Background. Saskatchewan is responsible for conservation of woodland caribou and their habitat on its provincial lands.

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3 Background The boreal population of woodland caribou has been designated as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), and a national recovery strategy has been developed by Environment Canada. Saskatchewan is responsible for conservation of woodland caribou and their habitat on its provincial lands. The Ministry of Environment has initiated a program that will provide a better understanding of the complexities of woodland caribou ecology, help to meet objectives identified in the federal recovery strategy, and assist the province in carrying out its responsibility for conserving the species and related habitat. In order to support woodland caribou range assessment and planning, the Ministry of Environment has partnered with a number of researchers to collect scientific information. Research currently underway includes the sharing and documenting of traditional knowledge with various First Nations and Métis communities across woodland caribou range, determining the relative numbers of calves, bulls and cows in the population and how they change in response to predators, weather and disturbance, connection of caribou through their family ties within a band, among neighbouring bands and all across the range using genetics and tracking caribou, and habitat assessment by considering the effects of natural (wildfire, weather, insects), and human-caused disturbances on caribou range. Key questions that will be addressed under this program include: Where is caribou habitat (including landscape configuration) and what is the health of the habitat? What constitutes disturbance of habitat and natural recovery? How does disturbance impact caribou and their use of habitat? What is the current and forecasted level of disturbance? What constitutes restored habitat? What are effective ways to restore habitat? What is the caribou population and what are the trends? What best management practices can be implemented for positive outcomes? How do we ensure opportunities for engagement? How do we measure the results of this work? How do we ensure that this program results in healthy landscapes for multiple species? How do we balance social economic environmental aspects? The Woodland Caribou Range Assessment and Planning program incorporates two key components: Woodland caribou range assessment - increases our understanding of the condition of woodland caribou habitat and status of caribou populations within Saskatchewan; and Development of range plans - leads to better decisions in managing for caribou habitat to ensure self-sustaining caribou populations in the province. This initiative is a collaborative effort, bringing together the knowledge and expertise of academic institutions, government and non-

4 government agencies, Aboriginal communities and organizations, and the private sector. For the purposes of the range assessment and planning activities related to woodland caribou, Saskatchewan has been divided into the Boreal Shield (SK1) and Boreal Plain (SK2) conservation units as identified in the federal recovery strategy (Figure 1). Figure 1. Woodland Caribou Administration Units in Saskatchewan For SK2, the area has been further subdivided into East, West and Central Caribou Administration Units to facilitate effective planning (Figure 2).

5 Range Assessment The range assessment process evaluates the current state of woodland caribou range, population status and habitat availability. Range assessment looks at the relationships between natural and human-caused disturbance types, caribou population trends, predator/prey dynamics, forest succession, and timelines for the restoration and reclamation of disturbances to functional caribou habitat. The identification of issues and risks that can be used to direct planning will emerge from range assessment. Risk is expressed as potential threats to a sustainable caribou population and to sustainable caribou habitat. The range assessment process will result in data that can be used to evaluate and guide the management of proposed and ongoing land use activity. As such, it is not a plan, but is an information gathering and evaluation process that helps guide planning and decision making. As part of the range assessment process, a number of directed research studies are underway to improve information and to fill information gaps. Update on Research Studies The following section provides a brief update on the research studies being conducted in both the Boreal Plain and Boreal Shield portions of the provincial caribou range. Highlights The Ministry of Environment and the Woodland Caribou Technical Committee supported six projects in to assist in providing a better understanding of woodland caribou habitat and population structure. Genetic analysis of woodland caribou fecal pellets is proving to be a reliable way of determining how caribou populations are genetically structured and connected across the landscape, which supports land-use planning decisions and promotes conservation. As of May 2015, aboriginal traditional knowledge research information meetings and interviews have taken place with community members from Montreal Lake First Nation, Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Île-à-la-Crosse Métis. 94 caribou and 26 wolves were fitted with GPS radio-tracking devices in 2014, and 11 wolves were collared in In March 2015, the University of Saskatchewan conducted its first caribou spring composition survey to estimate how many calves survived their first winter of life. This is also referred to as calf recruitment. Changes in the number surviving from year-to-year results in a trend that informs on caribou population growth and decline. The effect of wildfire on vegetation, soil and watersheds can be illustrated in burn severity maps including areas within burn boundaries that did not burn. Accounting for these exclusions of unburned habitat will produce a more accurate account of natural disturbance. Burn severity mapping for the Boreal Plain (SK2) West area is scheduled to be completed in fall/winter 2015, with SK2 Central and SK2 East completed in spring of 2016.

