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New study says disrupting wolf movement more effective at protecting caribou than culls

Perhaps the answer to helping caribou is reducing the ability of wolves to find them
Before human development, caribou could avoid predation by being in areas where the wolves were not. Linear features, such as logging roads, have made that more difficult. (Submitted)

A recent study suggests there is a more effective way to protect caribou.

It was published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, where researchers used motion-triggered cameras to photograph wolves, caribou, humans and other wildlife along linear developments, such as roads and seismic lines and game trails.

The study captured more than 500,000 photos and concluded that these developments are detrimental to the endangered animal’s survival as they provide access for wolves to caribou.

The researchers found that by spreading logs or felling trees along roads, the ability for wolves to access caribou becomes far more difficult.

To find petroleum, oil companies build seismic lines. Trees and vegetation are cleared so vehicles can drive down the lines and put explosives in the ground. The explosives are detonated and the frequencies are measured and used to determine if oil or gas is below. The size and length of the lines vary: some are 10 metres wide, others are two metres. Most stretch for kilometres, going far beyond the horizon, even when viewed from an airplane. This photo was taken by Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

While the research was done in northern Alberta, according to Jonah Keim, lead author on the study, the same mechanisms are in play for caribou in B.C., including around Revelstoke.

According to the B.C. government, caribou in the province have declined from 40,000 in the early 1900s to less than 19,000 today, due to predation and loss of habitat.

READ MORE: Caribou maternity pen project nears its end by Revelstoke

Wolves and caribou are not always found in similar habitats. Caribou can avoid predation by being where the wolves are not, said Keim.

In northern Alberta, that’s in peat lands. In Revelstoke during the winter, that’s alpine.

Wolves can access both areas by using roads or seismic lines, said Keim, following them until they encounter caribou.

The forest industry is not required by law to reclaim roads and seismic lines back to forest after use.

“They’re seen as exploratory. Folks think that they will grow back,” said Keim.

But the natural habitat doesn’t always grow back, or if it does regrowth is a slow process. Alternatively, forest reclamation can be difficult and expensive. Planting trees takes time and it can be decades before a planted forest can support caribou.

However, the study suggests that disrupting travel along roads, such as by tree felling, is easier and more effective, in areas deemed important for protecting caribou.

Caribou are not the main prey of wolves, which prefer moose and deer. However, roads have made caribou more attractive to wolves.

“Because it’s now easier to get to where caribou are. The access has improved remarkably,” said Keim.

During winter around Revelstoke, the snowpack can be several metres.

“Usually, it’s hard for wolves to get up to alpine, where the caribou are, unless the snow changes conditions,” said Keim.

Snowmobiles also pack down snow, making it easier for wolves to travel and access caribou.

However, by disrupting travel along roads, said Keim it’s also becomes more difficult for humans, which in turn makes it hard for wolves as well.

“We found that humans and wolves are really tied together. Particularly in the winter.”

While Keim said the wolf cull is not a bad idea and may be effective in certain areas and for particular herds, that plan alone will not preserve the caribou population.

READ MORE: Revelstoke-area petition to end wolf cull submitted to province

“Sooner or later if the access is there, when we stop culling, then we’re right back to where we are now.”

Keim added culling can have unintended consequences, such as increasing prey species, which could result in overgrazing.

According to the provincial ministry of forests, the number of moose are increasing around Revelstoke.

“You will have to continue culling wolves or doing something like that forever. If you ever stop, they will explode like mad due to an overabundant prey,” said Keim.

Caribou habitat has to provide the refuge it once did before human development, he said.

Even a small number of predators can do a lot of damage to caribou, said Keim, especially if “they have a super highway going straight to the caribou.”



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