I Caribou-t You, Caribou

Disclaimer: credit for this punny blog title goes to the excellent like-mindedly pun-focused Naomi Louchouarn, who actually works on caribou with Yellowstone to Yukon.

The caribou. I think Michael Mitchell put it best when he said:

Any Canadian child of the 90s better know what I’m talking about. For everyone else, click that video above and you will not regret it. (Or perhaps you will, since you likely do not have fond nostalgic memories associated with patriotic Canadian children’s songs.)

But really, the caribou. There’s a reason why it features strongly in lyrics designed for Canadian infants: it’s a national symbol for us, and truly an amazing animal to see (a beautiful sight to see, one might even say. Ho ho.). Sadly, caribou are in trouble in Canada, and not everyone knows this. The tale of the caribou factored so strongly into my education when I took my science degree that I forget sometimes how this tale is not really common knowledge. I wish I could remove any pretentious vibes from that sentence, but I can’t think how to so let’s just move on: what’s the deal with the ‘bou?

Caribou are mainly declining due to habitat loss and disturbance. These are common themes for the decline of a lot of wildlife, but some animals are able to escape devastation by being generalists and having a broad scope of environments that they can succeed in. For instance, both deer and moose are less specific than caribou in their habitat requirements and can be found even in the river valley running through the city of Edmonton where I reside and in the outlying rural areas. Caribou, however, need to consume a diet largely of lichen during the winter and depend on access to lichen woodlands (old-growth forests) to thrive. As a result, they cannot move away from the remote forested areas in Alberta disturbed by the forestry and oil and gas industries. Now, this wouldn’t be too bad for caribou, except that these disturbances often result in linear features that cut through the forest such as pipelines and seismic lines. These cleared corridors through the forest act as highways for predators, especially wolves, that are now able to more quickly and effectively take down prey, including caribou. Not only do the caribou not have very much space left, but that space is unusually dangerous for them. As a result, certain ranges where caribou used to be reasonably abundant are now reduced to only tens of individuals.

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My best (and only) photo of a caribou spotted in northeastern BC!

So, all of this necessitates a plan. What are we going to do to help the caribou? I went to an information session last week given by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) on this very topic (one might even deduce that this triggered me to write a blog post, and one would be right), as the provincial government in Alberta recently released a draft range plan for the conservation of caribou in the Little Smoky and A La Peche regions of the province.

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Map of caribou herds and their ranges in Alberta. The Little Smoky and A La Peche herds are west of Edmonton. Click the map to view the source website, the University of Alberta’s caribou research group directed by Dr. Fiona Schmiegelow.

CPAWS does not represent the government, but rather is an independent advocacy group of scientists that talks with government and other stakeholders to help protect the parks and wildlife in Canada. CPAWS undertook its own review of the draft plan and found it severely lacking. This is not cool. While the plan makes some positive steps, it remains very friendly with the forestry and oil and gas industries and lacks specificity, making very few (if any) specific goals for caribou. Of particular concern is the Little Smoky herd, now down to only about 50 individuals. Here are my top three issues with this plan, to help make clear what needs to be tidied the fuck up:

  1. Federally, it is required that a threatened species like the caribou must have 65% undisturbed habitat within its range, yet this figure is barely referred to in the plan and in no part of the plan is it explained how, when, and where that 65% is going to be reached.
  2. What caribou need more than anything is restored habitat: we need to go back to these seismic lines, pipelines, and cutblocks and work to restore the forest in these areas. While the plan requires that the industries that caused these disturbances remediate them (good!), it sets no timeline, no goals, and no requirements for how this is done (bad!). On top of that, while it technically “forbids” tree harvest in the few undisturbed patches remaining, this is a superficial and temporary rule: once forestry companies have run out of other wood to harvest, the plan then allows them to begin harvest in the undisturbed zones.
  3. The plan makes no mention of reducing or phasing out wolf culls, which are the current management practice to conserve caribou. Culling wolves, in my opinion, should be viewed as a temporary measure: it is helping to stabilize caribou populations in the short-term, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be called sustainable. Wolves thrive using these “forest highways” and will continue to do so as long as they exist. Furthermore, when a wolf cull occurs it may reduce the wolf population temporarily, which seems good for caribou, but it also serves to increase other prey numbers (moose, deer, etc.) which in turn actually increases wolf numbers (as prey become more abundant, wolves bounce back faster).

You can read a lot more details about all of this on the CPAWS Northern Alberta chapter website, but suffice it to say, the government could use a little pressure to improve this plan. We need to make it clear to the powers that be that this is not okay! If you are interested in taking action to help, please consider writing a letter to the Alberta provincial government. You do not need to be an Albertan to do this. In fact, more non-Albertan voices in the discussion is an excellent thing. There are strong economic drivers in this province that are in conflict with caribou conservation, and we need equally strong drivers of conservation to balance the conversation.

Phew, turns out this science section is a bit more political than I expected it to be. But hey, that’s the kind of science it would be great to have more people interested in: science that can make a difference! So inspirational. But please, do think about the ‘bou. Caribou-t the ‘bou!

❤ SarNas

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