In an effort to create improved caribou habitat, a Cenovus-COSIA project is altering “wolf highways”
This article appears in the September issue of Oilweek
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Caribou are a symbol of Canada’s northern forests, but their populations are under threat for a number of reasons. Other kinds of ungulate – white-tailed deer, for example – are migrating into their habitat, for example. This attracts wolves which, by increasing in population and range, have become a greater threat to these iconic mammals.
Human activity, of course, has played important roles in these developments. That makes it all the more noteworthy that two caribou-habitat projects in Alberta’s boreal forest are consistent with a new but mostly unspoken model of habitat protection. The idea is that the best place to protect caribou is in areas away from industrial development. The best example of this kind of project is a research effort sponsored by Cenovus. It’s known by the acronym LiDea, which stands for linear deactivation.
As company spokesman Brett Harris explains, the two-year-old project is “not on our project site. It’s on the northeastern side of the Cold Lake weapons range” on the Alberta side of the border. According to wildlife biologist Susan Patey-LeDrew, this area “provided ideal conditions for us. The weapons range is a boundary that people don’t cross. Trappers won’t cross it, hunters won’t go in there, and there are no activities by oil and gas or other industrial operators.” This means there is an excellent “playground for us to develop techniques and tweeze out specific responses to what we’re doing.”
Beginning in the 1970s, seismic activity in the weapons range and elsewhere in the northern forest created scars through the forest from three- to five-metres wide, which to this day are highways for wolf packs to use for hunting. This put pressure on the species of the boreal forest, as did “an expansion of agriculture, which is moving progressively north,” according to Patey-LeDrew. “With the agriculture come the white-tailed deer. So now you have more white-tailed deer in the area, and these legacy highways which the wolves can use. As a result, the wolves are coming out of their upland habitats into lower areas. This creates a higher likelihood of encounter between predators and caribou.”
“The really vulnerable time for caribou is when they’re calving,” she adds. “The young are quite vulnerable and susceptible to being taken down by wolves and even bears.” Some stop-gap measures can help the situation – for example, “one of the things we’re trying is to put visual barriers along these old seismic lines, to interfere with the wolves’ line of sight. We can do that, but it isn’t adding to recovering the habitat itself.”
Mounds and Stands: As spokesman for the company, Harris continually stresses that Cenovus is not fixing a problem it is responsible for. It’s restoring habitat in an area where old ways of doing business left a huge mess – a problem his company and its predecessors had nothing to do with. Using a well-worn phrase, he says Cenovus took on the project “because it’s the right thing to do.”
Today’s seismic surveys, which create minimal disturbance, wouldn’t cause the problem Cenovus is dealing with, but these old seismic lines left stubborn legacies. “For some reason, those lines are not growing back,” says Patey-LeDrew. “There is a stagnant system there, and trees are not growing back the way natural processes would suggest.”
Why? One possibility is that the heavy equipment used in cutting those lines created too much compaction. Another is that, once the without the trees growing there a change in the moisture regime. Using a favourite phrase, she says the forest needs a “kick-start” to get the trees growing again. “That’s what LiDea is all about. It’s easy to think you can just leave it alone and the trees will come back by themselves, or that you can just plant trees and they will grow. Unfortunately we’ve seen that this just doesn’t work. We have to give it a kick-start to give the seedlings a higher success rate. By planting the seedlings in the way we’re doing, we’re getting faster growth.”
She describes a number of techniques the company is using “to get the trees to grow, and to grow faster.” The work is seasonal. In the winter, backhoe operators build mounds. In the summer, contractors plant seedlings (the company expects to plant 150,000 in the next few years). These mounds provide a modified landscape along the old seismic lines – habitat in which seedlings grow at higher elevations. This creates better habitat for large beasts and reclaims the wolf highway.
A counter-intuitive approach to re-structuring the landscape is the use of stand modification. “As we walk backwards down the seismic lines, in heavily forested areas, we pull down every tenth tree. We knock it down. By pulling down some trees and creating barriers, we block the lines, making it harder for wolves and bears to move up and down them.” This helps to restore the habitat, also: a lot of seeds get distributed into the immediate environment, and they can begin to grow, for example, in the roots of knocked-down trees. “This provides an immediate response. It gives our seedlings a better chance to grow and restore the habitat.”
While LiDea on the surface seems like forestry work, Cenovus is pairing it with detailed wildlife monitoring program using satellite collaring, for example. According to Patey-LeDrew, “We don’t yet know how the wildlife will respond, but for the project to make a difference the vegetation must have a chance to grow successfully.”
The weapons range research is a Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) project, which means that Cenovus is sharing its results among the groups’ 13 member companies. Collectively, the group’s members have shared 560 distinct technologies and innovations that cost more than $900 million to develop. A collaborative project shared among six other COSIA members – ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil Canada, Suncor Energy and Total E&P Canada – also focuses on caribou habitat. Known as the Algar project, this effort also aims to repair fragmented habitat in a region outside the lands licensed by the participating companies. Like the weapons range project, Algar has used mounding, innovative approaches to seeding, and extensive use of wildlife monitoring to understand how best to improve caribou habitat.
Under Construction: It is not entirely surprising that both COSIA projects are taking place away from oil sands development. “Why would you create ideal habitat for caribou where large-scale development makes economic sense?” asks contrarian Robert Fessenden.
Fessenden’s background includes a forestry degree from the University of Toronto, and other degrees including a PhD in soil microbiology from McGill. He worked for the Alberta Research Council, where in 1988 he was “kicked upstairs to the executive,” as he calls his appointment to VP. He became president of the Alberta Science and Research Authority in 1995, then an “accidental Deputy Minister. I say accidental because I never applied for a position.” When the province started moving deputy ministers around, “I got moved into Economic Development, then into Sustainable Resource Development, and then into Innovation and Science.” He retired in 2010.
Fessenden provides the counter-balance to the question of restoring caribou habitat. Acknowledging that caribou management is an important issue, he argues that in areas where oil sands mining and other intensive development makes sense, “there’s no way you can protect it for caribou.” Fessenden believes government’s position should be that “for the next hundred years [areas where oilsands mining takes place] is clearly not going to be conducive to caribou, so we’re going to take another portion of the province and make that really good for caribou. In a hundred years we can introduce caribou back into this area. In the big scale of time, a surface-mined area is a temporary disturbance. A lot of people have difficulty thinking about 100 or 150 years as a temporary disturbance, but I come out of forestry [where we think] about long rotations.”
Always quick to speak his mind, Fessenden sees the reclamation of mining pits, for example, as an opportunity to create a better landscape. “The guys who like bogs at the University of Alberta took me to task for saying that. Maybe the politics weren’t right at the time.” In a sense, the two COSIA projects reflect Fessenden’s point of view. They are taking place in areas where oil sands development isn’t contemplated, and they are improving landscape and habitat.