Figure 1: The numbers of the once-mighty woodland caribou, whose herds once thundered across the North, are dwindling fast. Image © Conseil de la Première Nation des Innus Essipit
Canada is home to the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystem remaining on planet Earth: the boreal forest. The people of the Essipit Innu First Nation have lived in the southern fringe of that vast forest in the province we now call Québec—part of which the Innu call Nitassinan, or “our land”—since time immemorial. Bordered by the mighty St. Lawrence River to the southeast, Essipit is well known today for their whale-watching excursions. However, their ties with the boreal forest and its animals, especially the caribou, run deep.
Working together with researchers from Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Université du Québec à Rimouski, the Essipit Innu First Nation led an ecological restoration project that helped advance environmental science and caribou habitat conservation. As wild animal populations decline the world over, such types of efforts are key in helping prevent further losses—and increasing knowledge about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conservation.
To thrive, caribou, like all wild animals, need a space where they can find food and resources to support their survival and reproduction. In other words, their habitat. For woodland caribou, the type of caribou found in Canada’s boreal forest and that is threatened across much of its range, their habitat quality is worsening with each passing year. Logging and resource extraction are the principal causes. The impact of access roads alone is substantial. Just in Quebec, there are 476,000 kilometers of forestry roads: a distance equal to encircling the planet 12 times! These roads affect caribou habitat in many ways, including thinning out the forest (reducing vegetation density), dividing vast stretches of land into smaller patches (also known as habitat fragmentation), and increasing the presence of predators.
Figure 2: A woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) photographed by one of the study’s motion-sensitive cameras. Notice the mossy ground and the spruce and fir trees. This type of boreal forest is prime caribou habitat, a perfect place to find the lichen and other tough, scrubby plants they favour as food. Image © Conseil de la Première Nation des Innus Essipit.
Of central importance in caribou conservation is protecting their natural habitat. But when the damage has already been done, as with the cutting of forest to build access roads, there is another option: to actively restore and regenerate the damaged land. Restoration ecology is a relatively new field and there’s not a lot of data on the success rate of different practices. In Canada, most of the research has been out west where the restoration of “seismic lines” (the access paths to oil and gas exploration and extraction sites) has been studied extensively. In Eastern Canada, which has far less oil and gas, forestry roads are the dominant type of linear disturbance in the landscape. Given their abundance, such roads are important avenues for exploring how to help endangered or threatened caribou populations recover their numbers.
In Nitassinan, the Essipit Innu First Nation has been working for many years with Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk. The mission to protect the caribou on Innu lands has given rise to the Caribou Collective project (link French only). The core activities of the project occurred within the Akumunan biodiversity reserve (see map below for location).
Figure 3: Study area in the biodiversity reserve Akumunan, located northeast of the Saguenay River in Quebec, Canada in Nitassinan, the traditional homeland of the Innu Essipit. Forty kilometers of roads were decommissioned to restore boreal woodland caribou habitat (SOURCE: Lacerte, R., Leblond, M., & St-Laurent, M.-H. (2021)).
Signifying “haven” in the Innu language because of the aim to provide safe haven for the caribou, Akumunan was officially declared a provincial biodiversity reserve in 2020. Since then, all industrial resource extraction has been prohibited—but the land is still recovering because a quarter of the area was logged between 1968 and 2013. So, when Essipit was revising their strategic priorities a few years ago, they knew it would be beneficial for their community as well as the woodland caribou to decommission and rewild the forestry roads that criss-cross Akumunan. As Marc St. Onge from the Innu Essipit First Nation Council said, “This was a great opportunity to share both local, community knowledge and scientific knowledge to find and elaborate solutions for caribou habitat conservation.”
Dialogue between scientists and local knowledge holders is key because the environment does not always react as one might expect. For example, leaving the forest alone after disturbance does not necessarily lead to optimal conservation outcomes for caribou. This is because once cut, boreal forest—think about a landscape dominated by spruce and fir with a lot of squishy, boggy ground—does not always automatically grow back to what it was. Often, the new forest is shrubbier and leafier—featuring blueberries and bushes as well as birch and other broadleaf trees. This situation is worsened when the land is not just cleared, but also made into a 15- to 30-meter-wide forestry road by mechanically compacting the ground and hauling in tonnes of sand to cover it. When such roads are left alone to revert back to nature, there are fewer coniferous trees (spruce and fir) and there are often more moose, bears, and wolves. Those last two species prey upon caribou and their calves. Restoring old forestry roads in the boreal forest into prime caribou habitat, then, would require a more active intervention so as to foster a habitat better suited to their needs.
To do so, the Essipit band council put into place a series of experimental treatments along decommissioned forestry roads. They were as follows: A) Roads were closed to traffic and then left alone; B) Roads were closed and then mechanically decompacted by digging up the ground with an excavator; C) Roads were closed, decompacted, and black spruce seedlings were planted; and finally D) Roads were closed, decompacted, planted with spruce, and then seedlings were fertilized with enriched soil.
Figure 4: The four treatment types along decommissioned forestry roads. (SOURCE: Lacerte, R., Leblond, M., & St-Laurent, M.-H. (2021)).
The treatments were performed along 40km of closed roads and data was collected for two summers from motion-activated cameras. In all, 160 cameras were set up along the treated roads and 70 in adjacent forests to catalogue the presence of caribou and their predators. Braving incessant clouds of black flies while getting to breathe in the fresh, crisp air of the boreal forest were some of the rewards for the work. However, the most important reward of all for scientists was good, reliable data.
This is where Environment and Climate Change Canada research scientist Mathieu Leblond and his colleagues Martin-Hugues St-Laurent and Rebecca Lacerte at Université du Québec à Rimouski came in, to help with data analysis and statistics. The researchers found that the treatment of closed roads, decompacted soil and planting black spruce was associated with the most caribou sightings. Adding fertilized soil as was done in the fourth treatment option, however, turned out to be less useful than expected. Leafier plants took advantage of the extra nutrients and pushed out the spruce, thereby attracting more moose and bears.
Overall, the project was win-win for the Innu and the scientists. Together, they achieved the desired outcome of restoring land and improving caribou habitat. They also contributed to generating better scientific knowledge about ecological restoration practices for Eastern Canada. Finally, the Essipit Innu First Nation now has a more robust set of baseline data to assess the success of their restoration practices over the long term. The results of the study were published in the journal, Restoration Ecology, as well as in a forthcoming article in the Journal for Nature Conservation.
Restoration ecology is an increasingly important activity to combat biodiversity loss in all regions. As Mathieu Leblond, the study’s co-author, said: “We’re past asking questions about how things are going for the woodland caribou. The situation is very bad and we know it’s caused by humans. Now we need to find solutions.” Through Indigenous-led restoration and conservation working in partnership with scientific researchers, we now have more evidence of what works best to regenerate caribou habitat in Eastern Canada’s boreal forest. Given the ongoing and unprecedented levels of biodiversity loss the world over, such collaborations are of utmost importance in protecting plants and animals from endangerment.