Along a snowy tract of boreal forest—habitat to the woodland caribou of northern Alberta—a track hoe digs into the hard soil. It works slowly along an old seismic line, a six-metre-wide corridor of cleared trees that extends like a roadway through otherwise dense forest. The track hoe has created a half-metre-high circular mound of freshly broken soil whose diameter spans the width of the corridor.
“We call this process ‘mounding,’” explains Michael Cody, a specialist for land and biodiversity at Cenovus. “We’ve found that planting seedling trees on these mounds more than triples tree survival and growth.”
Mounding is a technique adapted from forest science to heal legacy disturbances from oil and gas exploration in the boreal forest. It’s also one of an array of tools and techniques industry is using to aid the recovery of woodland caribou in this region.
Caribou at risk
Woodland caribou populations are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). One of the reasons for their decline has been attributed to seismic lines from 20 or more years ago, cut through the forest to explore the underlying geology of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin.
“Clearing of land in the boreal forest has resulted in a generally younger, lusher landscape that favours moose and deer over caribou,” says Amit Saxena. Saxena is senior technical lead of wildlife and biodiversity at Devon. He’s also chair of the COSIA Caribou Working Group, which brings together members of oil sands companies to collectively develop industry-led strategies addressing caribou issues.
In addition to providing young, edge habitat that is attractive to moose and deer, the old seismic lines also may be providing conduits for those ungulates to colonize new areas of habitat.
Saxena describes the problem: “These seismic corridors, combined with warmer winters, have provided the habitat for moose and deer to move northward, into areas they haven’t historically occupied, such as northern parts of the boreal forest. Unfortunately, the moose and deer bring with them natural predators like wolves and bears.”
The corridors serve to concentrate predator-prey interactions as wolves and bears learn to use them to hunt more efficiently, thereby supporting increases to predator populations.
Woodland caribou are poorly equipped to handle this changing dynamic. Their primary survival mechanism is to space themselves away from predators. Without this spacing, caribou, and in particular, caribou calves are susceptible to high levels of predation.
Worse, caribou have low reproduction rates. Females don’t produce young until three years of age, and then have only one calf per year.
Estimates suggest caribou populations across Canada have fallen by 30 per cent in the last 20 years, and in Alberta, by as much as 70 per cent in the last 10 years. At least twenty-six of 51 caribou ranges across Canada are considered to have dropped below self-sustaining numbers.
The reason for declining caribou herds is not solely the fault of old seismic lines. It’s a complex issue involving multiple factors and many players. These include fragmentation and alteration of forest cover due to the forest industry, power transmission, agriculture, and oil and gas activities. Climate change and forest fires are also factors, maybe even dominant ones.
“All stakeholders, as well as the provincial and federal governments, have a role to play in working towards collective and broad-based solutions,” says Brad Herald, vice-president of Western Canada operations at CAPP.
“We also know it’s important for industry to demonstrate leadership on this,” adds Herald. “CAPP members spend millions annually on caribou mitigation strategies.”
Cenovus is one of the CAPP member companies spearheading efforts at caribou habitat restoration.
“We decided as a company that one of our first approaches to the caribou issue should be one of habitat restoration,” says Cody. “We had discovered that many of the old seismic lines were experiencing successional stagnation—wherein forest cover regrowth simply wasn’t happening. Without active intervention, they weren’t going to restore themselves.”
Cenovus began with small-scale trials in 2008, testing theories about restoring forest cover, such as planting seedlings on mounds to protect the young trees from invasive grasses and wet soil conditions.
Cenovus also experimented with forest stand modification—which involves bending tree stems from the adjacent forest across the seismic line. This is done to create physical barriers and reduce sightlines along the corridor. The trees remain alive, and provide physical structure while dropping seed into the corridor, further promoting regrowth along the line.
When early trials provided positive results, Cenovus moved forward with the Linear Deactivation project (LiDea) in 2012. LiDea applied these techniques within 38,000 hectares of habitat in the Cold Lake caribou range.
“We have completed restoration treatment on all linear features within the LiDea area, which is about 370 square kilometres, and we’re now monitoring the plant and animal response. Further to LiDea, in 2016 we expanded this effort about ten-fold with the announcement of the Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project,” says Cody. “Measuring plant and animal response takes time, but we hope to be able to share results very soon. So far, results show that when we do a good job with our treatment, lines become less of a travel corridor and planted trees certainly survive and grow better. Recent publications on wolf travel in this region support this conclusion. It’s early, but so far, we’ve had positive results.”
