Predator-prey relationships and the importance of high quality summer forage were among the most discussed issues at the North American Caribou Workshop (NACW) held in Fort St. John, British Columbia during the last week of September.
The alternate prey dilemma was a subject of particular interest for those concerned about the survival of B.C.’s caribou herds, including the men and women of the oil and gas industry who work in caribou habitat in the northeast corner of the province on a regular basis.
“Caribou are always a by-catch in the wolf’s diet,” said Chris Ritchie, the organizing committee chair for the NACW this year.
It is popular opinion that wolf predation is a significant cause of declining caribou numbers in B.C., but largely in association with resource industry activities that improve their access to caribou, such as building roads for forestry, mining and oil and gas operations, as well as seismic exploration and pipeline construction work that is common in the energy sector.
“It’s usually other prey – and our model is usually moose – that are keeping the wolf numbers up,” Ritchie continued. “And then, just statistically, they take more caribou because there’s more wolves. Well, it would seem in some jurisdictions, and perhaps in British Columbia, that beaver are having a role to keep wolf numbers high and are contributing, perhaps, to some incremental predation by wolves.”
Research on the dynamics of the predator-prey situation with wolves, beavers and caribou that was conducted in Alberta was among the work presented by scientists from across North America and beyond that could be applicable to northeast B.C.
After all, as Ritchie mentioned, examining alternate prey possibilities is part of the Implementation Plan for the Ongoing Management of Boreal Caribou in British Columbia that was released in the summer of 2011.
“The fact that some people in Alberta have already done some of that beaver work will, I think, jumpstart some of the work that we’ll do in British Columbia,” said Ritchie.
Angela White, a surface land representative with Canadian natural gas producer Encana, who works at the heart of boreal caribou country in Fort Nelson, B.C., was also particularly intrigued by the discussion of predator-prey relationships.
“I always thought it was just caribou and wolves, but there’s so many other facets to the problem,” said White.
The alternate prey situation is just one of those facets.
“And realizing that the calf mortality was huge,” White said of the lessons taught during the conference. “Huge impact. And it wasn’t just wolves, but bears and coyotes.”
Part of the conversation around calf mortality was regarding a study into summer forage issues that was conducted in the United States.
“The struggle of being a critter and trying to eat enough in the best time of year – in the growing season – could be a major factor in how successful they are at reproducing and successfully reproducing,” said Cathy MacKay of Environmental Dynamics (EDI), who was particularly intrigued by that study.
MacKay was drawn to the conference because her work as a consulting biologist based in Prince George, B.C. often concerns caribou, just as it often brings her into contact with the oil and gas industry, as was the case when she participated in a traditional plant study with the Prophet River First Nation alongside White.
“We have, typically, proponents in both the oil and gas and mining industries that require advice in order to meet regulatory and permitting requirements,” MacKay said of her work.
“We did some caribou modeling for an oil and gas proponent who uses it in their early planning stages so that they can avoid high value caribou habitat,” she added.
MacKay noted that the idea of improving those summer forage conditions for caribou is quite new.
“Because we’re usually focused on winter range and winter as being the most limiting,” she explained.
Human activities can have a negative impact on summer forage.
“Anything that decreases the amount of old growth and lichen type forests would decrease their total amount of food available in the summer,” said MacKay.
“They eat a lot of that in the summer too, which I wasn’t aware of,” added White, referring to the lichen, which has long been known to be an important winter food source for caribou.
Work is starting to be done to mitigate that problem.
“I know that there’s some efforts to look at lichen propagation,” said MacKay.
There are opportunities to improve practices for the good of the caribou, too.
“Different industry proponents and different industries collaborating to reduce the number of roads … is an area we could do better at,” said MacKay. “Just reusing the same roads and the same rail load-outs and the same footprints.”
The NACW could well prove to be a launching pad for that collaboration and other partnerships for caribou conservation work, as well as a place to gather ideas as to how to approach the problem.
“I think we got a balance across the spectrum from some genetics work to some life history, predation, habitat use, and then down to some of the disturbances and the challenges that caribou found out on the managed landscape,” said Ritchie, discussing the variety of presentations.
“We were hoping to have some of the presentations see value in the northeast,” he continued. “And some of the work that was done on linear developments like hydro right-of-ways … will be useful in British Columbia. We don’t have too many hydro right-of-ways, but we do have linear developments.”
Those linear developments include seismic lines and pipeline right-of-ways, as well as access roads to well sites and other natural resource industry infrastructure.
“The first part of it was on the designatable units,” said Ritchie.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) website describes designatable units as: “discrete and evolutionarily significant units of the taxonomic species, where ‘significant’ means that the unit is important to the evolutionary legacy of the species as a whole and if lost would likely not be replaced through natural dispersion.”
“Pretty dry stuff,” Ritchie continued. “But it’s going to be the underpinning on how different herds – different manageable populations – are designated. And so some of the expectations on their outcome, whether it’s management or recovery.”
White enjoyed the opportunity to immerse herself in the subject matter free from the distractions of other business, largely because the scientific community and the natural resource industries were so well represented.
“You can just slowly talk about those issues,” said White. “And perhaps what your experiences have been versus that industry’s experiences, where they’re operating and what other impacts they’re dealing [with], whether they’re also dealing with forestry impacts or other industry like coal mines.
“It’s just a really good learning opportunity.”
Ritchie found the high level of oil and gas industry participation encouraging, but certainly not surprising.
“The sponsorship we had on this workshop from the oil and gas sector was phenomenal and so I think that we knew from early on that they were going to be keenly interested,” said Ritchie.
“Caribou are a large concern for development,” he added. “It can present some challenges for management.”
Industry participation in the NACW was valuable to MacKay from a networking standpoint.
“It was a really excellent event for me because it’s just an interesting topic, personally, but it’s a great opportunity to network with people,” said MacKay.
“I used the phrase a couple times: it’s just like a giant teambuilding exercise,” she continued. “Because I could talk to the other consulting biologists who have particular areas of expertise that I might partner with. And then there was fairly good representation from industries there. There was mining proponents and oil and gas proponents there. And then you have all the government and the regulators side of it, too.
“So, it’s just perfect networking.”