End of the Road: Short-term Responses of a Large Mammal Community to Forest Road Decommissioning

Rebecca Lacerte
Mathieu Leblond
Martin-Hugues St-Laurent
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Anthropogenic disturbances are increasing worldwide, causing wildlife habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation. In Canada, the decommissioning of linear anthropogenic structures is identified as a promising tool to restore the habitat of threatened populations of boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) by reducing food availability for alternate prey and decreasing encounter probabilities with predators. In this study, we monitored the use of 40 km of decommissioned forest roads by caribou, gray wolves (Canis lupus), black bears (Ursus americanus), and moose (Alces americanus) 1–3 years after reclamation, using 232 motion-activated camera traps. We compared four additive treatments (meaning that each successive treatment included the treatment prior): closing the road to human access, decompacting its soil, planting black spruce (Picea mariana) trees, and adding enriched soil. We assessed the influence of treatments, use by other large mammals, and characteristics of the surrounding environment on road use by the four species. Caribou used the planted treatment (which also included closing and decompacting) more than the closed-only (reference) treatment, but treatments did not influence the use of decommissioned roads by bears and moose. We could not assess the use of treated roads by wolves because of low sample size. Road use by caribou declined with local moose density, but increased with local bear density. Caribou were observed more frequently on roads surrounded by regenerating and mature coniferous stands; caribou also preferentially used roads surrounded by wetlands. Our results suggest that the treatment combining road closure, soil decompaction, and tree planting could be beneficial to caribou, highlighting the relevance of including active restoration efforts in caribou conservation programs. We recommend that such a treatment be added to road decommissioning protocols for the conservation of caribou, alongside broad-scale habitat protection.