6 Figure 2. SK2 Caribou Administration Unit Aboriginal traditional knowledge Aboriginal traditional knowledge may contribute to characterizing the range and enriching knowledge of caribou population trends and habitat use. Working with First Nations and Métis communities to incorporate traditional knowledge into woodland caribou range planning is a long-term goal of the range assessment program. Dr. Ryan Brook and Dr. Abdullah Mamun with the University of Saskatchewan are undertaking a research project with communities to document current and historical knowledge across the caribou range. Much of the focus with the Aboriginal traditional knowledge research to date has been on making the appropriate connections

7 with communities that are interested in participating, and providing information to those communities to ensure they are aware of the purpose of the study. As of May 2015, informational meetings and interviews have taken place with community members from Montreal Lake First Nation, Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Île-à-la-Crosse Métis. Information has been shared by participants on current and historic areas with caribou habitat, differences in seasonal habitat for caribou, calving and feeding habitat preferences and disturbances that affect caribou habitat. Mapping exercises have also been undertaken to assist in identifying areas of suitable habitat, both historic and current. It is anticipated that opportunities to discuss and document traditional knowledge with other communities located in the woodland caribou range will occur in the near future. The pellet collection occurs in the winter using helicopters to gain access to areas where the caribou have bedded down or spent a significant amount of time, thereby increasing the likelihood of finding samples. Results of these studies will help to determine if the caribou distribution within Saskatchewan is comprised of individuals and bands that are closely related across the range, beginning to separate, or separated into distantly related or completely isolated groups. This information is used to understand and monitor the long-term health of Saskatchewan's woodland caribou population. These studies are being primarily led by Dr. Micheline Manseau at the University of Manitoba and Dr. Paul Wilson at Trent University in Ontario. Figure 3. Saskatchewan Woodland Caribou Pellet Collection Population genetic analysis Caribou droppings (fecal pellets) are collected at sites recently used by caribou to obtain DNA. The DNA is then used to determine how closely individuals of a band of caribou are related and how closely different bands are related to each other across Saskatchewan and to neighbouring bands in Alberta, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. These population relationship measures can be used to assess the number of unique individuals within a band, as well as distinguishing among larger groups of caribou from widely separated areas by their unique characteristics (healthy levels of genetic diversity within and among populations), trace family histories including birth of calves over time and assess the potential for replenishing a declining population.

