Woodland herds ‘holding their own’

March 2, 2009

MANITOBA’S woodland caribou face the same pressures as their northern cousins, but at this stage their health and herd-strength remains stable, provincial wildlife biologist Vince Creighton said.

“They’re at least holding their own,” Creighton said. “If I had the resources to do a survey, I would suspect we’d likely find more woodland caribou than we know of.

“We’re quite happy with the state of woodland caribou in our province.”

But Creighton added the big question mark is climate change.

As it gets warmer, white-tailed deer expand their habitat and slowly move north.

Deer carry brainworm, Creighton said, and while the parasite causes little damage to deer, it’s lethal if passed on to caribou.

“Once they get infected, that’s the end of it,” Creighton said.

It’s estimated 60 per cent of deer east of the city have brainworm. It’s these deer, as they move slowly northwards, that pose the biggest threat to caribou roaming on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, particularly the Owl-Flintstone herd.

The province listed woodland caribou as a threatened species under its Endangered Species Act in 2006.

A second threat is man.

With development in the woodland caribou’s habitat, their migration paths and traditional spring calving grounds are threatened.

The most prominent threat is logging, but to date the province’s main timber companies have worked with government to limit new roads into caribou country, making things more difficult for hunters.

“With increased access, the potential increases for the opportunity for people, whoever they may be, to take more animals,” Creighton said.

Creighton added timber harvesting in caribou country is limited to old-growth boreal forests, which is not prime caribou habitat. Caribou don’t like stepping over fallen trees, but instead prefer new-growth forests where food is also more plentiful.

“The forest changes out there,” Creighton said. “It doesn’t stay the same.”

The restrictions on logging are aimed at helping the Owl-Flintstone and Atikaki-Berens herds on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and the Naaosap herd near The Pas. Those herds, of the 10 herds or ranges in the province, are most at risk. The Atikaki-Berens herd is the province’s largest, at 300 to 500 animals. The smallest is the William Lake herd at 25 to 40 animals west of Norway House at the northern tip of lake Winnipeg.

Creighton said wildlife officials are currently studying if caribou migration is changing and putting together an action plan on what more can be done to protect the three most-at-risk herds. Part of the process includes submissions from the public, including First Nations people who hunt caribou.
“We don’t have a corner on ideas,” he said.

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