Alberta Wilderness Association is calling for:
- the postponement of industrial activities in core caribou habitat until herds recover to healthy numbers
- permanent protection of caribou habitat in the wildlands of the Little Smoky, Chinchaga and Kakwa.
Woodland caribou (Mountain ecotype) in Jasper National Park (Paul Sutherland)
The most consistent and pervasive threat to the persistence of a viable caribou population in Alberta stems from resource extraction industries, which are causing an overall loss and fragmentation of habitat. Reports from locals and government biologists dating back 60 years have documented the absence of caribou following the establishment of industrial activity in an area. Over the past 30 years, field biologists have shown the links among forestry, hydrocarbon development, and road building and the decline of woodland caribou.
Caribou are vulnerable to habitat loss for several reasons:
- Caribou are dependent on old-growth forest conditions, which include the growth of lichen, the main forage (70% of diet) of caribou.
- When these older forest stands are logged, it can take several decades before conditions are suitable for caribou to return.
- As logging companies continue to operate in an area, there is less and less habitat available for caribou, and if shortened logging rotations are maintained, suitable conditions may never return.
- Habitat loss exacerbates mortality from predation.
- Caribou are gregarious but have traditionally maintained low densities across their range to reduce predation risk by wolves and other large predators.
- However, as habitat area decreases, local caribou population densities increase as herds are forced into smaller and smaller habitat patches.
- As caribou density increases, they are more easily detected by predators.
- Wildlife biologists have long argued that mortality from predators has increased due to industrial activity in caribou habitat and that this is a leading cause of caribou population decline.
- Industrial activities also increase the suitability of the landscape for caribou competitors such as elk and moose.
- Elk are known to push caribou off of scarce winter ranges and moose attract predators to an area.
- Combined, the presence of these animals increases the vulnerability of caribou to starvation and predation.
- The vast majority of industrial activity in caribou habitat requires roads for access and/or to extract natural resources. Seismic cutlines are also prevalent in areas where resource extraction or exploration is taking place. These linear features are detrimental to caribou in a number of ways.
- For example, caribou are known to avoid seismic lines from 250 m away This effectively reduces the amount of habitat on either side of that line, irrespective of how pristine the remaining habitat still is.
- Furthermore, road access and cutlines are known to increase access to both human and wildlife depredation.
- Biologists have called for access management and cooperation among resource extraction industries to minimize road construction, such that industrial operators would share roads and seismic lines.
- These calls have been made repeatedly since the 1970s (e.g., by Michael Bloomfield, a regional habitat biologist with the provincial government) through to the present day (Dyer et al. 2001).