Another innovative approach to caribou habitat restoration is the Algar Habitat Restoration Project (Algar). In Algar, six oil sands companies (Nexen, Statoil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Suncor and Total) worked together on a five-year program to replant trees and shrubs along the linear footprint within the Algar Region. The region consists of about 56,000 hectares southwest of Fort McMurray, within the East Side Athabasca River (ESAR) caribou range.
Since the Algar region consists largely of bogs and wetlands, gaining access during the summer is problematic. So a key restoration requirement was the use of winter planting techniques for seedlings. These techniques applied research done in 2011 in collaboration with the Government of Alberta and Grande Prairie Regional College, allowing for winter planting survival rates of between 90 and 95 per cent.
Exploring other options
Saxena notes that the COSIA Caribou Working Group has recently developed a priority list for the next phase of habitat restoration. At the same time, the group is exploring other options.
In addition to the required habitat restoration, a tool being researched and advanced by COSIA is predator exclusion fencing. This involves fencing off an area of wilderness to protect caribou mothers and their newborn calves from predators during and post calving season when they are most vulnerable.
“We’re currently finishing the second phase of a years-long scoping project that investigates what the technical, regulatory and stakeholder issues might be for a pilot project of this nature,” says Saxena. “We have even taken the technical ideas to the communities to get their feedback on how they’d like to see something like this rolled out.”
The caribou working group also sponsored an international workshop on caribou population augmentation tools in collaboration with the Calgary Zoo and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN is a European-based organization that finds pragmatic solutions to help species at risk around the world—it has instigated species-saving measures for the sage grouse, whooping crane and Arabian oryx.
Saxena notes that the workshop examined population augmentation techniques like captive breeding, maternal penning and predator fencing for their applicability, effectiveness and acceptance among key stakeholders including local communities and First Nations groups. While it was not an exhaustive stakeholder session, the diverse stakeholders in the room did agree that predator exclosure fencing held the most promise among the population management tools discussed there.
Collaboration is key
The Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project and Algar are examples of large-scale habitat restoration projects where companies have shown a willingness to go beyond the confines of their immediate lease areas. The hope is that these projects can provide a foundation for more initiatives and partnerships involving multiple stakeholder groups across the region.
“In the Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project, we are hoping for ongoing collaboration with other stakeholders and industrial partners,” notes Cody, who adds that in 2016, Imperial, Devon Energy and Canadian Natural all participated collaboratively with Cenovus in that year’s restoration work in the South LiDea restoration area, all part of the larger Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project.
Saxena is excited by this kind of collaborative engagement. “There’s an opportunity for some immense partnerships—between industry, Aboriginal groups, stakeholders and government to do some fruitful things that can really benefit caribou.”
An example of a partnership that cuts across industry and geographic boundaries is the Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration, (RICC). RICC was initiated in 2013 as a partnership to work on caribou issues across two caribou ranges: Cold Lake and East Side Athabasca Range (ESAR). RICC partners include oil sands companies Devon, Cenovus, Canadian Natural, Imperial, Suncor, Athabasca and MEG Energy; as well as Alberta-Pacific Forestry Industries. The group works closely with academia, the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute Caribou Monitoring Unit.
Underlying the various efforts to restore caribou populations are conditions laid out by the federal government and SARA. In 2012, the federal government published the document “Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada.” The strategy requires that provincial jurisdictions have range plans in place by fall of 2017 designed to restore caribou habitat to 65 per cent undisturbed, along with action plans describing efforts to increase caribou herd sizes to self-sustaining levels.
CAPP and industry hope to support the B.C. and Alberta provincial governments to find solutions to meet these objectives.
“We’re committed to the recovery of the national population of woodland caribou over the long-term,” says Herald. “Industry can apply its skills as an innovative problem solver to help in this.”
A risk is that government, in an attempt to preserve remaining caribou habitat will simply close off new development inside caribou ranges. According to Cody and Saxena, this would be a mistake, as problems of predator overlap and forest regrowth stagnation won’t go away simply by shutting industry out.
“The current state of the caribou problem is sourced from years, even decades, of inaction and ineffective restoration requirements from the caribou perspective…the result is a landscape that caribou cannot persist on, one that favors wolves, moose and deer, all to the detriment of caribou. Without collaborative action now, caribou are likely to be extirpated from some areas regardless of how much industry activity there is,” says Saxena. “Instead, we’re looking to government to help facilitate collaboration—so that we can push forward initiatives that will make a difference in caribou herd sustainability. They’ve got willing participants in the oil and gas industry.”
“Removing industry from the landscape is one of the biggest threats to caribou,” echoes Cody. “I know that might sound perverse to some on the other side of the issue, but I think that’s the reality: industry has to be involved in a viable, working landscape approach to solve the problem.”