Range Planning for Boreal Caribou

On November 5-6, 2014, Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) met with wildlife co-management partners, including the WRRB, to discuss range planning for the Territory’s Boreal caribou, and ways to monitor this elusive wildlife species. 

Boreal caribou need large patches of habitat to thrive, but in many parts of Canada, their populations are threatened because too much of the habitat they need has already been disturbed.  Across Canada, much of the Boreal caribou’s historic range has been affected by a variety of human activities, including those related to forestry and oil and gas.  For example, seismic lines used in exploration fragment habitat and can allow predators easier access to places that Boreal caribou find refuge in.  Natural disturbances also occur in the forest.  In some places, fire is the main cause of disturbance, and there is concern that with changing climate conditions, fire cycles are also being affected.  Further, threats to Boreal caribou may interact in some way, and the impact of these cumulative effects on boreal caribou is a concern.

Boreal caribou are listed as a threatened species under the federal Species at Risk Act, and in 2012, a national Recovery Strategy with goals and actions to protect the species and its habitat was released.  Here in the NWT, Boreal caribou were listed as a Threatened species under the Species at Risk (NWT) Act in March, 2014.

National Recovery Strategy for Boreal Caribou

The goal of the National Recovery Strategy is to ensure that Boreal caribou populations are self-sustaining.  A population is self-sustaining when it has more births than deaths, is large enough to resist natural catastrophes and human pressures, does not need active intervention from humans, and can persist over the long term (a number of decades). 

To achieve this, the Strategy focuses on protecting critical habitat that Boreal caribou need for their survival and recovery.  Scientists recommend that Boreal caribou need large, healthy, intact and interconnected forests to survive. However, if the caribou’s habitat is fragmented into smaller, isolated patches, then caribou may be exposed to predators more often, in addition to other difficulties travelling from one patch to another if the areas are not connected. 

To ensure enough critical habitat is protected, the National Recovery Strategy requires 65% --almost 2/3—of Boreal caribou habitat within the range of a local population to be undisturbed.  This means that over time, no more than 35% of Boreal caribou habitat can be disturbed—whether by natural and /or human activities.    The Strategy calls for the development of range plans that protect critical habitat by the responsible jurisdictions, including the NWT, within 3-5 years. 

What is the plan for Boreal Caribou in the NWT?

In the NWT, Boreal caribou are faring better than the populations in southern Canada.  They are currently considered self-sustaining and still have large, intact patches of secure habitat. However, development is expected to increase in the territory and combined with other threats to Boreal caribou habitat in future, the NWT could fall below the disturbance threshold required for the caribou. Severe forest fire events like this summer’s wildfires that burned over 3 million hectares of forest in the NWT for example, could become more frequent as a result of climate change. 

How can we make sure that no more than 35% of Boreal caribou in the NWT is disturbed?

That’s where a range plan comes in.  The National Recovery Strategy calls for the development of range plans by the responsible jurisdictions, as one component of a recovery program for boreal caribou.   Nicole McCutcheon, Manager of Wildlife Research and Habitat, GNWT, met with the WRRB at its December 2013 and February 2014 Board meetings to discuss a range planning process for Boreal caribou in the NWT. 

A range plan will describe how the Boreal caribou’s range will be managed to maintain a minimum of 65% undisturbed habitat over time and help prepare for any future changes to habitat.

Planning is at an early stage, and ENR has been meeting with wildlife management boards, including the WRRB, and discussing possible approaches for a range plan for Boreal caribou in the NWT.  ENR developed a guidance document that describes an approach that includes an NWT-wide range plan as well as regional plans.  Across the NWT, knowledge of trends in Boreal caribou numbers as well as the amount of habitat disturbance varies.  Range planning would be tailored accordingly to reflect the specific situation in each region. 

The guidance document also includes guidelines for creating range plans.  They include, among others, maintaining secure habitat and areas important to caribou, maintaining habitat connectivity so caribou can move freely from one part of their range to another, and minimizing new “footprints” on the landscape.    The document notes the importance of measuring habitat disturbance and of a monitoring program to measure Boreal caribou population trends in order to track how they are doing across the Territory. 

The WRRB is looking forward to continuing to participate in range planning for the Boreal caribou.  Watch for more information in future issues. 

Fact Box
  • Boreal caribou are found in many regions in the NWT, living in the boreal forest in small groups at naturally low densities.  
  • In 2011-2013, the WRRB and Tłįcho Government worked together on a project to learn more about Boreal caribou habitat and habitat use in Wek’èezhìı .   Traditional knowledge researchers described tǫdzı (Boreal caribou) as secretive and fast –elusive animals that startle easily and are difficult to track and hunt because they are hard to spot in the brush.
  • Boreal caribou need enough undisturbed vegetation and old growth forest to forage –and enough space to spread out to avoid predators.  Older forests tend to be richer in the lichens caribou depend on.