NCASI Caribou Research Program

February 12, 2021

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NCASI’s caribou research program is now nearly complete. The caribou herd established at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was moved to Canada in winter 2013. Controlled experiments at the University provided a robust foundation for field studies that will make significant practical contributions to caribou conservation. The field studies will determine whether and how forest management practices can help create more effective nutritional conditions for caribou and thus enhance caribou conservation across Canada’s boreal landscapes as a complement to existing and new protected areas. Four years of field studies with the tame caribou were undertaken in Northeastern BC between 2013 and 2017, and two years in Northwestern Ontario between 2017 and 2019. In parallel, additional vegetation sampling activities were undertaken during this time period in the Northwest Territories and in Northeastern Ontario. NCASI scientists are now undertaking data analysis and results should be available later in 2021 and 2022.

As part of the external funding for the caribou research project, Kristin Denryter, a PhD student who worked on this project in BC between 2013 and 2016, received a grant of $12,000.00 from Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada, via the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. As part of her reporting for this grant, she prepared this video:

Video: NCASI co-op student measures the dbh (diameter at breast height) of a conifer sapling in southeastern Ontario near Cochrane, and calls out the species of the tree.

Video: NCASI co-op students sort through lichen in a vegetation plot in southeastern Ontario near Cochrane.

This multi-year project is intended to help identify constructive ways in which industry can actively contribute to conservation of woodland caribou populations on the lands it manages—an approach leveraging enhanced forest management to maintain and provide new caribou habitat, rather than relying on protected areas alone as a method of conserving caribou. The central focus of this research program is to establish mathematical relationships between the dietary content of habitat and the growth and reproduction characteristics of woodland caribou.

This project will result in the development of specific quantitative nutrition relationships that have never before been established for woodland caribou—and once they are developed, the intent is that the results from this research will become a management tool for industry to undertake enhanced approaches to conserving caribou on the ground.

Caribou conservation is a complex endeavour, in which nutrition is one of many considerations that have been investigated by researchers across Canada. NCASI’s contribution to this research landscape will help industry, government and other stakeholders achieve important common goals:

  1. Enhancement of caribou survival and reproduction across the landscape, by linking ongoing efforts in managing predation (“top-down” influences) with access to high quality year-round food supply (“bottom-up” influences).
  2. The identification of good caribou habitat based on the quality of that habitat from the perspective of the caribou (and not based simply on vegetation type). This new knowledge will be oriented towards specifically what the caribou gain from a specific habitat, rather than simply where generic “habitat” is located—an extremely important and often overlooked distinction.
  3. The establishment of an improved caribou body condition monitoring technique that could be used as part of a suite of field measurements to identify pressure points on specific caribou herds. Monitoring of caribou populations will continue at both the provincial and federal level – and this project could enhance the ability for governments to work collaboratively with industry to more effectively measure the success of conservation efforts.
  4. New habitat models that map “nutritional content of habitat”, which could look quite different from the more generalized habitat modeling that is currently available—models that will be extremely important for governments and industry to use as a tool for future conservation efforts, particularly in light of potential vegetation shifts with climate change.

During Phase 1 (2009 – 2013), NCASI worked with the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) to establish a tame woodland caribou herd at UAF’s Large Animal Research Station. This tame herd is the foundation for the suite of studies related to this research project.

During Phase 2 (2013 – 2019) a facility was constructed near Fort St. John, in northern British Columbia, to act as a year-round base camp from which to stage a series of field studies over four years to validate the baseline UAF research and apply it to specific forest management treatments. Similar field studies were undertaken for two years in Eastern Canada, with a base camp facility constructed near Dryden in Northwestern Ontario. Having completed these six years of field research, NCASI is in the process of building a nutrition (rather than “habitat”) data set and model for use in forest management planning that will serve to better characterize caribou conservation opportunities across the boreal forest. In parallel, vegetation sampling activities (without using tame caribou) were undertaken in the Northwest Territories (near Hay River) and in Northeastern Ontario (near Cochrane).

While field study sites were not located in each province, the results will be relevant to industry operations throughout the boreal. The needs of each jurisdiction will be considered using a province-specific strategy, to enable the research results to be useful across the extent of the boreal forest.