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SFI BLOG

Doing Research that Matters for Caribou

By |2019-05-07T19:27:05-05:00May 7th, 2019|Categories: Good For Forests|

Impact (Impækt: noun) – the sudden and powerful positive or negative effect something has on a situation, process, or person.

In the scientific community, the effect that a research program has on society is described as the work’s positive “impact.” Where once it was considered enough to publish findings in respectable journals and move on, there is an increasing movement to assess the impact that findings have more broadly, especially considering the amount of public funds often invested.

When considering the field of conservation, one would think that any and all research that helps improve how we conserve the natural world would automatically have impact. Unfortunately, such is not always the case. Conservation research comes with a myriad of challenges, setbacks and pitfalls, and even the best work takes significant time – sometimes many years – to get published and adopted by decision-makers.

At SFI, conservation is an integral aspect of our work, and we strive every day to make the research we support relevant – to give it positive impact. We believe that good research should contribute to the diverse work that we do including to provide supply chain assurances, deliver conservation leadership, and support environmental education and community engagement. That’s a tall order to fill.

Collaborating on woodland caribou research
One of the ways SFI is contributing to conservation in Canada is through collaborating on woodland caribou research. Woodland caribou, a subspecies of reindeer that ranges across Canada’s vast boreal landscape, is considered threatened through much of its territory. In recent years caribou have become a political flashpoint owing to their complex relationship with industrial and natural disturbance, predators and climate change. What is clear is that caribou have varied and important relationships with their habitat, and SFI has helped improve understanding and develop tools to help conserve caribou across the boreal forest.

Researchers have long understood that caribou and their deer cousins, moose and white-tailed deer, have a complicated relationship because of their mutual predators, wolves and bears. As a result, habitat configuration – both the amount of forest and its distribution intermingled with roads, seismic lines, fires and other forms of disturbance – have multiple effects on all five species.

What’s Causing Caribou Declines?

While research is ongoing, there are several things thought to cause caribou population declines, many of which interact with other species, and each other. Evidence for each of the factors listed here is significant:

  • Temporary habitat loss (human or natural disturbance)
  • Permanent or temporary linear features (roads or seismic lines)
  • High predation rates by wolves and bears
  • Human recreational activities
  • Climate change

Too much disturbance upsets the balance, driving deer and moose populations up, and bringing predators up with them. While adult caribou have developed ways to avoid these predators, at some point on predator‑rich landscapes it becomes impossible to do so. To make matters worse, very young caribou calves don’t have the speed or mobility to escape from threats, and too many fall victim to predation soon after birth. Understanding how disturbances influence deer, moose, and predators is important; figuring out what to do about it even more so.

Focusing research on habitat disturbance
To help get some answers to these important questions, SFI partnered with two research organizations, both keenly aware of the importance of caribou conservation.

In 2016, SFI began working with fRI Research and Dr. Laura Finnegan, Caribou Program Lead at fRI Research, to better understand the use of disturbed forests by wildlife, with a focus on predators, caribou, and other prey species. Using both radio-telemetry and camera traps, fRI was able to better understand the effects of disturbance – particularly seismic lines and other linear features – on movement patterns and uses by wildlife.

Their work, in part funded by SFI, found that even small amounts of vegetation could reduce travel times by predators – even vegetation less than a meter in height. Researchers also reported that even after wolf movements were reduced, both predators and prey continued to use areas near linear features more than would be expected, reminding us of the importance of re-growing trees on those areas as soon as possible.

In 2018, SFI partnered with fRI Research again, this time to explore how forest management could reduce how it influences caribou and their cousins by re-examining harvesting patterns, visual lines of sight, trees left after harvesting, and prompt regeneration. In the past, harvest areas have been found to boost moose and deer populations, thereby driving up predator populations to the detriment of caribou. It is hoped this work will help forest managers create landscapes that are more amenable to caribou, and less beneficial to their competitors and predators.

Better understanding caribou foraging ecology
Meanwhile another research team was speculating about another possible set of tools. Owing to the secretive nature and cryptic habits of caribou, their foraging ecology is very poorly understood. Knowing what caribou need to give birth on time to strong, healthy calves – calves that are more likely to get on their feet and get moving sooner – could help in minimizing losses to predators.

Most of the literature on caribou reported that lichens are very important to caribou and may be their only source of nutrition during the long, cold Canadian hinterland winters. But ungulate nutritionists know that there is more to growing healthy young caribou than lichen. Mothers need digestible protein, minerals and nutrients found in much greater abundance in green, leafy vegetation during the summer months. Food in the summer prior to females getting pregnant has significant ramifications for calves in the spring.

