Caribou habitat restoration may be ineffective in the short term, says UBC study

Wildlife responses to habitat restoration are often assumed rather than verified, a new B.C. study suggests

A new study done in northeastern Alberta suggests habitat restoration may not be enough to save threatened woodland caribou, at least in the short term, and researchers at the University of British Columbia say their results make the case for a more rigorous analysis of conservation methods.

Much of the caribou habitat in Western Canada has already been degraded by industrial activities, such as oil and gas exploration, so one of the key tools being used to protect caribou is habitat restoration, said Cole Burton, the senior author of the study and a forestry professor who leads the wildlife coexistence lab at the university.

But wildlife responses to habitat restoration are often assumed rather than verified, the study says.

“We can’t just accept on faith that things are working,” Burton said in an interview on Wednesday.

The researchers set out to monitor caribou and their predators, such as black bears and wolves, as well as other prey like moose and white-tailed deer in both restored and unrestored habitat areas between 2015 and 2018.

In northeastern Alberta, they placed hidden cameras along seismic lines — narrow strips of land cleared for oil and gas exploration. They fragment caribou habitat and facilitate the movement of predators, disrupting a natural separation and increasing the predation of caribou, Burton said.

The study, which was published last week in the journal Biological Conservation, showed that most predators and prey used the restored seismic lines about as much as they used the unrestored lines.

Caribou preferred to use more isolated lines and those around low-lying wetland areas, regardless of whether the lines had been restored. Only white-tailed deer were observed using the restored lines less than the unrestored ones, the study found.

The researchers monitored lines that had been restored three to six years before the study as part of an effort by members of the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA, to reclaim 570 square kilometres of caribou habitat along the Athabasca River about 70 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray, Alta.

READ MORE: B.C. Interior caribou protection area big enough, minister says

In addition to tree planting, restoration can also include the development of mounds of earth and piles of fallen logs and debris to try to break up the movement and sight lines of predators.

Deterring predators with so-called movement blockers requires substantial effort and modification of the landscape, said Burton, who noted it’s possible that intensifying these efforts could help break up seismic lines more effectively.

The lines Burton and his team studied in Alberta were developed around the 1980s.

“Since that time, industry has tried to change their methods to what they would call low-impact seismic lines, so much narrower (and) maybe not as straight, so they break up the line of sight of the predators, like wolves,” said Burton.

COSIA could not immediately be reached for comment.

The same issues are happening in northeastern B.C., where woodland caribou also roam alongside seismic lines established for oil and gas exploration, Burton said.

In October, the province announced it was allocating $6.5 million over three years for caribou habitat restoration projects, including planting trees, spreading woody debris and installing fences to disrupt the thoroughfares that advantage predators.

But trees grow back slowly in the northern Boreal forest, which means caribou habitat restoration is a long-term process, Burton said.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said it is reviewing the study to determine if and how its findings could be applied to the province’s caribou recovery strategy. The ministry also said the recovery program is closely monitored to determine whether it’s meeting caribou recovery goals.

More immediate measures, such as maternity penning where pregnant caribou are protected by a fence as well as predator culling, are also part of the B.C. government’s strategy to protect threatened caribou.

Burton said it’s likely the province will have to pursue a predator cull, which is contentious, for a long time until caribou habitat recovers more fully.

“If we’re going to keep caribou around, we really do need to think about what vision are we going to keep them in,” said Burton.

“Are we going to put them in a little fenced area until we finish developing and restoring the landscape and just hope that they survive? Or are we going to have a vision where we have more substantial protection of their habitat?”

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

After slow start, Summerland sees more tourism activity

Majority of visitors come from within British Columbia

EDITORIAL: Accommodating Okanagan fruit pickers

Campsite for agricultural workers to open in Summerland

Deer and moose die after being chased by dogs in Naramata

BC conservation officers are asking the public to control their pets

Two facing charges after RCMP search Penticton motel, find firearms, drug-trafficking related items

Samuel Prescott-Perreault, 32 years old, and 27-year-old Paige Rist are facing charges

Booze on beach extended through summer in Penticton

Pilot project will stay in place until Oct. 15

The pandemic is widening Canada’s workplace gender gap

Gender pay gap is incentivizing fathers to work while mothers watch children, a new B.C. study has found

Ex-Okanagan Mountie forfeits 20 days’ pay after sexual misconduct review

A former Vernon RCMP constable made sexual comments, grabbed genitals of male officer in two incidents 10 years ago

Security guard assaulted in Kamloops park thanks police, public for quick arrest

Glen Warner, 71, was attacked on July 2 by a man who was asked by Warner to not smoke

Portraits celebrating Syilx culture now on display at Kelowna International Airport

Sheldon Pierre Louis’ art will be on display at YLW from now until July 2021

3 people dead in Prince George motel fire

Fire personnel believe the blaze was suspicious although investigation in early stages

Man found dead on Okanagan trail identified as Hollywood actor

GoFundMe campaign launched for man found dead at summit of Spion Kop

B.C. sets terms to review police, mental health, race relations

MLAs to recommend Police Act changes by May 2021

Trail RCMP officer accused of criminal harassment, forcible entry

BCPS: The charges against Murchie date between 2017 and 2020

Most Read