What’s New Caribou

This blog post is brought to you by Alexis Clarke at the University of Alberta. We will be featuring guest blog posts for the next few months from University students and CPAWS Northern Alberta Volunteers. 

An update on Alberta’s woodland caribou populations and a short interview with CPAWS’ own Tara Russell
If you’ve been following the CPAWS Northern Alberta (NAB) blog or social media lately (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), you know that we are all about caribou. We are all for the preservation of the face of Canada’s quarter, a key player in Canada’s boreal forest ecosystems. Unfortunately, caribou are especially sensitive to ecological disturbances and Alberta’s own caribou herds are facing huge risks. If industrial development continues as it has been, local caribou herds will not sustain themselves. The Little Smoky herd’s population is at an all-time low and may not make it if major changes are not implemented.
CPAWS has been advocating for change and the restoration of disturbed habitat ranges. For a more detailed account of what the organization is doing to help conserve Alberta’s caribou I talked to Tara Russell, conservation assistant with CPAWS NAB. Tara has completed “Caribou in Alberta: A range planning guide,” a document that outlines the economic and ecological values of caribou ranges within our province. This plan will be presented to the provincial government in hopes of seeing more restoration and fewer disturbances within these areas.


A Few Questions and Answers about Caribou in Alberta

Q: What is currently the biggest threat to caribou populations in Alberta?

A: Caribou prefer old growth forests and are vulnerable to incidental predation, so anthropogenic disturbance (disturbance by humans) is a huge concern. Compared to neighbouring provinces, a larger percentage of Alberta is disturbed by forestry and oil and gas exploration. Almost the entire province is allocated to industry.

Q: What can be done to combat the effects of these disturbances?

A: We’d like to see the protection and large-scale restoration of caribou ranges. Ideally, our goal is to ensure that 65% of these ranges are undisturbed. To do this, we need to ensure that undisturbed lands stay that way and disturbed lands are restored.
Active reforestation and the restoration of seismic lines (3-10 metre wide lines cut through the forest in order to assess the amount of resources below the surface) would make a large impact. Seismic lines make it easier for predators like wolves to move through the forest and increase their line of sight, increasing incidental predation. Without restoration, these areas can take anywhere from 35 to 100 years to reintegrate into the forest. If things keep going the way they have been, experts estimate that provincial caribou populations only have between 40 and 50 years left. 

Q: What obstacles are there to achieving these goals?

A: Economics. The resource industries that disturb these caribou habitats are very profitable. This is what caused the caribou situation to evolve into what it is today and is the largest obstacle in ensuring the long-term viability of this species in the province. Mapping the economic and ecologic values of caribou ranges in the province may help demonstrate which areas can be protected for the least economic cost.

Q: Last but not least, no caribou post would be complete without an update on the Little Smoky herd. What is being done for these caribou?

A: More measures need to be put in place, but a wolf cull is in place and the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation has been patrolling caribou populations in the area. The wolf cull is a band-aid solution that treats symptoms rather than the real issue of disturbance. It may temporarily help keep this population afloat, but more needs to be done or this herd faces extirpation. Aseniwuche Winewak Nation has put a caribou patrol in place in hopes of keeping up to date on the caribou situation in the area and raising awareness.

Check out Facebook and Instagram to see the wonderful stop motion video on the threats to caribou!













Tara Russell, CPAWS NAB’s conservation assistant