8 As of March 2015, about two-thirds of the Boreal Plain area has been surveyed for woodland caribou fecal pellets (see Figure 3). About one-third of the Boreal Plain remains to be sampled (north of the Air Weapons Range) and is anticipated to be completed in winter This would complete fecal pellet collections across the SK2 administration unit. To date, the results of data from caribou droppings collected in SK2 suggest that bands of woodland caribou form clusters (local populations) and are structured across the range into genetically distinct groups. Recent human-caused, or anthropogenic, disturbance is being investigated as a factor in bands of caribou moving about less and mixing less with neighbouring bands, so that they are no longer closely related. Instead groups emerge that are more distinct from their neighbours. This loss of connection interferes with gene flow due to less or rare interbreeding across the range, and results in less of the genetic diversity that is needed to keep the population fit over the long term. The influence of natural features of the landscape (large lakes, large tracts of undesirable forest, etc.) on separation of caribou into local populations is also being investigated. These results will aid in conserving woodland caribou and their range, as well as guide future land-use planning decisions. Population dynamics and habitat use The Boreal Shield is a unique caribou habitat due to the high level of natural disturbance from wildfire. It was recognized in the federal recovery strategy that the status of the caribou population in the Boreal Shield was unknown, and that further information would be necessary to understand caribou population dynamics and habitat use in this part of the range. Photo 1 Photo 3: Close-up of Cladina mitis, a preferred species of caribou lichen forage, which grows abundantly in some forest sites. Woodland caribou and their predators are being radio-collared so that their movements and survival can be tracked, and their population status and habitat use can be determined. These studies are being led by Dr. Phil McLoughlin at the University of Saskatchewan. A total of 94 caribou and 26 wolves were captured and fitted with GPS radio-tracking devices in 2014, and 11 wolves were captured and collared in In March 2015, the University of Saskatchewan conducted its first spring composition survey to estimate the recruitment of calves into the population from 2014 to The estimate was in the normal range, suggesting a stable to increasing population of caribou in the area surveyed. More years of survey are required to produce a reliable trend. By tracking collared adult females from 2014 to 2015 and recording deaths (mortalities), it was also determined that for these caribou, the probability of survival of adult females was

9 close to 91 per cent (Kaplan-Meier estimate), which is normal for a caribou population. Researchers are still working on a better understanding of how abundant caribou are in the study area (estimating density and population size), and how caribou are using habitat based on the movements of collared adult females. The primary goal of the wolf tracking study is to determine how often wolves are found in preferred and occupied caribou habitat, and to what extent they are preying on caribou. This work is ongoing. Researchers also plan to collar and follow black bears in spring 2016 to determine if they are also preying on caribou. Effects of fire on woodland caribou habitat Fire is the main form of natural disturbance in the boreal forest. Studies are underway to better understand forest succession after fire, how it affects the amount of habitat currently available to caribou as well as future habitat. Maps illustrating potential habitat, current and future habitat will result from this work. The ever-changing forest that results from natural and human-caused disturbance and succession of young forest types to older forest types (landscape dynamics) will be modelled in response to fire and climate change as a means to predict future availability of caribou habitat. These studies are being led by Dr. Jill Johnstone at the University of Saskatchewan. Several areas within the Boreal Shield have been sampled by researchers during the 2014 and 2015 field seasons. The Ministry of Environment is also undertaking work to improve the quality of historical wildfire mapping. The results of re-assessing the wildfire disturbance footprint in the Boreal Plain, which includes updating wildfire boundaries and completing burn severity mapping of wildfires from , will help to accurately determine actual areas burned and identify unburned areas within these wildfires using satellite imagery. These unburned forest islands can represent significant caribou habitat. By understanding the severity of the fire and burn areas (burn severity mapping) we can better understand the extent of potential caribou habitat. Photo 2: Alexandre Truchon-Savard (technician, Northern Plant Ecology Lab, University of Saskatchewan) compiling notes for a recently burned stand of jack pine. Fire boundary mapping has been completed for the Boreal Shield and the Boreal Plain, and burn severity assessments are underway. The Ministry of Environment is also assessing how to best incorporate the significant fire events of 2015 into this assessment. The burn severity mapping for the Boreal Plain (SK2) is currently underway by the ministry s Wildfire Management Branch. The SK2 West area is due to be completed in the fall/winter of SK2 Central and SK2 East will be completed by spring During the fall of

