Long-term Snow Track Monitoring to Understand Factors Affecting Boreal Forest Mammal Density in an Expanding In Situ Oil Sands Area

Posted on Nov 30, 2020


by Hans Gaute SKATTER, John Leonard KANSAS, Michael Lawrence CHARLEBOIS, and Sondre SKATTER
CWBM 9 (2): 107-131.

Correspondence: Hans Gaute Skatter, Omnia Ecological Services, 722-27th Avenue Northwest, Calgary, Alberta, T2M 2J3, Canada.

Email: hskatter@omniaeco.ca


Oil sands development in Alberta, Canada, results in a uniquely fragmented landscape characterized by a high-density of linear features and fewer polygonal disturbance features. Uncertainty remains concerning the effects of this type of industrial footprint on boreal mammal species and communities. We examined anthropogenic and natural factors that might exert the strongest positive and negative effects on the density of 11 species of boreal mammals and grouse species. We collected wildlife track density and anthropogenic feature data along 9-km snow tracking triangles. Eighty-six different triangle locations were sampled with 56 of these replicated from 2 to 13 winters between 2005 and 2018. Twenty-five explanatory variables were tested for their influence on track density by species. Variables were organized into anthropogenic, natural habitat, weather/season, small prey density and survey year. Industrial linear features did not significantly reduce trail density for most focal species. The exception were negative effects of low impact seismic lines on fisher (Pekania pennanti) and red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Wider linear features including roads, pipelines and powerlines had positive effects on Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), coyote (Canis latrans), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and red squirrel track density. Time of the year, snow depth and temperature were highly influential in terms of their composite across-species impact on density of small-bodied focal species. Upland deciduous forest had a strong positive effect on density of large-bodied mammals namely moose (Alces americanus), white-tailed deer and wolves (Canis lupus). Small prey density had a strong positive effect on Canada lynx, coyote, fisher, and ermine (Mustela erminea) density. Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) density followed a well-defined 10-yr cycle. Canada lynx, coyote and fisher followed this cycle with temporal density lags. The occurrence of well-defined snowshoe hare and predator cycles of typical amplitude, in spite of a >8%-per-year increase of human development footprint may indicate a system that demonstrated some resilience to the exploration and early- to mid-development stages of in situ oil sands exploration and production.

Key Words: Habitat fragmentation, In Situ Oil Sands, Mesocarnivores, Population Cycles, Snow Tracking, Wildlife Monitoring

6 - Skatter et al


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