Location

 

The Little Smoky caribou herd is located in the foothills region of West central Alberta (see Figure 1 below). The range spans across Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) 352 and 353. This area is between the town of Grande Cache and Fox Creek Alberta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Map illustrating boundaries of the Little Smoky caribou herd (from Smith 2004).

 

 

Little Smoky Herd

 

The decline of Alberta’s woodland caribou herds is a major conservation concern. The Little Smoky caribou herd has been identified as a population in imminent danger of extirpation due to large declines in herd size (Dzus 2001, Smith 2004). The herd’s range is in an area with high levels of human disturbance resulting from forestry and oil and gas activity. Current estimates of the Little Smoky Herd reveal that there are only between 60 and 80 individuals remaining. The reason for their decline has been attributed to industrial development (Dyer et al. 2001 and 2002); although the main limiting factor on populations appears to be increased predation rates by wolves (see Fuller and Keith 1981, Bergerud and Elliot 1986, Whittmer et al. 2005). This is because: (a) linear features (e.g. seismic lines) increase predator efficiency and may provide predator access to caribou ranges (Stuart-Smith et al. 1997, James and Stuart-Smith 2000), and (b) removal of late seral forest cover results in greater habitat and browse for moose, elk, and deer which in turn provides abundant alternate prey for wolves (Schwartz and Franzmann 1989). This increase in ungulates allows wolf populations to increase (McLoughlin et al. 2003, James et al. 2004).

 

Much attention has been given to the Little Smoky herd as managers are trying to save the imperiled population through a series of conservation efforts. An aerial wolf control program, which involves mostly helicopter gunning of wolves, was put in effect in the 2005-2006 winter and continued over the 2006-2007 winter to decrease the predation pressure on caribou. Harvest limits for moose and deer were increased to hopefully decrease ungulate populations that serve as primary prey for wolves and provide an attractant food base to encourage new wolves to colonize the area. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development also implemented the Little Smoky caribou calf pilot project where calving caribou were penned in March 2006 to decrease calf losses to predation. Calves were kept in pens for a approximately four month and were fitted with radio collars. The project was not continued in spring 2007 but results indicate that survival of penned calves and non-penned calves did not differ, suggesting that wolf control was successful in decreasing calf predation.

 

The underlying issue is one of habitat loss which affects caribou through apparent competition. Wolf-control programs, although effective, do not provide a long-term solution to counter caribou declines. Studies in Alaska, the Yukon, and northern British Colombia have shown that this method resulted in only short-term increases in ungulate populations because wolf populations increased shortly after culling was ceased (e.g. Boertje et al. 1996, NRC 1997, Bergerud and Elliot 1998, Hayes et al. 2003). The management strategies currently in place have the potential to increase caribou survival if applied continuously but they do not address the main issue of habitat loss, habit degradation, and habitat fragmentation.

 

 

Little Smoky Caribou

University of Alberta

“If we learn, finally, that what we need to “manage” is not the land so much as ourselves in the land, we will have turned the history of American land-use on its head.”

 

- Gaylord Nelson