One of the oil sands industry’s most pressing concerns is its impact on woodland caribou herds. As an iconic Canadian species, and something of a bellwether for boreal forest health, we all want to see caribou thrive.
The first big declines of the woodland caribou in Alberta were observed in the late 1940s and the early 1970s, linked to extensive logging in old-growth forests. Caribou are dependent on old-growth forests because only there can they find abundant amounts of the slow-growing lichen on which they depend for 70 per cent of their diet.
Today, the principal threat to specific caribou sub-populations comes from oil sands development and associated road building and seismic lines within their roaming areas. The woodland caribou is a migratory species, so roads and lines can easily disrupt and fragment their habitat. Moreover, even if the actual area of habitat disturbed by roads and seismic lines is physically small, the amount of habitat that becomes unavailable to the caribou may be much greater, because they cannot or will not cross the disturbed areas.
The situation has prompted various groups to explore solutions to reverse herd declines. The federal government is intervening under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). First Nations have taken a close interest since they depend on hunting the caribou to maintain their traditional way of life. The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative, the collaborative network of six oil sands companies, is also looking at ways to address the challenge.
Vulnerable to predators
The woodland caribou can be helped directly by reducing the impact of roads and seismic lines. For example, operators can cooperate in sharing roads to minimize construction, and plan roads to avoid sensitive areas. They can also reduce the width of seismic lines cleared through the boreal forest and periodically block lines so they don’t become long-term access corridors.
However, as the caribou inevitably confine themselves to smaller safe areas, herd density increases - and this makes them more vulnerable to predators - eagles, wolves and bears - and competition from elk and moose, which in turn attract more predators.
A more controversial protection strategy could involve erecting giant fences around the most important caribou forests in the oil sands region. The fences would keep predators out and allow herds to thrive in security.
This contentious idea came out of a June 2012 OSLI-sponsored workshop which included caribou wildlife conservation and government experts. Proponents support fencing for a couple of key reasons. It is more acceptable than predator management, which involves culling animals. Fencing has already been used successfully before to manage herds of large mammals in places such as Elk Island National Park.
But fencing is not a perfect solution. Apart from the expense and disruption during construction, fences would reduce range and mobility of other species.
Rather than fencing, critics want industry to focus their efforts on land reclamation to restore the forest for the caribou. We agree, but it’s important to remember reclamation can take time, and workable and effective techniques are needed in the short term.
Whether or not fencing is implemented in the oil sands region remains to be seen. The decision to implement species protection measures rests with governments. With woodland caribou herds in decline, we need to explore every option we can and experts have determined that fencing should be investigated as one of several management tools to protect declining herds in the area.
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