Late-winter Habitat of The Little Smoky Boreal Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) Population, Alberta, Canada: Vegetation Composition and Structural Characteristics, Management Implications, and Habitat Conservation Plan

Posted on May 28, 2015

Author

Gilbert PROULX, Editor

Correspondence: Gilbert Proulx, Alpha Wildlife Research & Management Ltd., 229 Lilac Terrace, Sherwood Park Alberta, T8H 1W3, Canada. Email: gproulx@alphawildlife.ca

Received 18 February 2015 – Accepted 28 May 2015


Abstract

The recovery of a species at risk such as the boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) must start with the conservation of valuable habitats.  Little is known, however, about habitats used by the Little Smoky caribou population inhabiting the Alberta Newsprint Company (ANC)’s Forest Management Agreement (FMA) area (143,932 ha), in northwest Alberta.  his study was conducted in late winters (January-February) of 2013 and 2014.  he objectives were to 1) test a draft query (list of parameters from a vegetation database that are used to identify speciic areas) largely based on a Government of Alberta’s Habitat Suitability Index (HSI); 2) verify habitat use by woodland caribou; 3) in the event that the draft query proves to be unsuccessful to predict late-winter caribou distribution, identify stands that should be used in the development of an efective query; and 4) test the new query.  I hypothesized that caribou tracks would be found mostly in mixed tamarack (Larix laricina) and black spruce (Picea mariana) muskegs with ≤20-m-high trees and  >30% canopy closure, and in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) – tamarack – black spruce mixed stands.  In 2013, the distribution of 190 caribou tracks during the snowshoe survey of 26 transects (56,025 m) suggested that the draft query was inadequate to predict the late-winter distribution of the Little Smoky woodland caribou.  Tracks were absent from pure black spruce and lodgepole pine stands, and from 60-79-years-old pure tamarack stands.  Tracks were signiicantly more frequent than expected (P< 0.05), or were present as expected (P>0.05) based on habitat availability, in muskegs with mixed black spruce and tamarack stands.  In 2014, a new query based on caribou habitat use in 2013 successfully predicted the late-winter distribution of caribou.  Seventyive (96%) of 78 tracks recorded during the survey of 13 transects (31,130 m) were found in medium- and high- quality polygons. Tracks were signiicantly more frequent than expected (P<0.05) in muskegs of ≥60%-<90% black spruce and ≥60%-<90% tamarack (P<0.01). Caribou used ≥90% tamarack stands, and ≥60%-<90% lodgepole pine stands with black spruce, closed canopy trees and large trees, as per availability (P>0.05). Otherwise, caribou avoided all upland lodgepole pine stands. here were no caribou tracks in ≥90% black spruce stands. Caribou used seismic lines as they encountered them, i.e., without attraction or avoidance. his study conirmed my hypothesis that caribou prefer mixed tamarack and black spruce muskegs with ≤20-m-high trees and >30% canopy closure, and lodgepole pine-tamarack-black spruce mixed stands. It also showed that the new query was adequate to predict late-winter habitat use by the Little Smoky boreal woodland caribou inhabiting the ANC’s FMA area. Late-winter habitats used by caribou represent only 28,183 ha (20%) of the FMA area. he caribou range within the ANC’s FMA area is highly fragmented, and adequate habitats are scattered across the landscape. A habitat conservation plan is proposed to ensure the persistence of landscapes that would provide the Little Smoky caribou population with interconnected late-winter habitats that would meet their seasonal requirements, such as food and protection and escape cover against harsh environmental conditions and predators.

Key Words: Alberta, Black Spruce, Caribou, Late-winter habitat, Little Smoky population, Lodgepole pine, Muskegs, Tamarack, Wildlife management.

 

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