Athabasca Caribou Landscape Management Options Report

<P>Woodland caribou are listed as "threatened" under both Alberta's Wildlife Act and the<BR>federal Species at Risk Act. The Athabasca Landscape Team (ALT) was established in<BR>June 2008 by the Alberta Caribou Committee Governance Board (ACCGB) and tasked<BR>with developing an Athabasca Caribou Landscape Management Options report for boreal<BR>caribou ranges in northeast Alberta (hereafter Athabasca Landscape area). The ALT was<BR>asked to develop management options to recover and sustain boreal caribou in all<BR>populations in the Athabasca Landscape area, consistent with the provincial woodland<BR>caribou Recovery Plan (2004/05 – 2013/14), but not to consider detailed technical,<BR>political or economic challenges.<BR>The ALT determined that there is insufficient functional habitat to maintain and increase<BR>current caribou distribution and population growth rates within the Athabasca Landscape<BR>area. Boreal caribou will not persist for more than two to four decades without immediate<BR>and aggressive management intervention. Tough choices need to be made between the<BR>management imperative to recover boreal caribou and plans for ongoing bitumen<BR>development and industrial land-use.<BR>The four Athabasca ranges — Richardson, West Side Athabasca River (WSAR), East<BR>Side Athabasca River (ESAR), and Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) — reflect<BR>known caribou locations and the presence of suitable peatland habitat. A 20 kilometre<BR>(km) buffer was added to these combined ranges to identify ‘planning areas’ that reflect<BR>the influence of adjacent habitats and populations of predators and other prey on caribou<BR>population dynamics. Available information suggests that there is limited movement<BR>between the four ranges or populations. Discrete caribou habitat areas are primarily found<BR>in large peatland complexes, but lichen-rich pine forests are also used. These peatlands<BR>occur within a matrix of upland mixedwood forest that is avoided by caribou, but<BR>provides habitat for other prey species (i.e., moose, white-tailed deer and beaver) that in<BR>turn support wolves, black bear, and other potential predators. The selection for peatlands<BR>appears to be a spatial separation strategy critical to the survival of boreal caribou.<BR>All monitored caribou populations in the Athabasca Landscape area are currently in<BR>decline, and recent trends and simulation modeling results indicate that there is a high<BR>risk that the populations will not persist for more than forty years. Current extrapolated<BR>caribou abundance in the landscape area (ca. 900 animals) is well below the number that<BR>would be expected in the absence of industrial land-use. Predation appears to be the<BR>immediate cause of recent declines, and available information indicates that this is<BR>directly or indirectly linked to land-use features, including roads, harvest blocks, leases,<BR>pipelines and power lines, seismic lines, and agricultural/residential clearings that have<BR>led to an increase in moose and deer populations within and around caribou ranges.<BR>The ALT undertook two analyses from which it developed the management options<BR>presented in this report. The first was a rating of the relative risk to caribou persistence<BR>within each planning area and range based on a series of eight risk criteria. These criteria<BR>Athabasca Caribou Management Options Report included both biological and land-use factors<BR>believed to influence short- or long-term<BR>persistence and habitat function. Table 2 in this report defines each criterion and<BR>summarizes how it was used, along with relevant assumptions and comments. The overall<BR>risk rating for each planning area is provided in the Table included at the end of this<BR>Executive Summary.<BR>The second analysis conducted for each planning area or range by the ALT involved<BR>simulation modeling using ALCES®. Modeling was conducted to forecast likely caribou<BR>populations and habitat conditions under three scenarios including Non-Industrial,<BR>Business as Usual, and Alternative Futures. Scenarios for Alternative Futures were<BR>designed so that multiple simulations would identify the management lever, or<BR>combination of levers, that could maintain or increase boreal caribou numbers over the<BR>next 50 years.<BR>Land-use footprint, associated with oil sands (bitumen) extraction and forest harvest, is<BR>likely to increase throughout the Athabasca Landscape area over the next 50+ years. The<BR>highest risk to caribou occurs in areas that are underlain with thick bitumen deposits<BR>(which includes portions of all planning areas). Small population size is also associated<BR>with higher risk, as in the Richardson and CLAWR areas where both potential and<BR>existing populations are considered to be less than 150 individuals. Risk for caribou<BR>persistence is lower (but still rated as medium) in the WSAR and the eastern portion of<BR>the ESAR planning areas.