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Science and Monitoring in Great Lakes Wetlands

Marsh Monitoring Program

Marsh Monitoring Program logoThe Marsh Monitoring Program (MMP) is a binational, long-term monitoring program that coordinates the skills, interests and stewardship of hundreds of citizens across the Great Lakes basin to help understand, monitor and conserve the region's wetlands and their amphibian and bird inhabitants. The MMP was initiated in 1994 by Bird Studies Canada and Environment Canada, and has been developed and expanded through the additional support of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and the Great Lakes Protection Fund. Each spring, volunteers following a standard sampling procedure conduct surveys of marsh bird and amphibian populations and habitat in their local wetlands. To date, amphibians, marsh birds, or both have been surveyed on over 500 routes in the Great Lakes basin. This work has been done by more than 300 volunteers, contributing over 6000 hours of their collective time. Information gathered through the monitoring program will help guide the management and remediation of marshes in Ontario and the Great Lakes by serving the following objectives:

  • monitor populations of marsh birds and amphibians over time on a variety of spatial scales;
  • investigate habitat associations of marsh birds and amphibians;
  • contribute to the assessment of Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) and other wetland conservation initiatives with respect to marsh bird and amphibian communities; and,
  • increase awareness of marsh bird, amphibian and wetland conservation issues through volunteer participation and communication to the public, scientists and regulators.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo: Eric DresserPreliminary trends of bird and amphibian populations indicate several marsh birds (including Pied-billed Grebe, Sora, American Coot and Black Tern) and one amphibian (Chorus Frog) experienced statistically significant population declines between 1995 and 2002. Populations of other species, such as Mallard and Common Yellowthroat increased over the same time period.

Photo: Eric DresserIn 2004/05 MMP partners are beginning the process of summarizing and analyzing data from the first 10 years of the program. A report outlining population status and trends will be available in early 2006. To see a summary report of the first five years, including more of the preliminary trends in species abundance and for more information on the Marsh Monitoring Program, see the MMP Website.

State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference

Since 1994, Great Lakes scientists and managers from Canada and the United States have met every other year to discuss current Great Lakes issues at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conferences (SOLEC).

Four objectives were established for SOLEC :

  1. To assess the state of the Great Lakes ecosystem based on accepted indicators.
  2. To strengthen decision-making and environmental management concerning the Great Lakes.
  3. To inform local decision-makers of Great Lakes environmental issues.
  4. To provide a forum for communication and networking amongst all the Great Lakes stakeholders.

Between 1994 and 2000, efforts were directed to developing easily understood indicators to report on the health of various Great Lakes ecosystems, including nearshore and open waters, nearshore terrestrial, and coastal wetlands. Beginning at SOLEC 2002 the indicators are now being used to report on the integrity of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem using the broad categories outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: biological, physical and chemical integrity.

At SOLEC 2002, data for several indicators of biological integrity were presented, including the coastal wetlands indicators of Wetland-Dependent Bird Diversity and Abundance, Amphibian Diversity and Abundance, and Contaminants in Snapping Turtle Eggs. Data to support the amphibian and bird indicators comes directly from the results of the Marsh Monitoring Program. At SOLEC 2004 in Toronto, these same indicators were presented, as was an update on the Coastal Wetland Area by Type indicator. The focus at SOLEC 2004 was on reporting on physical integrity, while in 2006, the focus will be chemical integrity.

In the coming years, the SOLEC Indicators process will facilitate the coordination of binational monitoring programs so that data to support all of these indicators can be collected basin-wide using standardized protocol. For more information, including a description of the recommended suite of coastal wetland indicators and indicator reports presented at SOLEC 2002 and 2004, visit the SOLEC website.

Great Lakes Wetlands Consortium

Barrier Beach. Photo: Maggie YoungThe coastal wetland indicators developed through SOLEC are moving forward through the efforts of the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Consortium.

The Consortium is a group of U.S. and Canadian scientists, policy makers and others dedicated to monitoring the condition of Great Lakes coastal wetlands. It is a four-year project brought together by the Great Lakes Commission in November 2000 with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with the goal of designing and validating the coastal wetland indicators recommended through the SOLEC process. To date, more than 100 groups and individuals have contributed to the project.

In 2002, the Consortium selected six research projects to test the robustness and applicability of various sampling methods and coastal wetland metrics across the basin in a collaborative fashion. Standardized sampling protocols and methodologies were tested on over 30 coastal wetland sites distributed across the Great Lakes basin. The data was compiled centrally and integrated into existing databases to enable cross-site comparisons and further validation of Great Lakes coastal wetland indicators. The reports of these projects are available on the Great Lakes Commission website (below).

