Habitat Loss Accelerates for the Endangered Woodland Caribou in Western Canada

Mariana Nagy-Reis
Melanie Dickie
Anna Calvert
Mark Hebblewhite
Dave Hervieux
Dale Seip
Sophie L. Gilbert
Oscar Venter
Craig DeMars
Stan Boutin
Robert Serrouya
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Habitat loss is often the ultimate cause of species endangerment and is also a leading factor inhibiting species recovery. For this reason, species-at-risk legislation, policies and plans typically focus on habitat conservation and restoration as mechanisms for recovery. To assess the effectiveness of these instruments in decelerating habitat loss, we evaluated spatiotemporal habitat changes for an iconic endangered species, woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). We quantified changes in forest cover, a key proxy of caribou habitat, for all caribou subpopulations in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Despite efforts under federal and provincial recovery plans, and requirements listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act, caribou subpopulations lost twice as much habitat as they gained during a 12-year period (2000– 2012). Drivers of habitat loss varied by ecotype, with Boreal and Northern Mountain caribou affected most by forest fire and Southern Mountain caribou affected more by forest harvest. Our case study emphasizes critical gaps between recovery planning and habitat management actions, which are a core expectation under most species-at-risk legislation. Loss of caribou habitat from 2000 to 2018 has accelerated. Linear features within caribou ranges have also increased over time, particularly seismic lines within Boreal caribou ranges, and we estimated that only 5% of seismic lines have functionally regenerated. Our findings support the idea that short-term recovery actions such as predator reductions and translocations will likely just delay caribou extinction in the absence of well-considered habitat management. Given the magnitude of ongoing habitat change, it is clear that unless the cumulative impacts of land uses are effectively addressed through planning and management actions that consider anthropogenic and natural disturbances, we will fail to achieve self-sustaining woodland caribou populations across much of North America.