<BR>The ALT’s analyses show that the time for management action in the Athabasca<BR>Landscape area is now. Risk of extirpation increases yearly, and further delays in<BR>management action implementation will compound the current challenges. ALT analyses<BR>demonstrate that an aggressive suite of management options (likely totalling hundreds of<BR>millions of dollars) will need to simultaneously focus on reducing predation risk and<BR>restoring functional caribou habitat within each planning area. It is important to reiterate<BR>that evaluation of political and economic implications of management options was<BR>considered outside the scope of the ALT. Likewise, consultation and engagement of<BR>parties that would be affected by the recommended management options has not been<BR>completed. Nevertheless, the ALT concluded that a suite of management options would<BR>be needed to maintain and increase current caribou distribution and population growth<BR>rates.<BR>Landscape scale management will be required to successfully sustain caribou in the<BR>Athabasca Landscape area. The ALT proposes that this region be managed as two zones.<BR>In Zone 1 Areas, described in more detail below, caribou recovery would be the priority<BR>designated land use, and all management options identified below would be<BR>implemented. Elsewhere within planning areas (Zone 2), all management options<BR>excluding future footprint restrictions would be implemented. The exception is portions<BR>of the ESAR – Bitumen Fairway sub-planning area underlain by thick bitumen deposits<BR>where appropriate best practices would be implemented.<BR>The suite of management options identified by the ALT includes:<BR>Athabasca Caribou Management Options Report</P> <P>• establish large (thousands of square kilometre) Zone 1 Areas in portions of each<BR>planning area where recovery of functional habitat (footprint is reduced well<BR>below today’s levels through aggressive and coordinated reclamation and future<BR>industrial footprint is restricted to levels below current conditions); and caribou<BR>mortality control (wolves and other prey are controlled for 50+ years) would be<BR>the designated and enforceable management priority;<BR>• elsewhere within caribou planning areas (Zone 2 Areas): control wolves and other<BR>prey for 100+ years; conduct coordinated reclamation; and implement enhanced<BR>best practices; and<BR>• as the viability of cow-calf penning or predator-prey exclosures is uncertain, the<BR>Richardson planning area is the most appropriate location to test this option.<BR>The table below provides a summary of the management options that would recover and<BR>sustain current caribou abundance and distribution in each Athabasca Landscape planning<BR>area. All identified options would need to be implemented as an integrated suite.<BR>Simulations showed that successful combinations of management levers were common to<BR>all planning areas, although the extent and duration of management actions differed<BR>slightly between areas. Simulations and risk ratings demonstrate that larger or more intact<BR>planning areas such as WSAR and Richardson have higher probability of success than do<BR>smaller, or less intact planning areas such as CLAWR and ESAR in the bitumen fairway.<BR>The ALT concluded that ‘Zone 1 Areas’ should be established to increase the<BR>probability of successfully recovering caribou in each planning area.<BR>Although implementation will require further consultation with stakeholders and<BR>consideration of the current land-use policy and regulatory system in the province, the<BR>value of Zone 1 Areas is that they would apply a cumulative effects management<BR>approach where caribou recovery would be the designated and enforceable land-use<BR>priority. From an ecological perspective, Zone 1 Areas need to be of sufficient size<BR>(thousands of square kilometres) to recover and sustain an isolated caribou population. In<BR>these areas, combined footprint would be reclaimed and future footprint restricted to very<BR>low levels (below current conditions) concurrent with continuous predator control until<BR>functional habitat is restored. Six candidate areas have been identified in portions of the<BR>WSAR, Richardson, ESAR-W, ESAR-E, and CLAWR planning areas. To achieve<BR>provincial caribou recovery goals, the ALT boreal caribou management objective, and<BR>offset current declines of woodland caribou populations in the Athabasca Landscape area,<BR>all planning areas should receive protection through designation and implementation of<BR>Zone 1 Areas. Indeed for small planning areas with high relatively high industrial land<BR>used and anthropogenic footprint like the CLAWR area, all suitable range should be<BR>considered as a Zone 1 Area in order to ensure persistence of caribou. However, if<BR>political considerations preclude this approach, the ALT recommends that priority for<BR>establishing Zone 1 areas should be in planning areas with greater chance of success for<BR>population recovery (i.e., the order listed in the table below). Ultimately, population size<BR>and management effectiveness is related to the amount of functional or intact<BR>habitat. If two planning areas are similar in most respects, and choices have to be<BR>made between them, the ALT concluded that the area with larger, more continuous,<BR>or relatively intact habitat has a greater chance of success.</P>