In 2003, the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada – Ontario Region took the Canadian lead on the creation of a binational coastal wetland database using a standardized classification system. In conjunction with the United States Geological Survey, each Great Lakes coastal wetland was identified, classified, delineated and stored in a GIS database (see map of Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Inventory). The need for just such a database has been identified since the early 1990s as a requirement to accurately track changes in wetland area over time and house data from multiple partners involved in monitoring coastal wetland indicators.

The projects completed over the last three years have formed a foundation for the Great Lakes Commission's current efforts to facilitate the development and implementation of a long-term fully state- and province-supported binational wetland monitoring program.

For more information visit the Great Lakes Commission.

Ontario Coastal Wetland Atlas

Information on wetlands is required by many national, provincial and local government agencies, non-government groups, and individuals interested in wetland conservation and restoration. The need for a comprehensive digital database for wetlands in the Great Lakes and Ontario has been identified by a number of individuals, groups and agencies.

To meet this need a digital atlas of Ontario Great Lakes coastal wetlands was developed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) and Environment Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service). The Ontario Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Atlas: A Summary of Information (1982-1997) provides maps and a database of Ontario coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes basin. It updates and consolidates information on Great Lakes coastal wetlands from a variety of sources, including OMNR wetland evaluations, Environment Canada's Environmental Sensitivity Atlases, OMNR's Natural Areas Database, and other site specific studies.

The Atlas provides information on wetland type, site type, significance and status, as well as a qualitative assessment of stressors affecting coastal wetlands and biodiversity data for significant coastal wetland-dependent species. The report and its associated database provided the starting place for the Canadian portion of the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Consortium binational coastal wetland database discussed above. The Atlas is available on-line from the OMNR publications website.

International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study Board

Water level fluctuations are a natural phenomenon in the Great Lakes due to natural climatic variability. Wetland plant communities, which provide habitat for a multitude of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals, have evolved to adapt to, and in fact depend on, water level changes.

Low Water. Photo: Maggie YoungSince 1960, water levels and flows of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have been regulated at the Moses-Saunders Dam at Cornwall. In the winter of 2000, the International Joint Commission (IJC) launched a five-year binational study to review the current criteria in the Orders of Approval for regulation of Lake Ontario- St. Lawrence River levels and flows. The Plan of Study has the specific objectives of considering, developing, evaluating and recommending updates and changes to the 1956 criteria currently in use for Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River regulation. These study objectives are being accomplished through assessment of how water level fluctuations affect interests within the basin.

Six interests have been identified: shoreline property, commercial navigation, hydroelectric power generation, recreational boating, domestic water use, and environment. Working groups have been established to complete each assessment. Through the environment working group, the IJC study will improve the understanding of past water regulation impacts on coastal wetlands and identify relationships among water levels, coastal wetlands and wetland-dependent flora and fauna within Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Wetland researchers from the U.S. and Canada are conducting a joint study to evaluate the effects of regulation by digitally mapping changes in wetland vegetation using aerial photographs of selected sites across a span of years from pre-regulation to the present. A computer model has been developed that uses historic and current vegetation data, topographic/ bathymetric maps of the wetlands, and projected water-levels that would result from proposed new regulation plans to predict the relative area of wetland that will be in each vegetation community type under each new plan. The predictions will be assessed against one another for each of the four wetland geomorphic types and will also be used by researchers studying amphibians, fish, birds, and muskrats to evaluate potential changes in habitat availability.

For Lake Ontario, 16 sites in the U.S. and 16 sites in Canada were split evenly by geomorphic type: open embayment, protected embayment, barrier-beach, and drowned river mouth. The sites extend from the west end of the lake to the upper portion of the St. Lawrence River at the Moses-Saunders Dam at Cornwall. Results will be integrated with those emerging from a comparable study on the lower St. Lawrence River.

The IJC study provides an important opportunity to improve the understanding of past water regulation impacts on coastal wetlands. The new knowledge will be used to develop and recommend water-level regulation criteria with the specific objective of maintaining coastal wetland diversity and health, and the health of other coastal habitats such as dunes and islands. Recommendations to the IJC are anticipated in late 2005.

For more information visit the Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Study Board website.

Durham Region Coastal Wetland Monitoring Project

Corbett Creek Marsh. Photo: Lou Wise AerographicDespite their deteriorated condition, Durham Region coastal wetlands are among the best examples of Lake Ontario coastal wetland communities. Management of coastal wetlands in Durham Region is a complex challenge, incorporating maintenance of key wetland functions and values, with managing the stresses of rapidly urbanizing watersheds and the dynamic hydrology of Lake Ontario. The Durham Region Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Project aims to understand wetland dynamics and distinguish among lake effects, regional trends and local site specific changes, and integrate regional monitoring activities. Project partners benefit from shared resources and information.

