Saskatchewan Boreal Shield Woodland Caribou, Wolves, and Black Bears

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NEW!! Please find a link to the pdf copy of our 2016 interim report on the population dynamics and critical habitat of woodland caribou of the Saskatchewan Boreal Shield, here: 

McLoughlin, P.D., K. Stewart, C. Superbie, T. Perry, P. Tomchuk, R. Greuel, K. Singh, A. Truchon-Savard, J. Henkelman, and J. F. Johnstone. 2016. Population dynamics and critical habitat of woodland caribou in the Saskatchewan Boreal Shield. Interim Project Report, 2013–2016. Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. 162 pp.

In 2013, we initiated a major project on the population dynamics and critical habitat of woodland caribou living in the Boreal Shield region of Saskatchewan, Canada. This is a 5-year study funded primarily by an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant in partnership with three federal ministries (Industry Canada, Western Economic Diversification, and Environment Canada), the Province of Saskatchewan, and several companies operating in our study area (see funding information, below). Academic collaborators include Dr. Jill JohnstoneDr. Ryan Brook, and Dr. Xulin Guo at the University of Saskatchewan; Dr. Paul Paquet; Dr. Yeen Ten Hwang [Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment] and Dr. Cheryl Johnson [Environment Canada]). Woodland caribou are classified as Threatened in the boreal forests of Canada, and caribou of the Saskatchewan Boreal Shield comprise one of the least studied populations. The region is the only one of 51 caribou ranges currently identified as data deficient by Environment Canada with respect to status, trend, and definition of critical habitat. What is remarkable about the Saskatchewan Boreal Shield, however, is that unlike most other caribou ranges in Canada habitat disturbance is almost entirely natural (from

phil 1 wildfire) and the landscape has little in the way of an anthropogenic (human) footprint. Initiating research on this special population is of both provincial and national importance. In addition to providing perhaps our last opportunity to study the ecology of woodland caribou in a large, naturally regulated population (serving as a baseline reference for the rest of Canada), uncertainty as to the regional status of caribou has important implications for the people that live and work in Saskatchewan. In the absence of data, communities and companies of the Saskatchewan Boreal Shield face regulatory delays and costs to investment with respect to future development, with little guidance as to how their activities must be mitigated to allow for acceptable practices under the Species at Risk Act. Of particular concern are implications for developing access and infrastructure for northern communities and sustainably developing the region’s mineral resources (especially gold and uranium, the latter for which occurs nowhere else in Canada and accounts for 18% of the world’s primary production). Our proposed research is aimed at reducing uncertainty as to the status of caribou in a region fundamentally important to the Saskatchewan and Canadian economies while identifying novel means by which to define critical habitat for species.

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Project Goals

Our primary goals for this project are to understand how caribou habitat and populations respond to conditions of high natural but low anthropogenic disturbance, and ho
w we can define critical habitat by relating survival and reproduction of individual cari
bou to their unique experiences of the environment (including habitat, fire, and predation). Our methods for the project, which will see to the tracking of up to 145 caribou and 36 wolves and 20 black bears using GPS radio-collars and aerial surveys,
derives directly from our approaches to understand how the Sable Island horse population functions. For example, the modeling structure we are using to link individual horse survival and reproduction to their experiences of the environment (density, habitat) will be applied to caribou. I think this serves as a great example of how research that may in itself howl2not appear to be applied (individual-based study of Sable Island horses) can find application in other systems where the questions may be of wider public interest (conservation of at-risk species).

To achieve our objectives, we will pursue ten research milestones across two closely-related research themes. Theme I describes a dedicated program to investigate disturbance impacts on caribou habitat and development of geospatial data on vegetation and disturbance for modelling wildlife-habitat relationships (milestones M1—Identify effects of altered disturbance regimes on pathways of forest succession; M2—Relate post-fire successional trajectories to key characteristics of caribou habitat; M3—Link successional pathways fireto Saskatchewan’s forest ecosite classification and produce new spatial data for the SK1 range; and M4—Model landscape dynamics of caribou habitat in response to fire and climate). Theme II is directed at developing an in-depth understanding of the population ecology of woodland caribou and their predators (M5—Document caribou demography and population trends; M6—Determine caribou density and population size; M7—Model habitat selection of caribou and link habitat to population size; M8 and M9—Determine population densities and model habitat selection of wolves and black bears; and M10––Define critical habitat for caribou). Our research will employ a variety of methods, including Global Positioning System (GPS) telemetry, field surveys, and modelling; with sampling designed to capture and predict the range of disturbances on the landscape while optimizing statistical rigour and logistical feasibility. The training component of this project is extensive, including provisions for 4 Ph.D. students, 2 M.Sc. students, 5 post-doctoral fellows, 2 technicians, 1 program manager, and 12 undergraduate students.

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