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New Study Reveals Woodland Caribou Face an Uncertain Future
July 7, 2007

Research by Trent University Master’s graduate accurately predicts human impact on this threatened species

According to a new study conducted by Trent University and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, woodland caribou face an uncertain future in boreal forests because of human activity.

The study, entitled "Woodland caribou extirpation and anthropogenic landscape disturbance in Ontario", was derived from the Master’s thesis by Liv Vors in Trent’s Watershed Ecosystems Graduate Program. Ms Vors was the lead author of the study, which concludes that management of the boreal forest needs to move "upscale" if woodland caribou are going to be conserved. The effects of habitat loss on this species extend over large areas and long timeframes.

"This threatened species may be the most formidable conservation challenge in the boreal forest", Ms Vors said. "Conserving woodland caribou demands a big window on how we view and manage their forest habitat – a framework based on decades rather than years, on whole landscapes rather than just forest stands. Unless we plan for the future forest on such broad scales, woodland caribou will likely continue to disappear."

The study, published in the June issue of The Journal of Wildlife Management, drew its conclusions from historic observations of caribou and forest disturbances across northern Ontario.

In this vast region, covering nearly two-thirds of the province, the researchers found a strong connection between the disappearance of woodland caribou and human-caused habitat changes, including forestry cutovers, railroads, utility lines, roads, and trails. Woodland caribou were less likely to be present near all these types of disturbances. The species was predictably absent within 13 kilometres of a forestry cutover – a distance much greater than currently considered in caribou management guidelines.

The study also uncovered evidence of an "extinction debt" – a delay between habitat loss and the disappearance of a species. For woodland caribou, an extinction debt of 20 years was supported by the pattern of cutovers in 1970 that accurately predicted the distribution of caribou two decades later.

"The extinction debt implies that the success or failure of present-day management actions for caribou may not be evident for decades. A long-term perspective is key to conserving this species", said Ms Vors.

Woodland caribou in North America have declined considerably since the late 19th century. The species has lost about one-half of its historic range on the continent. It is estimated that about 5,000 forest-dwelling caribou remain in Ontario. The population estimate, however, has a considerable margin of error because woodland caribou are distributed at low numbers across a vast area -- typically, about one animal per 20 square kilometres.

The project received financial support from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Wildlands League, National Geographic Society, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Trent University and Wildlife Conservation Society.



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