Scientists in British Columbia are starting to move forward on boreal caribou research sponsored by the province’s oil and gas industry this winter.
Since it was announced by the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) on January 9, 2012 that new fees and production levies would be contributing to a caribou research fund of $2 million per year, biologists have been planning research projects to address the issue of declining caribou populations in northern B.C. under the guidance of the new Research Effectiveness Monitoring Board (REMB).
“We just started collecting money from industry in late 2011,” said Steven Wilson of EcoLogic Research and the coordinator of the REMB.
The caribou research fund falls under the Science and Community Environmental Knowledge Fund (SCEK) program, which also draws its funding from the oil and gas industry and is managed by a steering committee of representatives from the OGC, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (SEPAC).
“We have a pot that’s accumulating,” Wilson continued. “And we started getting underway in the spring of this year in identifying projects for … this year and for the subsequent year.”
The main focus for 2012 and 2013 is monitoring.
“Because there’s a lot of uncertainty on what actually the population size of caribou is in the northeast … and what their trends are,” said Wilson, adding that population sizes and trends have been inferred from models to date.
“We don’t have the field data to support whether or not the populations are actually following what our projections are,” he noted.
The timing of this work is interesting considering that the Province released their Implementation Plan for the Ongoing Management of Boreal Caribou in the summer of 2011, but the federal government just issued their Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou in October of this year.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened,” Wilson said of that timing. “And so when the province comes out with an implementation plan before the federal government, then the federal government has the option of simply adopting that plan as meeting their requirements under the recovery strategy. And that has happened in a couple of other instances. I think that happened with spotted owl, actually.
“The federal recovery strategy sets out the requirements for recovery and then the provinces are actually responsible for developing what they call action plans,” he continued.
The provincial action plans must meet the requirements of the federal recovery strategy, as stipulated by the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk signed by the federal, provincial and territorial governments.
“The federal strategy is setting these high level, broad recovery goals,” said Wilson. “And then over the next few years … the provinces have to come up with action plans that the federal government either approves or doesn’t, that actually implement action to meet the recovery goals.”
B.C. has been moving forward with its caribou conservation plans in recent weeks.
It was announced on Nov. 8 that the government will be protecting 90 per cent of the cariou’s high elevation winter habitat in the South Peace.
Subsequently, the provincial government released a draft wolf management for public comment on Nov. 14.
Predation by growing wolf populations has been identified as a cause of declining caribou numbers in association with linear land disturbances that improve access to caribou and the abundance of alternate prey species such as deer, moose and beaver within caribou ranges.
Comments on the wolf management plan are being accepted until Dec. 5.
The federal strategy points out that caribou range is the level at which conservation efforts should take place because their ranges often cross provincial and territorial borders and because those habitats are impacted by the cumulative effects of human development, particularly in the natural resource industries.
The plan underscores the need for collaboration between jurisdictions.
“There’s already collaborative work that goes on between industries,” said CAPP spokesperson Travis Davies.
“You’ve got the oil and gas sector and you’ve got forestry and you’ve got mining or hydro or whatever it might be,” he continued, emphasizing the need for a holistic approach.
“Do you look at it on a herd-by-herd basis? Or do you look at sustaining the species across Canada? Obviously, there are tipping points and a limited amount of resources. And the degree to where we can deploy those resources and have that impact is where we’d like to see the effort made.”
The federal recovery strategy indicates that any range management plan must demonstrate how a minimum of 65 per cent of caribou habitat in that range will be left undisturbed, as that number is the threshold for declining caribou population.
If greater than 35 per cent of the habitat in that range is disturbed, caribou numbers are likely to decline, but they can remain stable otherwise.
However, Wilson has a few problems with that concept.
“The federal recovery strategy is based on a relationship that they developed between landscape disturbance and caribou population trends,” said Wilson.
“The issue with that,” he continued, “is that it’s an analysis that they conducted on all the ranges across Canada, from Newfoundland to the Beaufort Sea in the Northwest Territories.
“That’s a very broad scale relationship. And it’s going to require a lot of more finer scale analysis within each of the jurisdictions to understand whether that relationship is valid and whether there are other things that can be done.”
Wilson explained that the differences between jurisdictions are quite important when you just consider that Alberta and B.C. have a great deal of linear land disturbance from oil and gas industry activity in those provinces, one of the most significant of those being seismic lines.
“There are no seismic lines in Newfoundland or in northern Quebec or in Ontario,” he said. “So, to some extent, they made kind of an apples and oranges comparison. And they’re aware of that.
“It’s important to have a broad level, national analysis, but they fully expect that more detailed mapping and more detailed analyses will be rolling out as part of the implementation of this strategy as time goes on. And that’s exactly what we’re going to be focused on in B.C.”
The first step is fitting 150 caribou with radio collars this winter.
“So we can start doing the proper field monitoring to establish the size of these populations and their trends,” said Wilson.
Mapping caribou habitat in the province will come next.
“Looking at the location of the industrial development,” said Wilson. “Relating those to the caribou and also the broader predator-prey system to see how they’re interacting, to see what opportunities there are to either test whether or not the operating practices that are in place now for industry are adequate or whether they need to be changed.”
They will also examine if provincial government recovery goals are being satisfied by areas where natural resource industry activity is restricted.
“Or where special operating practices are required,” said Wilson.
Since there is an interface between caribou and the oil and gas industry in western Canada, the sector may be able contribute to their recovery in ways other than following regulations and sponsoring the caribou research fund, but Wilson believes the industry is still trying to determine the actions they can take that will actually yield significantly positive results.
“They have a history on the Alberta side on attempting a lot of different mitigation measures and the outcomes of those have not been particularly useful,” said Wilson.
“They put all these various actions in place that turned out to be very expensive, but didn’t generate any noticeable benefit to caribou,” he continued. “So, that was part of the motivation here, where we want to put the studies in place specifically to test whether or not what they’re doing is adequate and, if not, what additional actions can be taken.
“They’re looking for answers as well.”