Caribou Research Logging Berland Smoky AB

Designing Cutblocks for Caribou

This is the second of two articles about clearcuts and cutblocks. Read Part 1 – The Purpose of a Clearcut

We consider many different habitats and wildlife needs when we map out our cutblocks and harvest areas. In our planning, we have a landscape-level approach, taking a wide look at how our activities may affect a large area. Our woods teams employ the best available science and current research to ensure the methods we use to manage forests at a landscape level are effective, while considering important cultural values, wildlife use, water and streamside areas, scenic spots, industrial activity, geography, forest health issues and zones of wildlife habitat.

Caribou grazing in AlbertaWe have to consider the needs and environments required for a wide variety of animals when planning for  sustainable forest management including : bugs, amphibians and fish, for birds, for ungulates such as moose and deer; and predators, like bears and wolves. It can be complex to talk about all of these at once. So to demonstrate how we address wildlife in our activities, we will be exploring here how our forest experts design harvesting cutblocks focusing in on just one species, the woodland caribou.

Looking at what choices our foresters make in planning, harvesting and reforestation activities specifically to address caribou is a way we can share with you how we implement scientific research and rigour in our day-to-day action and forest operations. A primary way we can plan for woodland caribou is through the size and placement of cutblocks in our operating area.

For instance, higher populations of moose, elk and deer can draw predators like wolves to caribou habitat, what biologists call the “apparent-competition effect”. Research about the preferred forest environments for moose, elk and deer is used to design certain cutblocks in a way that is less suitable for moose, elk and deer. We also retain areas of continuous and connected forest corridors for caribou to use, by ‘anchoring’ them to old forests and areas that provide access to caribou migration routes.

Linear features (straight lines on the landscape made for oil & gas exploration) and roads can fragment forests and act as access trails for all kinds of activity, from recreational adventures to predators. We look for opportunities to avoid road building in caribou corridors, collaborating with other industrial users of the forest land base to plan roads together, which mitigates the amount of road access. This collaboration helps to reduce the need to build new roads and make better use of existing access (aka “integrated land management,” see our Berland Smoky Region Award). We de-activate and reforest old and temporary roads made for harvesting and other linear features so that the young forest regrowth we plant will be more continuous with the surrounding forest.

From studying caribou movement patterns using GPS collars on wild caribou, we know that they use different parts of the forest. For example, a black spruce wetland may be vital during the calving season for pregnant cows. This habitat provides some protection by isolating them from predators during a vulnerable period.  We identify these wetland sites in our planning surveys and apply the GPS caribou location data into our planning software. This helps us to avoid crucial areas and create a better design for the protection of mom and baby calf.

Timing the season of our harvesting activity in a given location for a winter or a summer harvest is an important tactic as well. We can reduce the noise and equipment activity in their preferred habitat for that time of year and address access to food, as caribou choose different food sources in the summer than in the winter. 

In the winter, caribou prefer tall pine forests with lots of lichen to eat. This is their primary source of food and energy when the other plants are buried under the snow. When planning a harvest cutblock, we walk the area and scan the ground and trees for these important lichens. We have conducted decades of research trials to gather scientific data that helps us understand how to adjust our harvest strategies to increase lichen growth where we log. In these areas, a cutblock design will have many small and large patches left uncut, a tactic called retention. These retention patches in our logging sites host lichen sources to help promote quicker recovery of the caribou’s preferred winter food.  Lichen in these retention patches spreads more quickly to re-populate new lichen areas as the young forest grows up.

These are just a few of the approaches and operational choices we make to incorporate the needs of many species in our managed forest areas. Although these strategies cannot solve all the problems caribou are up against, West Fraser's primary goal is to operate in a way that supports the continued health of caribou, and all wildlife where we operate - we want to be a partner in supporting caribou recovery.  Our foresters work very hard to consider the needs of many forest species, and these considerations are an everyday part of our sustainable forest management and harvest planning operations for healthy wildlife habitats.