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Instructors leading search for SARA species

April 3, 2019

Tiny cryptantha. Dwarf wooly head. Smooth goosefoot. For over 10 years, Ron and Cathy Linowski have spent their summers searching southern Alberta grasslands for these rare and important plants with unusual names.

Working for the Canadian Wildlife Service and Environment Canada, the Medicine Hat College (MHC) instructors monitor five plants protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) that live in the National Wildlife Area (NWA) at Canadian Forces Base Suffield. This region covers 45,836 ha, an area roughly half the size of Prince Edward Island, which means finding endangered plants like the small flowered sand verbena is a little like finding a needle in a haystack.

National Wildlife Area, CFB Suffield

South Saskatchewan River Valley in the National Wildlife Area, CFB Suffield

With the help of MHC summer students, this husband and wife research duo spends five months and hundreds of hours in the NWA establishing search polygon areas, visiting previous sites, conducting a count of plant populations, and assessing change from year to year.

Thanks to their experience and extensive knowledge of these SARA species, they have a good idea of where to start the search. Knowing that some plants prefer the open sand dunes while others thrive in the drying mud of a particular kind of wetland means they can narrow their focus.

“I call them ‘Goldilocks’ plants,” says Cathy. “The conditions have to be ‘just right.’ You can’t protect a plant or animal unless you understand its ecology.”

Protecting these specialized species is critical to the prairie ecosystem, as they are considered an early warning system of environmental change, she adds. Environmental conditions play an important role in maintaining healthy populations. A large fire in 2017 burned several sites monitored by the Linowskis, but also set back grasses and released nutrients which caused the tiny cryptantha to rebound. On the other hand, too much rain, a rapid snow melt, and other species can have a devastating effect on these delicate plants.

Ron Linowski and student on the sand dunes

Ron Linowski with a MHC summer student on the sand dunes.

“The biggest risk to these plants are invasive species like leafy spurge, baby’s breath and cheat grass, and general climate change trends over the long term. As the dunes close up, all of these species disappear,” explains Ron.

This trend affects more than just plants. He adds that increased spring moisture results in dunes becoming more vegetated, which reduces the habitat of animals like Ord’s kangaroo rat, another SARA species they are studying.

During their time in the NWA, the couple has had many opportunities to observe other rare species including the burrowing owl, bald eagle, and the Ferruginous hawk. One location along the South Saskatchewan River, called the ‘bull pen,’ is home to a particular rattlesnake they encounter each summer.

“It’s huge and curious about us. It drapes itself in the branches of a big sage bush like Christmas garland and watches us work,” says Cathy. “If we’re nervous, we wear snake chaps and use hiking sticks to thump the ground to let the snakes know we’re coming. That’s part of the thrill of working in the NWA.”

Another thrill for the Linowskis is finding plants that have never before been reported in Alberta or rediscovering species that haven’t been seen for over 100 years.

“It’s exciting,” Cathy adds. “Like finding the prize in Where’s Waldo.”

In addition to searching out these SARA species and monitoring risks to their survival, the Linowskis also write an annual report on their findings and offers their expert opinion on the environmental factors they believe are affecting the plant populations. Their involvement with these projects not only provides important data to federal and provincial bodies about environmental change and risk, it offers a unique opportunity for Medicine Hat College students.

National Wildlife Area, flagging SARA species

Students flagging SARA species in the NWA.

“Being able to participate in research like this is valuable for our students. They aren’t just reading about it, they’re learning from experts in the field,” says Cathy. “For our summer students, this project gives them access to plants only a handful of people in the world ever see.”

Ron Linowski teaches university transfer science courses at MHC and has a Bachelor of Science degree and Master of Pest Management from Simon Fraser University. Cathy Linowski is the coordinator of MHC’s environmental reclamation technician program and holds a Bachelor of Science degree, also from Simon Fraser University.