third study on the relationship between fire and the regeneration of the pines along the northern edge of Banff National Park. The two launched a series of treks across landslides and snowfields, climbing over 2000 meters in a five hour period, to reach the high elevation field sites. The pair replaced memory cards and batteries in various audio recorders and monitored patterns of bird behaviour to gauge the importance of alpine avian activity in post- fire tree regeneration. Some of the trips were completed in long 17 hour days, others involved overnight stays high up in the mountains.
“What’s interesting is that the Clark’s nutcracker, both collects and plants the seeds of these pines. Those it forgets about are the only ones that germinate. It’s a wonderful story of a bird with a very specific function and a highly important pathway for natural regeneration.”
It has taken over thirteen years to get to this point, but the cumulative efforts by Peters and his partners are paying off.
The research is being directly used by the province and industry to inform investment and maximize efforts to restore these two important species to more sustainable numbers. A number of recovery actions have been put in place such as the monitoring of cone crops for seed collections, protection of seed trees from red squirrels, using fire as a recovery tool for the whitebark pine, and minimizing cattle trampling in rangelands.
While the full impact of the restoration work won’t be seen for several decades or more, there have been more immediate returns on these efforts. Summer research projects on private cattle ranches have uncovered fascinating intersections between protecting natural woodlands and increased range efficiency due to enhanced shelter forests. Landowners have also gained new tools and data to advocate for the agricultural activities that happen on their land and the ecological viability of their properties, for example, in regard to proposed transmission lines and sewer treatment plants.
Another immediate payoff of Peters’ work has been conservation education and inspiration. Each year, entire classes of King’s students have had opportunities to get involved in data-collection and analysis—real-world experiences that provide exposure to industry best practices. Peters’ small-scale community tree planting and restoration projects have also grown in scale. Today Peters regularly takes high school classes into the field on tree planting excursions, teaching them about conservation concerns, the work that’s being done to mitigate these issues, and hopefully instilling a love for nature and a desire to protect it in the process. In time, many of those Peters has partnered with will think more critically about their relationship with the environment. More than a few have already gone on to post-secondary programs and careers related to conservation.
“Christ taught from the creation by taking people out into the field. In bringing students to important natural sites and the people and landowners we are working with, we’re telling the parable of the pine. There is an incredible story here in terms of how people live in this province and how they can delight in God’s nature and his wisdom in the creation. We are declaring God’s good works.”
This spring, Dr. Peters’ research and conservation efforts are poised to pivot a lot closer to home. Peters will be heading up a grasslands restoration project right on King’s campus. Natural prairie grasslands are some of the most threatened ecosystems in Canada, largely due to their easy conversion to agriculture and other purposes. When complete, King’s prairie installation will allow natural science faculty to further develop additional education, research, and conservation related courses and opportunities for students. The installation will also provide a new site for skill set development in grasslands and seismic line restoration work – applicable and employable skills on the Canadian prairies and oilfields.
“While we’re restricted with travelling offsite due to COVID-19, we have the perfect opportunity to push forward a new grasslands feature on campus. This will allow us to engage more regularly with conservation-related activities as well as wildlife monitoring, plant restoration techniques, and more,” explains Peters.
“The goal of the project is to develop a one acre prairie that is resistant to change over time and which will permanently retain the character of a grassland through strong establishment of species we plant there. Sod will be removed this May and piled to create berms. There are also plans for a trail system to connect the grassland with the existing woodland swale, soccer pitch, and future naturalized coniferous areas. If all goes well, a specially selected seed mix of native species will be planted this fall.”
The grassland installation will diversify the types of natural areas available to students on campus and expand the property’s naturalized areas by about 35 percent. Seed mix trials will be run out of King’s campus greenhouse and students will propagate wildflower plugs to be added to select areas of the grasslands installation for student research, monitoring, and testing purposes in future years.