A research herd of woodland caribou have been used to document the nutritional needs and dynamics in habitats in BC and northern Ontario. (photo D. Sleep)
A research herd of woodland caribou have been used to document the nutritional needs and dynamics in habitats in BC and northern Ontario. (Photo D.J.H. Sleep)

In 2009, the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) initiated work to better understand the nutritional needs and dynamics of woodland caribou. It was no small task. NCASI had for many years conducted work on the nutritional dynamics of elk in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, work that had significant ramifications for elk management. Could similar work be done to help caribou conservation?

In 2018, after nine years of successful field work and data collection from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Fort St-John, B.C., to Dryden, Ont., the project’s main participants, a small herd of caribou, which had been raised and cared for under the careful watch of NCASI’s John Cook, Principal Scientist, Large Ungulate Ecology, and  Rachel Cook, Senior Research Scientist, Large Ungulate Ecology, were retired to live out their lives in comfort.

SFI has been a close partner on the project. In addition to providing direct funding through SFI’s Conservation and Community Partnerships Grant Program, this year Project Learning Tree (PLT) Canada, PLT is an initiative of SFI, provided 50% wage matching for student technicians to work on the project. This support came from the Green Jobs program, which was funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment Strategy. The program is designed to inspire youth to explore careers in the great outdoors, by filling over 1,600 jobs through 2018 and 2019. By working with employers, PLT Canada is increasing opportunities for youth and helping students gain skills and experience that prepare them for the future workforce.

“We were sampling vegetation quantity and quality available to woodland caribou in different habitats of uplands and lowlands,” recalls Peter Appleton, a student technician on the project in 2018. “Bogs were my favorite habitat to sample vegetation in, as they each have their own gnarly story.”

New understanding of caribou food habits

Early results from the project are revealing the secret food habits of caribou like we’ve never understood them before. For one, to someone looking at the boreal forest from above, it looks like an unending carpet of green forests. To a caribou looking to feed itself and nurse a hungry calf, it’s anything but consistent. Nutritional value from a caribou’s perspective is highly variable, with some herds having plenty of resources, while others seem to barely get by. Estimates from wild populations reflect this, with some herds having more than half of their members subsisting with very low body fat measurements. And skinny caribou do not give birth to robust and vigorous calves.

The work has also revealed important findings for ecologists and forest managers alike. Much to everyone’s surprise, not all lichens are created equal in the eyes of a hungry caribou, with some species completely avoided in favor of others, and sometimes in favor of green leafy vegetation. Also, a surprise was how much vegetation was available to foraging caribou that was completely avoided. Apparently, everything green, seemingly edible, and within reach is not food to a caribou. Depending on the habitats examined, caribou may only eat from a fraction of what is available to them, often less than 25% of the available forage. These results have important ramifications for where forest management takes place, and what habitats managers leave behind for caribou, helping managers to better plan harvesting operations to conserve important caribou areas.

Local support and engagement

The project was also supported by local forest products manufacturing companies, those who play a role in managing the surrounding forests to conserve caribou and other values. In Dryden, where the project finished its last two years of operation, SFI Program Participants Domtar, EACOM Timber Corporation and Weyerhaeuser are local operators who provided both financial and in-kind support. The work has also had a local impact on the community, both in terms of interest by residents, and increased business to local operators who supplied feed, veterinary services, building supplies and other services.

Janet Lane, Sustainable Forestry License Team Leader at Domtar, generously played host to the herd on her property for the last two years and noted the interest of the community was significant. “We had lots of interest and visits from the neighborhood, including local citizens and neighbors, and Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry staff. We could hardly go to the grocery store without someone asking us about the caribou and how they were doing.”

Much of the barn and facilities were constructed with SFI certified building materials from local manufacturers (photo D. Sleep)

Challenging but potentially rewarding work ahead
Now comes the challenging work of sifting through the data and publishing results. As scientific publications begin to get released, a few already have, the bulk of the findings may take some time to come to light, and longer to get adopted into management practices. While assessing the impact on society of complex projects like these is never simple, with a little thought it can be done. This project’s impact has already been significant by developing new science that will be used to inform SFI standards, and by benefiting the local community, youth in Canada, and eventually the caribou themselves. At SFI, we’re proud to have been a part of it.

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