Alberta’s Little Smoky Caribou Management
Updated: Sep 6
The Little Smoky region in Alberta’s foothills is home to many species that now, due mainly to habitat degradation, are struggling. Some of these are the arctic grayling, the grizzly bear, and the woodland caribou. In the case of the woodland caribou, multiple recovery and management plans have been proposed since the proclamation of the Species at Risk Act in 2003 but their numbers are still at a level that complete extirpation is a possibility. The most recent of these plans is the one that Alberta’s provincial government has recently released in conjunction with Canada’s federal government.
The four main aspects of Alberta’s plan involve landscape planning, population and habitat monitoring, mortality and population management, and habitat conservation and management.
Landscape Planning and Population and Habitat Monitoring
The draft agreement brings up landscape planning and population and habitat monitoring as management tools for Alberta’s woodland caribou. The agreement gives timelines for planning and implementing management plans over the next five years and continuing to monitor the areas through field work, analyses, and reporting. Even though there is no substance in what will be done, it is good that the agreement has put definitive timelines on plans for forest and industrial management which directly impact two main threats to the caribou. The one glaring omission here is the stopping of practises that further fragment and degrade habitat in the interim. Until management plans are decided upon, development of industry and continued forestry needs to be halted to make sure we are not further crippling caribou populations while deciding what to do to help them.
Mortality and Population Management
The third important pillar in Alberta’s caribou recovery agreement is through mortality and population management.
A large part of reducing mortality in the Little Smoky region is the use of a rearing facility to protect first year calves. This would essentially build a big caribou pen to help increase populations through the survival of more calves and construction is set to start on this rearing facility in 2020. At first glance there seems to be validity in this plan but upon deeper looks, there are a few flaws.
One large flaw is the fact that the calves raised in a rearing facility are not given the chance to learn essential survival skills, reducing their chance of survival once they are released. A study by Berger, Swenson, and Persson found that “predator-naı̈ve individuals may be less sensitive to cues that signify the presence of dangerous carnivores.”¹ Even though mortality from predators should be reduced for the calves protected by the fence, some of this success could easily be counteracted by this.
A second problem with the use of a fenced rearing facility is the disastrous consequences if a predator or group of predators did find a way in. Large numbers of calves could be lost as they would have little ability to escape. Building this rearing facility creates an unnatural habitat that could have unintended consequences such as this. As well, a fenced area for caribou introduces a new problem for the caribou in prime habitat. The fences could potentially be used by wolves to more effectively hunt caribou outside of the fence. Wolves could use the fences to flank and corner caribou just as they have been observed doing to kill cattle.²
Thirdly, there is a danger that fenced populations of caribou that are released to the wild could be more conditioned to humans. Caribou are a species that has thrived staying away from humans and human activity. The more that we interact with caribou and implant ourselves into the lives of caribou, especially at the crucial time of calf development, can cause an increase in both adult and calf mortality.³
Finally, the possibility of disease and/or parasites goes up in fenced populations of wildlife.⁴ The introduction of disease and parasites to an already heavily stressed population of caribou could have disastrous consequences.This is yet another factor that just puts further question marks on this method of keeping caribou calves safe.
The use of a rearing facility to protect the caribou is a human intervention that evidence shows might be of little help to the caribou and could even be detrimental to their populations.
Another key cog in the mortality management of the caribou recovery agreement is the control of predators through culling wolves. This strategy is controversial and not supported by all data. According to Kuzyk, Kneteman, and Schmiegelow, caribou are not the primary prey for wolves in west-central Alberta. Wolves are just not eating the caribou in large numbers as deer and elk are a much larger part of the diet of wolves. There is other evidence, however, that points to wolves being directly responsible for the decline of the caribou and that higher numbers of wolves directly results in lower numbers of caribou.⁵ ⁶
While there are arguments on both sides about whether wolves are directly responsible for the decline in caribou or not, evidence does show that culling a predator’s population does not effectively reduce its numbers. Predators simply move in from other territories as you create a gap in the ecosystem for them to fill. As well, pups from a culled wolf population have an increased chance of surviving due to the decrease in competition for food.⁷
There is data that shows that with the absence of an apex predator such as the wolf, other predators fill their role. In Quebec, coyotes have been known to prey on woodland caribou.⁸ If we remove wolves it just creates an opening for coyotes or cougars to fill their role and does not solve the problem.
A third issue with the wolf cull is the methods used. The methods are inhumane, plain and simple. Shooting wolves from a helicopter is not a humane way to kill them. There is a large amount of difficulty when trying to make a clean kill on a running animal. Now making that kill from a helicopter, the likelihood of a quick, clean kill is not high. When an animal is not shot in the head or through the thorax, kills are not quick and cause unnecessary suffering.
A second method of killing wolves is poison. The two poisons used in the Little Smoky region are strychnine and compound 1080. Both of these poisons are inhumane. There are very few places where strychnine is legal — Alberta is the only province in Canada that allows it and it was banned in both the United States and the European Union. When an animal is killed by strychnine it is far from a humane, peaceful death. It is terrible. Compound 1080 is no better. This poison is banned in many places throughout the world including California, South Africa and China. Neither of these poisons are an acceptable way to kill an animal. The other huge problem with using poison to kill wolves is the inevitable deaths to non-target species; wolverines, grizzly bears, cougars, golden eagles, etc. To turn a blind eye to this and pretend it is not going to disrupt the ecosystem in an immense way is naive and irresponsible.
Another way the province will continue to have wolves culled is through trapping, more specifically snaring. Of all of the methods I have touched on, this is possibly the most inhumane. If you have never seen animals fighting for their lives in snares for many hours, gnawing off limbs to escape a snare, or roaming the wild with a snare digging into their neck as it slowly cinches tighter and tighter, you have no idea how inhumane this practise is.
