Wolf predation and human disturbance to the landscape could mean the end of the caribou in northeast British Columbia in the coming decades, but the oil and gas industry is striving to prevent that fate.
That was the message being delivered by provincial Ministry of Environment (MOE) wildlife biologists Dale Seip and Conrad Thiessen during their Sunday, September 23 presentation in Fort St. John. The discussion was part of A Night of Caribou, an unofficial kickoff to the North American Caribou Workshop that also included a screening of the documentary Being Caribou, the tale of one couple following the Porcupine caribou herd migration on foot.
“Caribou have disappeared from large portions of their historic range,” said Seip, whose presentation focused on the caribou living in the area south of Chetwynd and Dawson Creek, and east of the Rocky Mountains.
Those populations have been studied since 2002. The results of that work haven’t been promising.
“Decline, decline, decline,” Seip said of those populations, adding that the Burnt Pine herd is down to just one adult female.
The Quintette herd is a stable population of about 173 to 218 individuals, but the Bearhole-Redwillow and Moberly herds are also declining, both with fewer than 30 individuals at this point.
The Graham herd would appear to be doing well based on its current population of approximately 700 caribou, but Seip also noted that just the southern portion of that herd had 1800 individuals as recently as 1988. That segment of the population has declined to just 300 animals at this point.
Thiessen painted a similar picture for the caribou residing in the northeast corner of the province in the Fort Nelson area. Little was known about those populations prior to 2000, said Thiessen, but the MOE is now fairly confident that 1,300 caribou live in that region.
That is a relatively small number of animals roaming across a vast landscape.
“They actually exist at very low densities,” said Thiessen, suggesting that the northeast B.C. caribou are very difficult to count.
“No statistical confidence in those numbers,” he added.
Seip and Thiessen both point their fingers at one culprit when they explain the declining caribou populations in B.C.
“Excessive wolf predation,” said Seip.
Indeed, wolf predation now accounts for about 75 per cent of adult mortality among caribou in the South Peace.
“We expect wolves are often killing calves as well,” he added.
The peculiar piece of this puzzle, however, is that wolves and caribou have co-existed in the region – where their ranges frequently overlap – for generations, but this associated decline in caribou populations is a recent phenomenon. Part of that problem could be the growing numbers and expanding ranges of preferred wolf prey such as moose, deer and beavers, which are contributing to growing wolf populations in addition as bringing the carnivores in contact with caribou more often than was common in the past.
Thiessen noted that in one area of significant caribou decline near Fort Nelson the beaver numbers are very high. It is also an area where wolves have been found with their front teeth missing, likely kicked out by moose.
“It’s not an easy life being a wolf,” said Thiessen.
The wolves have survived in the area by preying on beaver, an easier food source than moose, but one that doesn’t compare to the amount of sustenance provided by large ungulates.
Those wolves are likely supplementing their diets with caribou.
When it comes to assigning blame for the growing numbers and expanding ranges of prey species preferred by wolves, particularly moose and deer, the pointing fingers turn towards human impacts.
Activities such as logging have created roadways for prey and predators, as well as conditions that provide plenty of food for moose and deer.
“A lot more wolves,” said Seip.
Thiessen said that a study conducted in Alberta has shown that land disturbance amounting to greater than 61 per cent of the land base in a caribou range will cause a decline in their numbers. In northeast B.C., 71 per cent of the Calendar range has been impacted, 79 per cent of the Chinchaga range has been impacted and 84 per cent of the Snake-Sahtahneh range has been impacted. Caribou are facing extirpation in all those areas.
One area where the caribou population is stable is the Maxhamish range, but that region is also approaching the 61 per cent disturbance threshold at 57 per cent.
Much of the disturbance in the Fort Nelson area is a result of oil and gas industry activity in the Horn River Basin shale gas play that creates linear features such as roads, pipeline right-of-ways and seismic lines.
Those linear features offer predators easier access to caribou.
Thiessen noted that the oil and gas industry has also begun to fund research that will hopefully help reverse the trend of declining caribou populations, particularly through $2 million per year in levies that go to a Science and Community Environmental Knowledge Fund (SCEK) administered by the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (SEPAC).
SCEK is currently contributing a study into caribou calving and predation being led by University of Alberta research Craig Demars. Thiessen has also been participating in that study.
The burning question is what should be done about the wolves. Culling techniques have been employed in Alberta, but that hasn’t actually resulted in a reduction in wolf numbers, according to Thiessen.
There is also a great deal of debate over the morality of killing one animal to save another.
“Do we want caribou? Do we want wolves?” said Thiessen.
The pair of biologists hope that they can help foster the conversation around caribou conservation issues by delivering these types of presentations to the general public.
“It’s not clear that caribou are in trouble in some places,” said Thiessen.
“Hopefully, people can take this into their daily life and how they make decisions,” he continued, “But, also, we live in a democracy and they can let their representatives know what they want to see on the land.”
“People could live here for a long time and not really see any caribou,” said Seip. “And I think a lot of people just aren’t aware that there’s caribou here. They’ve been here a long time, but if the current trends continue, we may well see the caribou disappear from the east side of the Rockies over the next few decades.”