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Conservation and management of mountain woodland caribou in the Canadian Rockies

image 1Woodland caribou are declining throughout their range in Alberta and British Columbia, and the main reasons for declines are human activities which are altering predator-prey relationships that favor caribou. There are thought to be two primary causes for declines:

  1. Forestry and Fire creates young forests that have high numbers of other prey for wolves, like moose and elk. Because the number of wolves depends on moose, forestry increases the number of wolves, which then prey on caribou.

  2. Oil and gas exploration builds seismic lines and access roads, which arethought to increase predator efficiency by making it easier for wolves to search for and kill moose and caribou.

Because of the huge spatial scale of wolf-caribou systems, few field studies have tested whether

image 2

linear features increase wolf predation rates, or looked at implications of forestry for moose and thus caribou.These have also been difficult to study because forestry and oil & gas development often occur at the same time. Thus, managers face a problem of trying to understand the relative roles of increases in predator efficiency (primarily associated with oil & gas) vs. the production of primary prey habitat (primarily associated with forestry).


Our research objectives are to address

  1. What are the historic patterns of gene flow between caribou herds today, and how do existing levels of human development influence gene flow?

  2. How does predator (wolf) efficiency change over a regional gradient of human development? To which degree does oil & gas vs. forestry contribute to any changes?

  3. image 3How does forestry and fires contribute to increased primary prey productivity in wolf-caribou systems of west-central Alberta?

  4. How does migratory behavior of mountain caribou alter predator-prey relationships and the effects of human development on caribou viability?


We will study the causes for caribou declines across a human development gradient across the entire mountain caribou region in west-central Alberta and their summering ranges in British Columbia (see Figure). We will focus research on the south Jasper herd, the A La P?che herd, the Red Rock Prairie Creek herd, the Narraway herd, and the North Banff herd. We will also use historical data from the Little Smoky herd because of the confounding effects of recent recovery actions in this rapidly declining herd. In addition, we are working with partners to identify new caribou herds in the study area, such as the Red Willow herd adjacent to the Narraway. In our design, areas with limited human development, such as Jasper National Park and the

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Willmore Wilderness, will be used as ecological baselines. By comparing caribou-wolf dynamics in these ecological baselines with caribou herds under heavy human development pressures, we will be able to identify development thresholds for caribou fromforestry and oil and gas development.


To study how wolves and caribou respond to human development we will work with project collaborators Weyerhaeuser, Parks Canada, and AB Fish and Wildlife, as well as project cooperators Foothills Model Forest to maintain 10 GPS collared caribou in each of the major caribou ranges. These collars will also be used as part of AB Fish and Wildlife caribou population monitoring for recovery efforts in all caribou ranges. We will also capture and radiocollar 2-4 wolves in approximately 2-3 wolf packs in each caribou range to study how wolves respond to human development, primary prey like moose, and caribou. All capture and handling methods will be done by expert capture professionals using methods approved by The University of Montana, Calgary,and Alberta, as well as the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Animal Care committees. Finally, to study moose and other primary prey (elk), we will conduct winter aerial unguimage 5late surveys to count moose populations, and then work with large-scale vegetation productivity data from satellites to understand moose distribution throughout the year. The project will also use previously collected data from 1998 for all 5 herds obtained by Parks Canada, Alberta Fish and Wildlife, and project collaborator Weyerhaeuser who has lead monitoring of the Narraway and Red Rock Prairie Creek herds.


This research will provide land managers and industry partners quantitative recommendations and land-management tools for assessing and implementing regional-level caribou recovery goals. Specifically, our research will contribute to

  • Moose

    Fine-tuning forestry and oil and gas road development to recover caribou

  • Providing planning tools to evaluate alternate development strategies

  • Implementing management strategies for migratory caribou

  • Understanding 'new' caribou herds and new development

  • Synthesize strategies for caribou conservation in west-central Alberta

  • Evaluating the role of protected areas in future caribou conservation


Funding Agencies

Project Updates (click to download)

Project Overview (Jan, 2007)

September 2007 Project Update

Caribou Progress Report, 2007/08

Shell Narraway-Red willow project area progress report, 2008

Final Caribou Project Report, 2010


Team Photo:

Caribou project field team, July 2007 (L to R): Nick DeCesare, Mark Hebblewhite, Byron Weckworth, Hugh Robinson, deep in the Canadian rockies on day 2 of a 11 day wilderness backpack collecting vegetation data for Caribou in the headwaters of the Narraway river, BC.