Expert Commentary

Effect of wolf predation and human activity on caribou and moose in the Alberta oil sands

2011 study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on threats to the caribou population of Alberta’s oil sands region.

Because wolves were considered to be the primary threat to the dwindling woodland caribou population in the petroleum-rich Alberta oil sands region, the Canadian government implemented an aggressive wolf eradication policy in 2010. However, human encroachment has also been exerting pressure on the caribou population, as part of expanding natural resources extraction efforts in that region.

A 2011 study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, “Influences of Wolf Predation, Habitat Loss, and Human Activity on Caribou and Moose in the Alberta Oil Sands,” analyzed more than 3,000 scat (excrement) samples from the region’s caribou, moose and wolf populations, and cross-referenced these samples with data from areas where humans were engaged in large-scale activities, primarily forestry and oil extraction industry work.

The study’s findings include:

  • Wolf predation is not the main factor driving elevated stress levels and poor nutrition for the caribou. Rather, such negative outcomes are the consequence of interaction with humans and exposure to large-scale industry operating in the region. Once extraction industry workers leave an impacted area, the animals relax and their nutrition improves.
  • Significantly decreasing the wolf population could impact the area’s ecosystem in unpredictable and undesirable ways.
  • While most of the wolves’ diet was comprised of a combination of deer, moose and caribou, wolves showed a clear preference for deer; this preference lured wolves away from caribou habitats  and towards environments favored by deer. Additionally, wolves favored moose over caribou by a more than two-to-one margin, with caribou coming in a distant third.
  • Given wolves’ preference for deer, the wolf removal policy may reduce caribou mortality rates in the short term, but may also inadvertently increase the deer population over time and create a new set of ecological challenges.

The study’s authors conclude with specific recommendations for protecting the caribou population, including clustering points of human activity on the landscape, using elements of existing terrain to buffer camps from the animals, and consolidating work roads. “Modifying landscape-level  human-use patterns,” the researchers suggest, “may be more effective at managing this ecosystem than intentional removal of wolves.”

Tags: pollution, fossil fuels, wildlife, biodiversity

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