Addressing the Impact of Wildfires on Caribou Recovery: A Call for Action

May 9, 2024
By: CPAWS Northern Alberta

Addressing the Impact of Wildfires on Caribou Recovery: A Call for Action

Woodland caribou are one of Alberta’s, and Canada’s most iconic forest species. These great antlered ungulates have made their life in the boreal forest, and for millennia were successful at surviving the harsh Canadian conditions that this forest presents. Due to their their preference for boggy, difficult to reach old growth forest habitats where their unique diet of lichen grows, they could easily avoid being hunted by wolves, and rear their young in peace.  

Unfortunately, their survival tactic of avoiding wolves altogether falls apart when their habitat is disturbed and wolves can access it more easily. The catastrophic 2023 wildfire season has exasperated the issue. Wildfire has always been present in the boreal forest, but the addition of industrial habitat disturbances from forest harvest, mining, and oil and gas production, has resulted in levels of disturbance, and encounters with predators, that these gentle animals had never experienced before. 

Woodland caribou (boreal population) have been listed on Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) since 2003. Under this federal legislation, the province must provide effective habitat protections for woodland caribou.

Caribou range refers to the geographical area that caribou may be found in or use for their daily survival.

Caribou habitat
to the specific type of environment that the species lives in. As an example, this could be old-growth boreal forests.

To meet this obligation to protect and restore caribou habitat the Province of Alberta has (many years behind schedule) begun to create land use plans covering caribou habitat across the province. By tackling one or two herd ranges at a time through the creation of ‘Sub-Regional Plans” Alberta is meant to be laying a foundation for coordinated industrial use of the landscape and caribou habitat protection and restoration.  

In the meantime, industrial disturbance has continued to outpace restoration and protection, and on top of that, the catastrophic 2023 fire season ravaged a number of Woodland caribou ranges.  

The intense wildfire season has highlighted limitations in the ability of the only two existing plans (Bistcho and Cold Lake) to adjust to disturbance caused by wildfire. The two plans do not include disturbance by wildfire in the projections of habitat disturbance over time. They simply state that the plan will be reassessed if wildfire disturbance is above a threshold amount.  
Given that wildfire is a natural and expected disturbance in the boreal forest, all plans for the recovery of caribou should include an expectation of wildfire and contingency to account for its disturbance. That way if caribou habitat is as impacted as it was by the 2023 wildfires, it could mean that allowable industrial activity within or adjacent to caribou habitat would be reduced. Caribou urgently need proactive measures to safeguard their remaining habitat and expedite recovery efforts for habitat that is disturbed. 

The Devastating Impact of 2023 Wildfires

According to ABMI’s recent report, Effects of 2023 Wildfires in Alberta, the 2023 forest fires season was one of the most intense in recent history – 6.6 % of forested area burned across all ages and types of forests 1. Alarmingly, the 2023 wildfires burned 5.2% of preferred woodland caribou habitat across the province, including 12.7% of preferred habitat in the Bistcho range, and 13.7% of preferred habitat in the Caribou Mountains range. These burns represent enormous habitat loss for herds that are already well below the minimum amount of undisturbed habitat necessary for their recovery (65%).  


Caribou Range 

Range Extent (ha) 

2023 Fire Extent (ha) 

2023 Percent of Range Fire Affected 





Caribou Mountains 








Cold Lake 




East Side Athabasca 




Little Smoky 








Red Earth 








Slave Lake 




West Side Athabasca 








This 2023 wildfire season and its enormous impact on caribou habitat has highlighted a large gap in sub-regional plans for caribou recovery – especially for the Bistcho Caribou range  

Gaps in Sub-Regional Planning

Sub-regional plans are not responsive enough to address the change in caribou habitat caused by wildfire.

The Bistcho sub-regional plan finalized in 2022 includes a 100-year blueprint to meet habitat objectives for caribou recovery, which includes achieving 65% undisturbed caribou habitat in each range by year 100. A hundred years until the area will reach the minimum needed level of undisturbed habitat is already too slow for caribou recovery, but moreover, the lack of inclusion of disturbance from wildfire in the scenarios developed to model habitat recovery for caribou in the future puts caribou further at risk. The plans use computer models to map out what the future of caribou habitat will look like with future forest harvest, roads, well pads, and seismic line recovery or creation to try to get an idea of where habitat can be recovered and at what pace. They also map out if habitat can sustain disturbance from other land use. Without including wildfire in these habitat scenarios, the plans are missing a likely additional disturbance, and therefore overestimate how much habitat can be recovered or conserved for caribou recovery within the 100 year timeline. This omission will likely result in the over allowance of industrial development or forest harvest where caribou need it the most.  – This is a criticism ENGOs have raised on numerous occasions throughout the development of the plans.   

Instead, the plans call for adaptive management and monitoring for natural disturbance. A review of the entire plan is the only course of action if natural disturbances do occur. Now, just two years after the plan was completed, and before regulations have even been finalized – meaning the plan has not even come close to being implemented – the plan needs to be redone.  Sub-regional plans are a lengthy process and take years to complete, a review of the entire plan further delays effective measures for caribou and the recovery of caribou habitat.

The following scenarios are what can trigger a plan review:  

18.0.1 If the annual total natural disturbance within the caribou range exceeds 1%.
18.0.2 If within eight years of the plan coming into force the cumulative new natural disturbance area exceeds 4% of all caribou range within the sub-region. 
18.0.3 If within 10 years of the plan coming into force the cumulative new natural disturbance area exceeds 4% of the entire sub-region. 

