Art Gruenig at Turtle Day at Elizabeth Lake, May, 2014. Townsman file photo

Art Gruenig at Turtle Day at Elizabeth Lake, May, 2014. Townsman file photo

Cranbrook naturalist receives national award

Art Gruenig awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for work with bluebirds, turtles

A Cranbrook conservationist and naturalist has been awarded with a signal national honour.

Art Gruenig, a lifetime member of the Rocky Mountain Naturalists, has been awarded the Meritorious Service Cross (MSM) — one of Canada’s highest civiv decorations — for his leadership in nature conservation through the protection and revival of vulnerable bird and turtle populations in the East Kootenay.

The Meritorious Service Decorations recognize individuals who have performed a deed or an activity in a highly professional manner, or at a very high standard that brings benefit or honour to Canada. Such actions can range from advocacy initiatives and health care services to humanitarian efforts and contributions to the arts.

The announcement was made last week, via the office of the Governor General of Canada. You can read it here.

Art, with the support of his wife Lois, passionately championed Naturalist projects including the local Bluebird Trails and Western Painted Turtle nesting beds at Elizabeth Lake. A statement from the Rocky Mountain Naturalists, of which Art is a lifetime member, offered congratulations and detailed his activity on behalf of local wildlife.

In February of 1990, Art began a project of building bluebird boxes in the hope of increasing Mountain and Western Bluebird populations, which were in decline. He realized that some areas within the Rocky Mountain Trench were suitable for bluebird populations, but a shortage of appropriate natural cavities was limiting their breeding success. He asked Crestbrook Forest Industries for a donation of plywood, and along with members of the Rocky Mountain Naturalists, the Environmental Youth Corp and the Kootenay Wildlife Fund, 250 nesting boxes were constructed.

Under Art’s direction, the boxes were erected by the Youth Crew and Naturalists in linear arrangements known as trails.

After the initial 250 boxes, Art constructed over 3,500 new boxes over a period of years. He encouraged friends and neighbours to save and donate refundable containers to help purchase nest box materials. During this time, Art perfected a box design which was best for bluebirds. Club and community members are still using Art’s design.

After the trails were established, Art began monitoring the boxes and collecting data. This data was then sent to several larger Bluebird Trail societies in Alberta and southern British Columbia. For five years, between 1992 and 1996, Art banded bluebirds that nested along his trails. He mentored many naturalists on how to monitor and care for a bluebird trail. Many school children were fortunate to experience his passion and knowledge of bluebirds on field trips and classroom visits.

Art’s enthusiasm inspired the Rocky Mountain Naturalists to continue building and monitoring bluebird trails. Property owners with good bluebird habitat purchased boxes for their acreages, learning how to care for and appreciate the benefits of bluebirds.

Elizabeth Lake, a protected wildlife area on the west side of Cranbrook, was transformed from an old sawmill site and city dumping ground to a much loved recreation area and wildlife sanctuary. Art was instrumental in building walking trails, establishing berms and bird blinds near the lake, along with several other projects.

In 1991 it was brought to the attention of the Rocky Mountain Naturalists that many female Western Painted Turtles from Elizabeth Lake were being killed when crossing the highway to their traditional nesting habitat. Again, Art took a leadership role in erecting turtle crossing signs on the highway in an attempt to reduce mortality. The mortality continued and it was recognized that more extensive measures were required.

In 1998 Art and the Rocky Mountain Naturalists applied for and received a Letter of Agreement as well as a grant from the Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program to complete the Western Painted Turtle Habitat Enhancement Project at Elizabeth Lake. A 700-metre barrier to prevent the turtles from crossing the highway and five artificial nesting areas were constructed. Monitoring during the first three years focused on the success of keeping Western Painted Turtles off Highway 3.

The focus in 2001 then shifted to monitoring the nest sites. For 15 years, during May through August, Art checked turtle nesting and hatching progress on a daily basis. He shared his keen interest and appreciation of this species at risk, by having classes visit on-site, leading classroom discussions and participating in our annual Turtle Day events. Art has mentored a new Elizabeth Lake Turtle Monitor, who continues the work that Art began.

Art Gruenig has devoted over two decades of time and energy on projects which benefitted vulnerable animals like the Mountain and Western Bluebirds and Western Painted Turtles in the southern part of the Rocky Mountain Trench. He has inspired and mentored many people to continue to understand nature and to develop and maintain beneficial projects.

Courtesy Marianne Nahm and the Rocky Mountain Naturalists

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