Collaboration in the complex case of the woodland caribou

While provincial and territorial governments finalize range plans for the woodland caribou, diverse groups of Canadians are contributing to caribou management through research and conservation.

Caribou in the snow.
Woodland caribou consist of both boreal caribou and southern mountain caribou.

You can find the shy woodland caribou across Canada. Woodland caribou consists of both boreal caribou, found in the Boreal forest from the Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador and as far south as Lake Superior in Ontario, and southern mountain caribou, which are found in the mountainous regions of British Columbia and Alberta. Woodland caribou herds need large areas of habitat to reduce their risk of predation. Natural and human-caused habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation have reduced some herds to numbers too small to sustain their population without management intervention. As a result, some caribou types are now listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act. To help tackle the complex issues related to caribou management, groups of Canadians across Canada are forging strategic cross-sector collaborations to help conserve woodland caribou populations.

Building on previous research

Technology can play a large role in understanding caribou population patterns. University of Alberta scientist Craig Demars used geospatial data to develop an innovative way to both detect calving among female woodland caribou and to determine calf survival rates, based on their movements across the landscape. Working with four herds in northeastern British Columbia, he captured female caribou in the spring to fit them with GPS collars, at the same time testing them to find out which ones were pregnant.

Technicians equipping a tranquilized caribou with a GPS collar.
Technicians equipping a tranquilized caribou with a GPS collar.

Demars then flew over the area in a helicopter during summer to verify that the caribou had given birth and find out which calves had survived. The field survey confirmed the GPS data: when an adult female suddenly stops moving and then gradually resumes her normal pace, she has given birth and the calf has survived. When she stops moving and then quickly resumes her normal pace, the calf has likely died.

More recently, Barry Nobert and a team of researchers from the Foothills Research Institute dapted Demars' methodology with two herds in west-central Alberta. Partners in the Alberta government and in the forestry company Weyerhaeuser had previously collared 81 female caribou in the Rocky Mountains and Nobert had 16 years' worth of geospatial data to analyze. By building on Demars’ research, Nobert’s team was able not only to determine the herds’ reproductive and calf survival rates, but also to identify the habitats that the mothers chose for calving. Forestry companies such as Weyerhaeuser can integrate this information into cutblock design and management to mitigate the effects of harvesting on caribou herds.

Taking the initiative

The Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild (RCRW) Society of Revelstoke, British Columbia also built on previous success. The community-based partnership – which includes the Splatsin Indian Band, the non-profit Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, and the local snowmobile club, among others – looked to other ongoing western Canada maternal penning programs and applied the same principles to their local Columbia North caribou herd.

Maternal penning projects capture and protect pregnant caribou until the mother and calf can be released back into the wild. This gives the calf extra time to become bigger and stronger and, hopefully, less susceptible to predation. After the RCRW caribou cows and calves are released, they are monitored using GPS collars to track their survival until March, when calves are 10 months old and considered “recruited” into the local population.

The RCRW maternal penning program started in 2014. Now in its fourth year, RCRW wildlife technician Kelsey Furk says, "the herd right now is stable and has been stable since 2013, which is an improvement over a number of other herds in the region that continue to decline."

Mother and calf in a fenced area.
Maternal penning programs protect caribou mothers and calves in an area secure from predators.

An integrated way forward

Canadians in academia, Indigenous communities, consulting firms, government and industry each have an important role to play in understanding the complex reality of caribou management. Sharing knowledge and collaborating on projects provides all orders of government, from municipal to federal, the evidence base to guide strategic policy and decision-making.

Photo credits
  • Photo of caribou being fitted with tag and radio collar courtesy of Kevin Bollefer.