Woodland caribou scientific review to identify critical habitat: chapter 12

Appendix 6.4 Summary

Throughout their distribution in Canada, boreal caribou are associated with mature and late seral-stage upland and lowland conifer forests and peatland complexes. Terrestrial lichens are common winter forage for boreal caribou, and lichens are most abundant in open- to middensity mature conifer stands and peatlands. During snow-free seasons caribou forage on a much broader array of plants including grasses, sedges, herbaceous plants and lichens.

The primary anti-predator strategy that boreal caribou employ is spacing out from predators and spatially separating themselves from alternative prey (Bergerud 1996). Consequently, boreal caribou require large, contiguous tracts of habitat to maintain low population densities across their range. The use of muskeg habitat and mature conifer forests allow caribou to spatially separate themselves from the other common boreal and sub-boreal ungulates, moose and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

During the calving and post-calving season, cows are sparsely distributed on the landscape and are usually found alone with a calf. Fidelity to calving sites seems to vary among individual caribou; some caribou return to the same site in consecutive years, some have calving
locations separated by several hundred kilometers in subsequent years, and many return to a general area within their range (e.g. within 10 km). Females will travel several hundred kilometers to these general areas, and they constitute a small portion of the overall range.

Across their distribution, cows select treed muskegs with open water. The presence of open water is hypothesized to reduce predation risk by affording a quick escape through water (Bergerud 1996). In the Boreal Shield Ecozone, caribou cows also select mature open
conifer on shorelines and peninsulas of large lakes and shorelines of Islands in large lakes for calving habitat.

During the rutting season, boreal caribou congregate in small groups in open peatlands or open mature or young conifer forests. In winter, caribou forage in mature open conifer forests and treed peatlands. Where large lakes occur, caribou forage along the shoreline and use the frozen lakes to escape from predators. In severe winters, caribou may select dense oldgrowth conifer forests where snow depths are lower than in open conifer forests. In regions where snow conditions are severe, such as the Taiga Shield, caribou form groups to crater for terrestrial lichens, graminoids or equisetum. Where snow depth and hardness exceed the ability of caribou to crater through the snow, caribou seek glacial erratics or windswept areas to find lichens.

Caribou generally avoid shrub-rich habitats, disturbed or fragmented areas, hardwooddominated or mixed stands and edge habitat that may support higher alternative prey populations, and consequently, higher predator populations.

Boreal caribou evolved an adaptation to dynamic forest ecosystem conditions in which forest fire is the dominant cause of habitat disturbance and renewal. Forest fi res vary in frequency and magnitude throughout the boreal forest of Canada, and boreal caribou populations shift their range over time in response to fi re-induced changes in habitat quality. Consequently, boreal caribou require relatively large ranges to compensate for portions of the range in early seral stages.

Boreal caribou require habitat conditions that allow them to meet their life history requirements, such as adequate forage quality and quantity to allow breeding and recruitment of calves and large enough tracts of preferred habitat to allow spatial separation from predators and alternative prey throughout the year. Travel corridors linking seasonal habitats fulfi ll a potentially critical function in reducing risk of predation for boreal caribou during times of increased movement and travel corridors between population ranges may allow for demographic rescue of small populations by providing a source of immigrants.

Although caribou may select certain habitat types within their range to meet specifi c seasonal requirements, habitat conditions over their entire range impact the viability of boreal caribou populations. The habitat conditions within the matrix habitat beyond the core caribou habitat may have signifi cant impacts on the risk of predation to boreal caribou. Consequently, although special management practices may be required to protect or perpetuate seasonal foraging habitats, calving habitats, and migration corridors, it is also important to manage the surrounding habitats to reduce the risk of predation, even if the caribou rarely or never "use" those habitats.

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