Scientist ankle-deep in bog water to better understand unique wetland

On this particular overcast day, Sean Blaney, executive director and senior scientist with the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, left the house at 5:00 am, a little later than he would have liked, to perform his field work at the Alward Brook Bog. It’s located down a network of exceedingly difficult to manoeuvre logging roads, north of Havelock.

Blaney is compiling a list of flora and fauna he sees at the bog in order to better understand how significant these wetlands are.

The plants found in the open, damp conditions of a bog are specialized, and often don’t occur in other habitats. 

“They’re very good at tolerating the harsh conditions of the bog but they aren’t good at surviving in better conditions in competition with other plants,” said Blaney.

The Alward Brook bog is accessed through a network of logging roads outside Havelock. (Sean Blaney/Submitted)

Blaney, senior scientist at the centre, is leading a study of peat bogs in New Brunswick to better understand the rare species that are living within.

He describes a bog as like a “a giant sponge on the landscape.” 

“It’s an area that’s composed of peat that’s thousands of years of dead plants, built up in a thick mat sometimes metres thick,” he said.

Blaney had made two significant findings, a bog fern, a.k.a. Massachusetts Fern (Coryphopteris simulata) and a small orchid, the Southern Twayblade (Neottia bifolia).

Bog Fern, a.k.a. Massachusetts Fern (Coryphopteris simulata) is the rarest species Blaney found during his day in the bog. (Submitted/Sean Blaney)

He’d found ‘an impressive amount’ of the fern just outside the north side of the bog. It was the rarest species Blaney found that day. 

“It was previously known in New Brunswick only from the Grand Lake to the Minto area,” said Blaney.

The Southern Twayblade is a species provincially listed under the NB Endangered Species Act.

To many people a fern is a fern, and it’s hard to see how long days in ankle deep bogs are worth the possibility of coming across an unexpected variety, but Blaney’s findings affect policy and industry.

Sean Blaney’s research used in environmental assessment of harvesting peat. 2:54

“That information is digitized and put into our large Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre database where it’s available for conservation decision making through the future,” said Blaney.

All the information he and two other botanists find in the field this summer is compiled in the fall. 

“If there was a peat extraction proposal for this particular bog, then the proponent would have to come to the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre and get our data, they would find out that I did find that Southern Twayblade,” said Blaney.

And that small orchid could be a large factor in whether peat would be allowed to be extracted from the site. And it’s a question Blaney expects will be asked sooner than later.

“I think there’s a good chance that in the future, with the financial situation of the province, there will be more pressure to allow more Crown leases in peat lands for extraction,” he said.

Peat extraction on crown lands is managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Development. It’s website states 70 per cent of peat lands with commercial potential are located on Crown land.

The department of Resources and Energy development manages exploration and extraction of peat on Crown lands. The map shows the distribution of peat lands in New Brunswick. (Submitted/Government of New Brunswick)

Companies that extract peat on Crown land are required to have a reclamation plan to restore it to a wetland. But it takes thousands of years for a peat bog to form.

Blaney is hoping that some of the land he’s studying will be considered when the province goes through with it’s promise to double the amount of protected land by 2021.

“Bogs are one of the areas, one of the types of habitats that is perhaps relatively easy to protect in comparison to forested landscapes,” he said. “There’s less demand for bogs overall than there is for forests and for the wood in the forest.”

The peat bog study is funded by the New Brunswick Wildlife Trust Fund and will look at bogs along the southern and eastern parts of the province.

“We have a bunch of bogs near Moncton, a few bogs in Grand Lake area and a few in Kouchibouguac,” he said.

Bogs make up about two per cent of New Brunswick’s land mass, with most of the peat extracted used for horticultural. 

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