In the forests around Cold Lake, criss-crossed by pipelines, roads and well sites, Stan Boutin sees the most worrisome sign of caribou decline. None of the baby calves in the local herd survived over the past two years.
With about 150 animals left here, the best hope is a radical step â€” a big fence around a huge swath of forest to protect mothers and babies from predators in their first year, says Boutin, longtime University of Alberta biologist.
Boutin is definitely thinking big â€” a pen of 200 square kilometres with 30-40 females inside the fence, protected from bears and wolves.
â€œIt has some potential for a major breakthrough,â€� says Boutin.
So far, he set up a tiny plot with test fences south of Fort McMurray. A carcass thrown inside attracts wolves and bears â€” so far theyâ€™ve been kept out by the fence design, says Boutin, who is working with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute.
Time is critical. The Cold Lake herd has dropped by 87 per cent since 1994 and Boutin estimates half the herd dies off every eight years.
In British Columbia, much smaller maternal pens for caribou met with some success, he adds.
In 2006-07, Alberta Environment tried smaller maternal pens north of Edson with no significant improvement in population, says department spokesperson Duncan MacDonnell.
But all ideas deserve a look, says MacDonnell.
Other strategies being used to save caribou are just not palatable or are not working fast enough, says Boutin.
Alberta Environment kills about 100 wolves a year in north central Alberta to help keep alive young caribou in the declining Little Smoky and A la Peche herds â€” with some success.
There are no plans to use wolf culling to protect herds in other parts of Alberta, MacDonnell adds.
In the Cold Lake area, culling predators would mean killing hundreds of bears as well as wolves and â€œI doubt it would be acceptable,â€� says Boutin.
The environment department is currently working on special â€œrange plansâ€� for each of the 16 caribou herds calling for habitat restoration, says MacDonnell.
The shy creatures need dense, intact forest with few cutlines or pipelines that allow predators easy access to the herds. The first range plan will be ready next year with the rest in late 2016.
â€œWeâ€™re making progress as fast as we can,â€� said MacDonnell.
But Boutin worries time is running out for that option.
Even if there is commitment today to reforest old cutlines, reclaim old roads and reduce footprint, the vegetation wonâ€™t grow fast enough to provide cover for the caribou alive today, he says.
â€œYou can reclaim those old cut lines, but expansion of the oilsands, especially with SAG-D (using pipelines and wells), is moving faster and opening up more forest,â€� he said.
â€œAnd it takes time for the vegetation to grow and there would be no observable benefit for 10 years.â€�
The Alberta Wilderness Association last week also sounded the alarm about shrinking caribou herds.
â€œThe past 10 years have been a failure for Alberta caribou recovery,â€� says Carolyn Campbell, AWA conservationist.
â€œHabitat disturbance is well past limits caribou can tolerate.â€