by Dr. Laura Finnegan, fRI Research

Caribou are well adapted to Canada’s boreal forest, but the danger to all specialists is change. And much change has come to caribou ranges in Alberta. Caribou habitat is criss-crossed by roads and seismic lines. New growth post-harvest and after oil and gas development draws moose, deer, and elk in greater numbers, and with them, predators like wolves.

Conserving caribou will take all of our efforts. Caribou need the forest industry’s help and companies are stepping up. For our Caribou Program at fRI Research alone, FPAC members have supported all ten research projects that are helping government and industry better manage the land within caribou ranges.

Even 20 years ago, FPAC members were working to improve caribou habitat—West Fraser (then Weldwood), and Weyerhaeuser established lichen permanent sample plots; instead of clearing entire stands, they thinned them, taking just some of the trees. Time passed, sun poured through the canopy onto the forest floor, and slowly the flora changed.

Walk from the close old growth forest into these experimental plots and underfoot the mosses that so dominate ground darkened by shade begin making room for lichen. This strange symbiont, part fungus and part algae, is a favourite winter food for caribou, who are known to dig through four feet of snow for a nibble.

Last summer our team visited those experimental plots, and alongside Aseniwuche Winewak Nation of Canada field techs, we began the meticulous process of quantifying 20 years of change. We crawled millimetre by millimetre, counting every species and adding up what it meant for caribou habitat. This summer is year two of this research.

Weighing the costs and benefits of any management action requires good data and good tools. Our program began just four short years ago, but we’ve been busy: through fieldwork and collaboration with the forest and energy sectors, universities, and the government of Alberta we have excellent data—on vegetation, on caribou movement, on predators, on human development. So this coming year we’re teaming up with the fRI Research GIS Program to put it all together into a set of tools for our forestry partners. When it’s done, companies will be able to input their plans for harvesting, access, and restoration and the models will predict how that will affect caribou habitat and their distribution.

Partnerships like the ones between members of the FPAC and fRI Research are the way forward. They bring data and questions, and in return, we provide the knowledge and tools for forestry companies to improve their operations. Only through such collaborations can we hope to coexist with caribou: icons of the boreal forest.