Province publishes proposed plan for western region woodland caribou range management

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A new woodland caribou range management draft plan was released for the western boreal plain zone Tuesday.

The draft plan is the second of four to be released by the province. A previous plan was completed for the central boreal plain zone, with the eastern zone set for a March completion and the northern boreal forest zone set for a fall 2020 release.

The plan aims to achieve and maintain a self-sustaining caribou population while allowing for continued economic activity. The range plans were mandated by the federal government as part of a 2012 strategy. Woodland caribou were designated as a threatened species in 2003.

A declining caribou population is a concern because it’s considered an indicator species for the overall condition of the ecosystem’s health and integrity.

In a previous interview with the Herald, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Soceity’s Saskatchewan Chapter executive director Gord Vaadeland said  That the caribou decline is “is important, or in my words, concerning, because they are the best indicator of ecosystem health. If our caribou populations are declining or disappearing, this is a signal to us that other species are likely to follow.”

The province agrees, indicating as much in their recently-released report on the state of the provincial forests.

The range plan for the western boreal plain zone released Tuesday outlines the province’s intent to manage human-caused forest disturbances, maintaining adequate patches of undisturbed quality caribou habitat and ensure that there is connectivity between the different zones of caribou management.

That will be achieved by reducing the amount of human-caused forest disturbances below current levels, maintaining 80 per cent or more of “high-potential” caribou habitat unaffected by direct or indirect human activity, use forest harvesting to create natural forest patterns, decrease the amount of non-permanent roads and other lines cut through the forest and ensure “adequate connectivity” between caribou ranges in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“These outcomes can be achieved while maintaining current levels of land use activity,” the province wrote in the range management plan.

The draft plan will be subject to a 60-day review period running from December 10 until Feb. 8.

“Range plans identify objectives, measures, tools and targets to manage woodland caribou habitat to support healthy populations, along with several management actions and approaches. This is the second range plan the province has drafted,” the province wrote in a press release.

“The plan will be revised as necessary to reflect public feedback and submitted for further discussion with the federal government.

The plan announced Tuesday also includes a plan to begin a monitoring program for the region involving the collection of caribou fecal pellets over e three-year period to provide genetic information and estimate population sizes and herd trends. Currently, the province has no data about the prevalence of health of the caribou herd in that region. However, they cite a traditional knowledge study as indicating that the caribou population in the region is “considered to have a reduced or declining population status.” According to the study, caribou have been rarely seen, or only seen in small groups, over the last 10-20 years.

While the province has no data on the woodland caribou’s population in the western portion of the boreal plain, it does have data on the amount of natural and man-made “disturbances” to the forest. According to an assessment by the federal government, the amount of disturbance in the province’s boreal plain indicates the woodland caribou population is “likely not self-sustaining.”

The west region of the boreal plain “has the highest levels of both human-caused disturbance and wildfire,” the province wrote. It’s an important region for the caribou, as it connects other parts of Saskatchewan to caribou ranges in Alberta.

The province estimates the west boreal plain zone to have a 45 per cent disturbance rate.

Much of that is due to historical logging, wich the province wrote has led to an “extensive” network of permanent and non-permanent roads. The region has also seen lots of oil and gas development, which has led to other roads and seismic lines cutting through the forest. Those so-called “linear disturbances” make it harder for woodland caribou to make “optimum use” of the available resources in the area, the province said.

In addition, permanent roads can reduce water runoff, impacting wetland functions. Linear disturbances can also reduce the connectivity between habitats, making the behaviour of caribou more predictable, while also cutting down on habitat, making each area caribou lives smaller. Both have the effect of making life easier for caribou predators. That’s compounded by the fact that linear disturbances can cut deep into the forest, giving both human and animal predators easy access into what was once remote habitat.

There’s one other effect a forest disturbance can have.

“Small populations of caribou can become isolated if the landscape is divided by barriers that they will not cross, such as highways or large lakes,” the province wrote.

“Such populations are likely to become genetically homogeneous and lack the diversity necessary for long-term survival, eventually leading to local extinctions.”

In the western region, non-permanent linear disturbances are estimated to stretch 16,813 km,with about 5,001 km of that made up of seismic lines (for oil and gas exploration) alone. A major part of the range plan involves both rehabilitating those disturbances while also controlling access to certain parts of the land to reduce human impact on the woodland caribou and other vulnerable species.

The report found that of the west region, only 12 per cent has a high potential for caribou habitat. Over 60 per cent, has moderate potential. Of that high potential land, only 18 per cent has been disturbed by human impacts. Of the moderate land, about 23 per cent has been impacted by human activity.

“Our focus will be on managing human-caused disturbance, altering the pattern of human-caused disturbance, and maintaining adequately-sized and well-connected patches of undisturbed caribou habitat across, and between, caribou administration units and jurisdictions,” the province wrote.

“This approach should provide sufficient habitat availability on the Saskatchewan landscape, similar to forest under the natural fire regime. It will also create healthy forest landscapes for other boreal species.”

In addition to rehabilitating seismic lines, cut lines and non-permanent roads, as well as restricting access to some areas of the land, the province will adjust the way forestry is conducted in the region.

Traditionally, logging consisted of small harvest blocks connected by a large network of roads. It left the roads behind and several small, disjointed sections of forest.

The new direction will be to increase individual harvest patch and event sizes while leaving nine per cent of trees behind — designed to emulate land where large swaths are burned by fire, but some small islands of trees remained intact. The province believes that the method of harvesting will cut down on the number of roads cutting through the land while also concentrating disturbances in one area, rather than spreading them out and leaving a patchwork of forest in place.

Supporting traditional knowledge

The west boreal plain range plan also included a nod to traditional knowledge and its importance in both tracking caribou and in land conservation.

The section was not included in the first range plan, but “deliberately added” to the second as a “substantial enhancement” the report wrote.

In the section, the province acknowledged that there are “numerous factors that must be considered from both traditional knowledge and western science perspectives that are more in alignment then they are in discord.”

The section sites work by both the Prince Albert Model Forest and the Prince Albert Grand Council in seeking to build an understanding of the plight of woodland caribou and the advancement of conservation.

The province wrote that insight from shared tradition and local knowledge documented in Model Forest projects “continue to enhance understanding and appreciation of woodland caribou, its habitat and management options,” and that the observations included “a “ubiquitous concern for declining numbers that were often attributed to predation… the effect of forest harvesting and associated roads, mineral exploration and general human activity.”

The Prince Albert Model Forest was not available for comment Tuesday.

The report also cited the two organizations’ efforts to identify habitat areas, maintain muskeg areas for food, shelter and calving, avoid invasive monitoring techniques and promoting the selective harvest of only bulls for subsistence or a voluntary hunting avoidance.

“Further actions identified to enhance species management included community education, supporting youth awareness of traditional knowledge around woodland caribou and developing enhanced stewardship opportunities,” the province wrote.

To view the full range plan or to provide feedback, visit www.saskatchewan.ca/public-consultations