Caribou are one of Canada’s most recognizable national symbols, but their populations are under threat in Alberta for a number of reasons, including the effects of industrial development on habitat, the effects of global warming and because they’re increasingly being hunted by wolves, which have grown in population and range in response to larger numbers of deer and moose, their primary prey.
Oil sands companies are now collaborating to restore caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta. During oil and gas exploration activities over the past decades, fragmentation occurred in the boreal forest as corridors were cut for seismic exploration and access routes for exploration drilling. In recent years, there have been ongoing improvements in exploration and restoration techniques that have allowed oil and gas producers to minimize disturbance and achieve faster recovery of the forest. However, for older linear corridors under passive regeneration, return to forest cover has been very slow and unpredictable; many of these open corridors have not returned to forest cover on their own. Long open stretches within the boreal forest create ideal habitat for deer and moose and make it easier for wolves to hunt their prey, including caribou. This reduces the area’s ability to sustain caribou.
Three major COSIA initiatives address legacy linear disturbances and return the boreal forest to high quality caribou habitat. The first major projects were the Algar Historic Restoration Project (Algar) and the Linear Deactivation Project (LiDea), both aimed at rehabilitating seismic lines. Although the two projects involve different approaches and methodologies, they both share learnings across the COSIA companies as the projects progress and results are monitored.
The third initiative is the Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project, which benefits from the learnings of earlier projects and expands habitat restoration to the landscape scale. This is the largest single area of caribou habitat restoration work undertaken by any company anywhere in the world. The Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project is collaborative and has benefitted from the participation of a number of COSIA members.
The Algar Project takes an integrated regional approach, with six companies working together to repair fragmented habitat across an area of land outside of their actual license areas. The project includes a five-year program to replant trees and shrubs along the linear footprint within the Algar Region, covering an area approximately 570 square kilometers (km2) southwest of Fort McMurray. Several innovations are being tested in the Algar program. Since Algar consists largely of bogs and wetlands, planting was completed in the winter months using winter planting techniques successfully tested in 2011 in collaboration with the Government of Alberta and Grand Prairie Regional College.
In the winter of 2011, a collection of companies worked together with Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development and Grande Prairie Regional College to design a pilot project to plant black spruce seedlings in the middle of winter. Black spruce, a slow-growing tree indigenous to Alberta’s muskeg areas, has roots close to the surface so the species has evolved to the point where it can withstand low temperatures.
About 90 per cent of the 900 black spruce seedlings survived the winter wetland planting trial. Ninety per cent is considered a good survival rate under any planting condition so it was considered exceptional for a wetland planting program carried out in February with temperatures hovering between -17oC and -25oC, before dropping below -30oC. The planting trial took place at the Evergreen Centre for Resource Excellence & Innovation in Evergreen Park, near Grande Prairie, Alberta.
In addition to winter planting, other restoration techniques being tested in Algar include mounding, seeding, and coarse woody material placement. A wildlife monitoring program has been developed to track how the restoration work affects wildlife movement in the area. In planning for the replanting of historical forest disturbance, oil sands industry members worked with service providers traditionally linked to the forest industry to develop appropriate modelling tools to assist in creating the most efficient and effective planting schedules to reach the desired goal of improved caribou habitat.
The Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning (LEAP) tool was developed to establish a baseline of the various uses on the land, including recording types of vegetation, animal habitats, and human activities in the southern Lower Athabasca Region of Alberta. LEAP uses a combination of geospatial data and forest industry modelling techniques to create a multi-layered digital map that can be read in various combinations or altogether, similar to Google Earth. Due to its modelling ability, LEAP allows the Algar Restoration Project members to see how reclamation work undertaken today will affect reforestation and caribou habitat five, 10, 20 and even 50 years into the future.
If LEAP indicates that a disturbed area will benefit from additional re-vegetation efforts, decisions will be made now about planting those areas with trees, shrubs and other native vegetation. These plantings are then added into the LEAP program to provide a future view of reclamation results.
The original LEAP study area, which included some 32,455 square kilometres (km2), contains the East Side Athabasca River (ESAR) woodland caribou range and its seven herds. The process used for LEAP has been extended to the COSIA oil sands area of interest. The COSIA Land EPA is currently conducting a baseline of the various land uses as was completed for the original LEAP project.
Between 2013 and 2015, the LiDea Project used innovative techniques to restore some of the original characteristics of the forest to areas of linear disturbance. During the spring and summer, conifer seedlings were planted along older seismic lines using specially prepared mounds. The mounds protect the seedlings from invasive grasses, which could impair their growth, and from wet soil conditions that could lead to water-logged roots. LiDea also experimented with forest stand modification, which involves bending tree stems from the adjacent forest across the seismic line to create physical barriers and reduce sightlines along the linear corridor.
LiDea was designed to include rigorous monitoring and measurement throughout the life of the project. By the time the mechanical work of the pilot project was completed, linear features in about 370 square kilometres of caribou habitat located on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in northeastern Alberta had been treated. Two similar sized areas nearby served as reference areas where no treatment was undertaken. One reference area is relatively undisturbed habitat, while the other includes forest fragmentation similar to the treatment areas. With the pilot project now complete, vegetation and wildlife response in the treatment area are being measured and compared to data from the reference areas to gauge the effectiveness of the program.
Stand modification involves manipulating trees, so they encroach on the open seismic corridor more quickly to create barriers to movement. This is done by leaning trees on the edge of the corridor down into the open space, either by pushing or pulling them slightly to shift their roots. This allows the trees to grow up into the open area. The leaning trees create barriers to movement, obscure sightlines and moderate temperatures on the surface of the open corridor, all of which is intended to speed restoration of the disturbed area. Trees create important woody debris that emulates natural forest restoration by providing cover for small seedlings and animals and eventually decaying and returning nutrients to the soil.
The Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project was launched in 2016 on the Cold Lake caribou range. This is a voluntary $32 million, 10-year initiative intended to build on the success of LiDea. As a collaborative project that other COSIA members have participated in, the goal of the project is to treat approximately 3,500 linear kilometres of seismic lines, access roads and other linear features within an area of approximately 3,900 square kilometres. This project applies the learnings from previous COSIA projects at the scale of the herd range.
Planting trees to restore these historic seismic exploration corridors will lead to the conversion of low quality habitats that have been disturbed for almost 40 years, into higher quality habitats. As the trees fill in these disturbed areas, habitat connectivity will be restored to support species representative of the area. Tree planting also positively contributes to carbon sequestration.
Companies involved in Algar include: ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil Canada, Suncor and Total E&P Canada.
Cenovus developed the LiDea project, which is a contributed technology to COSIA’s Land EPA, and the Caribou Habitat Restoration Project. Fellow COSIA members Devon Canada, Imperial and Canadian Natural have contributed a portion of the funding for restoration work taking place in 2016.
Science developed from both Algar and LiDea is intended to be shared across COSIA member company participants in the Land EPA.