Woodland caribou are one of Canada’s most iconic animals. But today their populations are under threat. They face loss of habitat and are increasingly hunted by wolves, which travel along old man-made pathways that cross the northern landscape.
To help restore their habitat, Cenovus Energy is leading a $40-million project to reduce forest fragmentation in areas roamed by caribou. The company’s focus is on the Cold Lake region of northeastern Alberta, where its Foster Creek and Christina Lake oil sands projects are located.
“This is ultimately the largest caribou habitat restoration project being undertaken by any company anywhere in the world,” says Michael Cody, Cenovus Specialist, Environment.
By 2030, the company plans to treat 4,000 kilometres of “linear features” (that’s the name used to describe old corridors cut into the forest for seismic work, access roads, power lines and other activities – remnants from oil and gas activity, forestry and otherwise ). One of the goals is to reduce wolf travel along these routes.
The company has also committed to plant about five million trees to help restore the habitat caribou need to thrive. When the project is completed, this work will cover nearly half of the Cold Lake caribou range, Cody says.
For more than a decade, Cenovus has taken a strong leadership role on caribou protection—ever since Cody and others at Cenovus began to study the issue of caribou habitat loss in the boreal forest throughout the region.
“The decline in habitat has been connected with linear features that have been developed over the years and still remain on the landscape,” Cody explains. “This was something we wanted to address through ecological processes that would promote recovery of a healthy forest.”
From 2012 to 2015, the company carried out a pilot study to evaluate different recovery techniques. Sufficiently confident with the results, Cenovus committed to expand this applied research on a larger scale. They launched the $32-million Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project (later increased to $40 million) to restore land within caribou ranges impacted by industrial activity.
These efforts built on earlier work conducted through COSIA. At the same time, Cenovus opened up the new project to collaboration with other COSIA members.
Today, workers are carrying out a number of restoration techniques in the Cold Lake region to promote forest growth—cultivating ground, adding woody debris, and planting seedlings on mounds. They are also bending trees into the linear pathways. By closing in long open stretches, they hope to reduce the line of sight on linear features and make it harder for wolves and other predators to hunt caribou.
To date, Cenovus has treated more than 800 kilometres in this way and planted about one million trees. Cody says these efforts have already led to important results. “We are seeing faster, more predictable return of forest cover in these areas,” he says. “We also believe that predators and other wildlife are using linear features less, and when they do, they are moving more slowly on them.”