In 2023 alone, 8% of the Bistcho caribou range burned. Bistcho was not the only caribou herd dramatically impacted by the 2023 fires. More than 1% of caribou range was burned in 9 out of 12 Boreal Woodland caribou ranges.2 

Unfortunately, after decades of increasing disturbance, caribou don’t have the luxury of time or mistakes caused by further delays in action and planning. The success or failure of range plans will be determined by how aggressively they are implemented and enforced by the Government of Alberta. The planning process is slow, with only two sub-regional plans complete for the Bistcho and Cold Lake herds in the 5 years since the sub-regional planning process began in 2019. 

Only one year after the Bistcho sub-regional plan was finalized, a review of the plan has already been triggered. With the level of wildfire disturbance across the province in 2023, had sub-regional plans been in place with the same provisions for all caribou herds in the province, the 2023 wildfire season would have triggered a review for plans covering 9 caribou ranges. Given the slow process of passing sub-regional plans, subjecting them for review after every large fire or any large natural disturbance event is not an efficient way to respond to natural disturbance, nor is it expedient enough to be effective for caribou recovery.  

As mentioned earlier, a better way to manage wildfire disturbance when planning for caribou recovery would be to account for it in the first place when planning future industrial disturbance allowances and restoration rates.  

Proposed Solutions

The boreal forest is a fire driven ecosystem. However, uncertainty in the ability to predict wildfire in the boreal reinforces the need to exercise caution for caribou when considering restoration, disturbance, and access within caribou ranges.
3 This includes proactively accounting for wildfire disturbance. Optimistically assuming wildfire would not disturb caribou habitat within the planning process automatically sets the plans up for failure. 

Wildfire disturbances are inevitable, which is why they should be incorporated into subregional plans to avoid the slow and bureaucratic process of re-opening each plan. A circulated myth is that forest harvest mimics wildfire on the landscape. The truth is that the regenerative effects of wildfire seen in ecosystems cannot be replicated by forest harvest. Logging typically targets mature forest stands which is preferred caribou habitat. However, the 2023 wildfire season burned old and young forests alike, not just old forests. There is also evidence that caribou do not view natural disturbance from wildfire and disturbance from clear cuts the same – they experience significantly higher levels of stress when exposed to forest harvest 4. This highlights that forest harvest does not mimic fire. The exclusion of wildfire in the sub-regional plans is an overly optimistic view of habitat recovery over the next 100 years and puts planned disturbance by industry at an advantage over caribou in habitat that is already scarce. 

A nimbler response to wildfire is needed within all caribou sub-regional plans, and there must be associated limitations on other disturbances (this would include forestry, recreational access, land development, etc.)
Ideally, sub-regional plans should include a threshold of habitat loss due to fire in the habitat modeling scenarios. In instances where habitat loss is above that threshold a full review of the plan should not be the only response. We recommend that any wildfire disturbance would immediately result in a decrease in other allowable industrial access and disturbance within that caribou range.  

The level of allowable industrial access and disturbance within a caribou range should consider and be reflective of an expectation of wildfire disturbance. We consider this a precautionary and prudent approach given that there are expected increases in wildfires resulting from exacerbated conditions due to climate change and the uncertainties in wildfire prediction abilities.  

The situation for caribou in Alberta was dire before the impacts of the 2023 wildfire season and action to protect and recover the species remains dismally slow. Unfortunately, caribou recovery actions are far outpaced by industrial development and the changing environment resulting in the need for drastic and controversial measures such as caribou breeding programs and wolf culls. The 2023 wildfire season should highlight the need for more proactive accounting for disturbance, natural and human caused habitat destruction in all future caribou sub-regional plans. 

A note on recent caribou research 

Recent research on caribou recovery strategies and efforts across western Canada highlight the complicated nature of widespread recovery efforts, and the dire state of their populations.  

Climate change has wide reaching impacts, and a recent paper (Dickie et al, 2024) highlights the added complications it has for caribou recovery. Finding that in some populations warmer winters with less snow are causing increases in whitetailed deer overlap with caribou range. More deer in caribou range causes more wolves in caribou range, meaning more predation on caribou.  

Another recent paper highlighted the impacts of the wolf cull in caribou habitat in BC and Alberta, finding that ranges where predator reductions were occurring, caribou population declines were halted. (Lamb et al, 2024) 

Importantly, both papers conclude that habitat conservation and restoration is one of the most important actions that can be taken to secure populations in the long term.


  1. Huggard, D., B. Allen, and D.R. Roberts. 2024. Effects of 2023 Wildfires in Alberta. ABMI Science Letters Issue 8: March, 2024. Available at: 

  2. Alberta Government. (2023, November). FireMAP KMZ [Shapefile]. Retrieved from 

  3. Beverly, J. (2024, April 4). (Rethinking) Fire risk and forest management [Webinar]. CPAWS Northern and Southern Alberta. 

  4. Ewacha et al. 2017. Disturbance and chronic levels of cortisol in boreal woodland caribou. The Journal of Wildlife Management 81(7) 1266-1275.

  5. Dickie et al. 2024. Habitat alteration or climate: What drives the densities of an invading ungulate? Global Change Biology 30(4) e17286.

  6. Lamb et al. 2024. Effectiveness of population-based recovery actions for threatened southern mountain caribou. Ecological Applications early online version e2965.

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