Climate-informed Forecasts Reveal Dramatic Local Habitat Shifts and Population Uncertainty for Northern Boreal Caribou

Frances Stewart
Tatiane Micheletti
Steven Cumming
Ceres Barros
Alex Chubaty
Amanda Dookie
Isabelle Duclos
Ian Eddy
Samuel Haché
James Hodson
Josie Hughes
Cheryl Johnson
Mathieu Leblond
Fiona Schmiegelow
Junior Tremblay
Eliot McIntire
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Most research on boreal populations of Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) has been conducted in areas of high anthropogenic disturbance. However, a large portion of the species’ range overlaps relatively pristine areas primarily disturbed by natural disturbances, such as wildfire. Climate-driven habitat change is a key concern for the conservation of boreal-dependent species, where management decisions have yet to consider knowledge from multiple ecological domains integrated into a cohesive and spatially explicit forecast of species-specific habitat and demography. We used a novel ecological forecasting framework to provide climate-sensitive projections of habitat and demography for five boreal caribou monitoring areas within the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada, over 90 years. Importantly, we quantify uncertainty around forecasted mean values. Our results suggest habitat suitability may increase in central and southwest regions of the NWT's Taiga Plains ecozone but decrease in southern and northwestern regions driven by conversion of coniferous to deciduous forests. We do not project boreal caribou population growth rates to change despite forecasted changes to habitat suitability. Our results emphasize the importance of efforts to protect and restore northern boreal caribou habitat despite climate uncertainty while highlighting expected spatial variations that are important considerations for local people who rely on them. An ability to reproduce previous work, and critical thought when incorporating sources of uncertainty, will be important to refine forecasts, derive management decisions, and improve conservation efficacy for northern species at risk.