10 2015, field checks (ground truthing) of areas where burn severity mapping has been completed will take place to verify the results. This work will continue for the next two to three seasons. Photo 3: Ruth Greuel (M.Sc. student, Northern Plant Ecology Lab, University of Saskatchewan) leads measurements of ground lichens, a key forage type for woodland caribou in the boreal shield Once the burn severity mapping of the Boreal Plain (SK2) is finished, it will be merged with the results from the Boreal Shield (SK1). This will allow for a comprehensive burn severity map of both ranges, which is to be completed early in Once finalized, this information will be updated to Wildfire Management s Wildfire History maps. Future wildfires will also be mapped using this method to maintain an accurate account of actual area burned by wildfire. Human disturbance on the land It is important for the ministry to understand how much disturbance has occurred within the provincial caribou range as a result of human activities such as industrial development and recreation, and how long these disturbances will continue to impact caribou habitat. Mapping of human disturbance in the Boreal forest of Saskatchewan began in 2010 as part of the Boreal Initiative. The project goal is to visually scan imagery to identify various types of human disturbance, such as roads, trails, industrial development, and recreational developments. This work will provide a more accurate picture of disturbance levels in the province and will be used in the development of range plans. To date, disturbance has been summarized for all three caribou administration units within the Boreal Plain (SK2). Each disturbance is depicted by its physical boundary and a zone of influence, which is a 500-metre buffer estimate of how far the effects of a disturbance on caribou radiate out from its boundaries. For example, a road with traffic can be heard for some distance beyond the road into the surrounding forest and may impact the extent to which caribou use that forest. Dust from a high traffic, gravel road rises in the air and drifts for some distance before landing on vegetation. Caribou either avoid areas of vegetation laden with dust, or may suffer some ill effects from ingesting the dust-laden vegetation. In Figure 5, the levels of natural and humancaused disturbance in SK2 are tabulated allowing for comparison. The actual size of each human-caused disturbance is also quantified by accounting for its physical size (direct human footprint) and corresponding zone of influence. Average linear density is tabulated to depict how impacted an area is by the amount of linear features. Range planning Range plans, the province's plan to conserve caribou habitat and manage land use over time, are currently being developed. Information gathered throughout the range assessment process will assist in identifying objectives and management strategies to ensure the conservation of woodland caribou habitat.

11 Range planning is a process undertaken in collaboration with First Nations and Métis communities, the public and industry. For the purposes of range planning, the commercial boreal forest has been divided into three parts, SK2 West, SK2 Central and SK2 East (Figure 2). A range plan development process has been initiated for the SK2 Central area. The first meeting for SK2 Central was in January 2015 with representatives from all interested organizations present, followed by meetings in March and June. These meetings provided the opportunity for presentations and discussion on Environment Canada s woodland caribou recovery strategy, the Government of Saskatchewan s range planning process, woodland caribou ecology and forest management planning. They also offered a look at the current state of the boreal forest and the natural and man-made impacts that have occurred, as well as identification of management concerns regarding woodland caribou and the forest habitat. Future discussions on SK2 Central will include management of linear developments such as seismic lines, roads, and trails; best practices for forestry and other industrial activities; and landscape planning to maintain the integrity of the forest. Through these discussions, preferred management options will be identified for consideration in the range plan. Participants in range planning are being presented facts and scenarios as information emerges from the range assessment process, and are working together to identify appropriate resource management solutions. A number of additional meetings for the SK2 Central area will be held in to discuss management options, and develop the SK2 Central Range Plan. The province anticipates initiating the range planning process for the second administrative unit range plan (SK2 West) in late 2015 and the third range plan (SK2 East) is expected to begin in late winter/early spring Once completed, range plans will undergo internal review, review by stakeholders and local groups, and be available for a 60-day public review. The ministry will document the comments and feedback and work to review and revise the draft range plan as needed. The plan will then be submitted to the Minister of Environment for approval, and the final approved range plan will be submitted to Environment Canada. A range plan for SK2 Central is scheduled to be completed and submitted to Environment Canada by October 2017.

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13 Figure 4. Direct human development footprint and zone of influence in the SK2 woodland caribou conservation unit.

14 Figure 5. Cumulative Disturbances for SK2 Caribou Administrative Unit Total Direct Human Footprint (%) Total Human Zone of Influence (%) *includes human footprint Total Natural Disturbance (%) Total Disturbance (%) Average linear density (km/sq km) SK2 East SK2 Central SK2 West SK2 Total For further information, contact the Ministry of Environment Client Service Office at (toll free in North America) or

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