June 22, 2011 | 7:00 am. latimes.com
Four years of research has found that exploration and mining of Canada’s oil sands appear to pose a much greater threat to the remaining herds of Alberta’s caribou than does being eaten by packs of wolves.
The findings, by a team of Canadian and U.S. researchers, caution Alberta authorities against pouncing on a proposed quick fix: killing off wolves to save the caribou from extinction.
“Wolves are eating primarily deer,” said Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. He and other researchers from the University of Alberta and Montana State University made that discovery by analyzing wolf scat found by specially trained dogs. ResearchDog
The dogs, using their keen sense of smell, helped researchers collect thousands of samples of frozen wolf, moose and caribou scat over an area of about 1,000 square miles in Alberta’s oil sands just south of Fort McMurray. An analysis of the samples that scrutinized the animals’ diets, stress hormones and other telltale clues offered conclusions different from those of previous studies.
Among other things, the researchers found that caribou populations may not be crashing as fast as feared. Yet the fuzzy-antlered creatures are under serious nutritional and psychological stress — though not from wolves.
The problem appears to arise in winter, Wasser said, when the sodden ground freezes solid and oil workers fan out with heavy equipment that would bog down in the warmer months. This happens to be when caribou have slim pickings in terms of food, relying on lichen to sustain themselves. They prefer open areas where they can see predators, and that’s exactly where many of the oil-exploration roads are located. The resulting noise and bursts of human activity make the caribou particularly wary and cut into the time they need to paw through the snow to find enough to eat.
“We are recommending that high-use roads be moved out of the open-flat areas,” Wasser said.
The study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, suggests that modifying driving patterns and other human activity would be much more effective at preserving the caribou than would killing the wolves.
Top photo: A hauler lumbers through an oil sands field north of Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo credit: Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press