Since 2001, efforts have been underway to provide standardized protocols to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of coastal wetland assessment in the region. In order to refine monitoring methodologies, the following monitoring activities were carried out at 15 Durham Region coastal wetlands in 2002 and 2003:

  • identification of wetland and upland vegetation community location, distribution and composition;
  • characterization of land use and land cover within watersheds;
  • fish and invertebrate community health assessment through the calculation of Indices of Biotic Integrity;
  • measurement of turbidity, nutrient concentrations and sediment quality;
  • water level monitoring to assess the impact on vegetation communities; and,
  • assessment of bird and amphibian species richness using the Marsh Monitoring Program protocol, with emphasis on population trends in key species such as the Least Bittern and Black Tern.

In 2004, monitoring results were reported in two publications available from Environment Canada: Durham Region Coastal Wetlands: Baseline Conditions and Study Findings (2002 and 2003) and Durham Region Coastal Wetland Monitoring Project: Year 2 Technical Report. The results presented in these reports will form the basis of recommendations to implement watershed/wetland restoration programs where necessary. Long-term monitoring will reveal the effectiveness of the restoration programs while continuing to identify impacts.

The Durham project has provided a multipartner implementation model for use in other regions of the Great Lakes and has contributed to the monitoring goals of the Lake Ontario Lakewide Management Plan. In 2004, Environment Canada's Great Lakes Sustainability Fund is funding the assessment of the applicability of the Durham Region coastal wetland monitoring framework to the Bay of Quinte Area of Concern in eastern Lake Ontario.

Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands: Assessing Vulnerability to Climate Change and Strategies for Adaptation

The water level regime within each of the Great Lakes is a critical driver in coastal wetland distribution, vegetation composition, and ecological diversity and functioning. Projections from climate change scenarios suggest a decrease in mean water levels of the Great Lakes and alteration of the timing and distribution of the annual hydrograph. Both impacts would affect wetland vegetation diversity and distribution, and habitat availability for wildlife communities that rely on coastal wetlands.

The Canadian Wildlife Service and the Adaptation and Impacts Research Group of Environment Canada have secured funding for a two-year project on Great Lakes coastal wetland communities. In partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the University of Waterloo, the project examines the vulnerability of coastal wetland plant, bird and fish communities to climate variability and change, and explores adaptation strategies to maintain ecosystem function and values.

Historic water level records and air photos are being used to validate a predictive model of wetland vegetation response to changes in flood depth and duration. Vegetation composition of 11 Great Lakes wetlands has been interpreted from air photos and mapped. Temporal and spatial trend analyses of areas of wetland vegetation change and the relationship between vegetation, elevation and water level fluctuations have been completed. Climate change water level scenarios will be applied to the model to project changes in wetland vegetation distribution and abundance. Existing bird and fish habitat suitability models are being applied to the projected vegetation communities to assess potential impacts on the structure and function of wildlife communities.

In addition to vegetation, bird and fish modelling, three strategies to facilitate coastal wetlands adaptation to climate change will be explored. These include:

  1. Wetland diking
  2. Lakewide water level regulation
  3. Land use planning and policy mechanisms

The project will wrap-up in March 2005.

For detailed information on any aspect of the project, please visit the project website .

Canadian Wetlands Inventory

Just as the need for a Great Lakes wetlands inventory has been recognized since the early 1990s, scientists, conservationists, policymakers and federal auditors have called for a national wetland inventory in the last decade or so. Canada requires a comprehensive and consistent inventory of wetlands to assess the status and trends of this important ecosystem. Although wetland inventories have been completed for some areas of the country, the wide variation in scale, methods and classification prohibit their "piecing together" to achieve a national perspective on wetlands.

A national inventory of wetlands would provide answers to some basic questions crucial to their sound management: How much wetland is left? Of what type? How are wetlands distributed? Is the situation getting better or worse? An wetland inventory would help to:

  • Support land use planning and direct development away from valued natural habitats
  • Target sites for more detailed scientific research or conservation activities
  • Monitor the impact of stressors such as climate change on wetland area and location, and
  • Assess the effectiveness of conservation programs.

Since 2002, the Canadian Wildlife Service – Ontario Region (CWS-OR) and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources have been involved with initiating and developing the inventory in the province of Ontario. Through the use of existing programs, processes and technologies, duplicate wetland mapping efforts can be avoided.

One example of the use of an ongoing initiative is development of the Southern Ontario Land Resource Information System (SOLRIS). SOLRIS is a series of GIS and image analysis protocols that accurately map current land cover from recent remote sensing images. This initiative is currently mapping land cover (including wetlands) in southeastern Ontario, with plans to map the entire Ontario portion of the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone. A SOLRIS methodology development and assessment phase was completed previously, and included a specific focus on wetland mapping.

In 2004/05, CWS-OR will complete an evaluation of current wetland mapping projects, partners and opportunities as they relate to implementation of a CWI in Ontario Region. Although some coordination related to CWI methodology development has occurred, there is a need to more formally review ecozone level methodology standards and opportunities to collaborate across regions.

For more information, visit the Canadian Wetland Inventory website.