Caribou Habitat Restoration

Focus

Restoring historic linear disturbances

Potential

Improved woodland caribou habitat quality and herd survival

Introduction

Caribou are one of Canada’s most recognizable national symbols, but their populations are under threat in Alberta for a number of reasons, including the effects of industrial development on habitat, the effects of global warming and because they’re increasingly being hunted by wolves which have increased in population and range in response to an increase in numbers of deer and moose, their primary prey.

Oil sands companies are now collaborating to restore caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta. During oil and gas exploration activities over the past 40 years, fragmentation occurred in the boreal forest as corridors were cut to accommodate seismic exploration and access routes for exploration drilling. In recent years, there have been ongoing improvements in exploration and restoration techniques that have allowed oil and gas producers to minimize disturbance and achieve faster recovery of the forest. However, for many older linear corridors and well sites created when regulatory standards were less stringent, the recovery effort is more challenging. For instance, the regulatory regime of the day did not call for immediate replanting of seismic exploration corridors, and as a result many of these open corridors have not regrown quickly and returned to forest cover. Long open stretches within the boreal forest create ideal habitat for deer and moose and make it easier for wolves to hunt their prey, including caribou. This reduces the area’s ability to sustain caribou.

Two major COSIA initiatives are underway to address legacy linear disturbances and return the boreal forest to high quality caribou habitat. The Algar Historic Restoration Project (Algar) and the Linear Deactivation Project (LiDea) are both aimed at addressing rehabilitating seismic lines. The two projects involve different approaches and methodologies, with the intent of sharing learnings across the COSIA companies as the projects progress.

Technology and Innovation

The Algar Project takes an integrated regional approach, with six companies working together to repair fragmented habitat across an area of land outside of their actual license areas. The project includes a five-year program to replant trees and shrubs along the linear footprint within the Algar Region, covering an area approximately 570 square kilometers (km2) southwest of Fort McMurray. Several innovations are being tested in the Algar program. Since Algar consists largely of bogs and wetlands, planting was completed in the winter months using winter planting techniques successfully tested in 2011 in collaboration with the Government of Alberta and Grand Prairie Regional College.

Measuring and planting trees in winter

Measuring and planting trees in winter

In the winter of 2011, a collection of companies worked together with Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development and Grande Prairie Regional College to design a pilot project to plant black spruce seedlings in the middle of winter. Black spruce, a slow-growing tree indigenous to Alberta’s muskeg areas, has roots close to the surface so the species has evolved to the point where it can withstand low temperatures.

About 90 per cent of the 900 black spruce seedlings survived the winter wetland planting trial. Ninety per cent is considered a good survival rate under any planting condition so it was considered exceptional for a wetland planting program carried out in February with temperatures hovering between -17oC and -25oC, before dropping below -30oC. The planting trial took place at the Evergreen Centre for Resource Excellence & Innovation in Evergreen Park, near Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Learn more about Winter Planting

In addition to winter planting, other restoration techniques being tested in Algar include mounding, seeding, and coarse woody material placement. A wildlife monitoring program is also being developed to track how the restoration work affects wildlife movement in the area. In planning for the replanting of historical forest disturbance, oil sands industry members worked with service providers traditionally linked to the forest industry to develop appropriate modelling tools to assist in creating the most efficient and effective planting schedules to reach the desired goal of improved caribou habitat.

The Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning (LEAP) tool was develop to establish a baseline of the various uses on the land, including recording types of vegetation, animal habitats, and human activities in the southern Lower Athabasca Region of Alberta. LEAP uses a combination of geospatial data and forest industry modelling techniques to create a multi-layered digital map that can be read in various combinations or altogether, similar to Google Earth. Due to its modelling ability, LEAP allows the Algar Restoration Project members to see how reclamation work undertaken today will affect reforestation and caribou habitat five, 10, 20 and even 50 years into the future.

If LEAP indicates that a disturbed area will benefit from additional re-vegetation efforts, decisions will be made now about planting those areas with trees, shrubs and other native vegetation. These plantings are then added into the LEAP program to provide a future view of reclamation results.

The original LEAP study area, which included some 32,455 square kilometres (km2), contains the East Side Athabasca River (ESAR) woodland caribou range and its seven herds. The process used for LEAP has been extended to the COSIA oil sands area of interest. The COSIA Land EPA is currently conducting a baseline of the various land uses as was completed for the original LEAP project.

See more about modeling

The LiDea Project also uses innovative techniques to restore some of the original characteristics of the forest to areas of linear disturbance. During the spring and summer, conifer seedlings are planted along older seismic lines using specially prepared mounds. The mounds protect the seedlings from invasive grasses, which could impair their growth, and from wet soil conditions that could lead to water-logged roots. LiDea is also experimenting with forest stand modification, which involves bending tree stems from the adjacent forest across the seismic line to create physical barriers and reduce sightlines along the linear corridor.

LiDea was designed to allow for rigorous monitoring and measurement throughout the life of the project. The experiment includes active treatment areas of about 37,000 hectares each, located on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in northeastern Alberta, and two similar sized control areas nearby where no treatment is being undertaken. One control area includes relatively undisturbed habitat, while the other includes forest fragmentation similar to the treatment areas. As the project develops, vegetation and wildlife response in the treatment area is being measured and compared to data from the control areas to gauge the effectiveness of the program.

Stand modification involves manipulating trees so they encroach on the open seismic corridor more quickly in order to create barriers to movement. This is done by leaning trees on the edge of the corridor down into the open space either by pushing or pulling them slightly to shift their root balls. The trees remain alive, but have been modified to grow up into the open area. The leaning trees create shade, obscure sightlines and drop cones into the open corridor, all of which is intended to speed restoration of the disturbed area. Trees that do not survive or drop branches into the open corridor create important woody debris that emulates natural forest restoration by providing cover for small seedlings and animals and eventually decaying and returning nutrients to the soil.

Leaning trees block sight lines

Leaning trees block sight lines

Learn about stand modification

Collaboration

Companies involved in Algar include: ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen Inc., Shell Canada, Statoil Canada, Suncor Energy Inc. and Total E&P Canada.

Cenovus is developing the LiDea project, which is a contributed technology to COSIA’s Land EPA.

Science developed from both projects is intended to be shared across COSIA member company participants in the Land EPA.

Environmental benefits

Planting trees to restore these historic seismic exploration corridors will lead to the conversion of low quality habitats that have been disturbed for almost 40 years, into higher quality habitats. As the trees fill in these disturbed areas, habitat connectivity will be restored to support species representative of the area. Tree planting also positively contributes to carbon sequestration.