The fact is that wolves are not the problem. Yellowstone National Park is a good example where the reintroduction of wolves completely changed their ecosystem for the better. The wolves created a trophic cascade that positively impacted the animals, the plants, and even the geography of the region.⁹ Wolves are a crucial part of the ecosystem in the Little Smoky region. And as John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything else in the Universe."¹⁰
There is nothing to support that the inhumane killing of wolves is helping the caribou populations and wolves are just becoming a scapegoat to ignore the real problem, the fragmentation, degradation, and loss of caribou habitat.
Habitat Conservation and Management
The fourth aspect of the plan to recover caribou is the most important, habitat conservation and management.
There are different schools of thought among scientists with regard to wolves and rearing facilities but there is a very clear consensus on habitat: it needs to be protected for there to be any hope for the caribou. As of 2012, 95% of caribou habitat in the Little Smoky region was disturbed.¹¹ Since then, industry has only continued in the area disturbing even more habitat to the point that in 2017 99% of woodland caribou habitat in the region is disturbed.¹² This type of disturbance is a disaster for the ecosystem. Peat moss bogs and muskeg with forests of black spruce and tamarack need to be protected and the land connecting them needs the same protection. Caribou rely on these areas for feeding and to protect themselves from predators.¹³ These areas are crucial to the survival of the woodland caribou and without them, the caribou will not survive.
The draft agreement states, “Alberta will pursue and implement development agreements or other actions with energy companies to reduce footprint of future developments.”¹⁴ This is not quantifiable; if aspects of the agreement are not measurable, they are pointless. Not only does this not mean much, but reducing the impact of future developments will not save the caribou. Future developments need to be virtually eliminated and we need to rehabilitate areas that have already been compromised.
In order to save the woodland caribou in the Little Smoky region, we cannot take half measures. Industry needs to stop in the area. As David Suzuki put so well, “Mitigation might lessen the bite of impacts or stave off extinction, but it will not advance recovery. That can only occur by restoring healthy, functioning ecosystems.”¹⁵ The ecosystem needs to be restored and then left alone. If we are to save the Little Smoky woodland caribou, we need to go all-in on habitat protection. We need to reverse the damage we have done and let nature sort itself out. We need to follow the lead of many successful conservation efforts such as Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone National Park, south of our border, is a perfect example of how protecting/restoring habitat and then getting out of the way allows nature to repair itself. A change in the mindset in that park has completely turned the park around. As Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk has said, “Rather than manipulating wildlife to do what we want it to do, we strive now to secure habitat to let wildlife do what it needs to do—to let natural processes play out as best we can.”¹⁶ By reintroducing any species that were lost in the park and by stopping the ‘hands on’ management of the area, Yellowstone was able to thrive and become the area it was before we arrived. This same method can translate here in Alberta. The Little Smoky region needs to be restored and protected.
The current woodland caribou recovery agreement for the Little Smoky herd has some large issues that should be addressed. Alberta needs to take a stand in this region and put a threatened species ahead of economic gain. We need to put a stop to the destruction of caribou habitat and give these caribou a place to continue on peacefully.
If we don't take steps to protect habitat, the Little Smoky region and, inevitably, other areas of Alberta will no longer have woodland caribou. And it won't stop there; Alberta lists 50 species as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. When will we decide to make a paradigm shift in how we look at habitat and decide to protect our ecosystems instead of only seeing dollar signs and jobs when we look at our beautiful landscape?
1. Berger, Swendson, and Persson (2001) Recolonizing carnivores and naïve prey: conservation lessons from pleistocene extinctions.
2. Lyon. Grimes. (2014) The real wolf: the science, politics, and economics of coexisting with wolves in modern times.
3. Webster (1997) The effects of human related harassment on caribou (Rangifer tarandus).
4. Gavier-Widen, Meredith, and Duff (2012) Infectious diseases of wild mammals and birds in europe. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
5. Latham, A. D. M., Latham, M. C., Knopff, K. H., Hebblewhite, M., & Boutin, S. (2013). Wolves, white‐tailed deer, and beaver: implications of seasonal prey switching for woodland caribou declines. Ecography, 36(12), 1276-1290.
6. Wittmer, H. U., McLellan, B. N., Seip, D. R., Young, J. A., Kinley, T. A., Watts, G. S., & Hamilton, D. (2005). Population dynamics of the endangered mountain ecotype of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 83(3), 407-418.
7. Newsome, T., van Eeden, L., Lazenby, B., & Dickman, C. (2017). Does culling work?. Australasian Science, 38(1), 28.
8. Boisjoly, Ouellet, and Courtois. (2010, March 11). Coyote habitat selection and management implications for the gaspésie caribou.
9. Manbiot. (2013, September 9). For more wonder, rewild the world.
10. Muir, Limbaugh, and Lewis. (1980) The john muir papers, 1858-1957 microform
11. Environment Canada. (2012). Recovery strategy for the woodland caribou (rangifer tarandus caribou), boreal population,in Canada.
12. Alberta Environment and Parks. (2017). Draft provincial woodland caribou range plan.
13. James, A. R., Boutin, S., Hebert, D. M., & Rippin, A. B. (2004). Spatial separation of caribou from moose and its relation to predation by wolves. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 68(4), 799-809.
14. Alberta Environment and Parks. (2019). Draft agreement for the conservation and recovery of the woodland caribou in Alberta.
15. Suzuki. (2016, August 5). Half measures aren’t enough to save caribou.
16. Wilkinson.(2016, May). Threatened species are thriving in yellowstone. Now what?.