Mapping a Future for Boreal Caribou

What is it like to study one of North America’s most elusive mammals? Meet wildlife ecologist Tyler Rudolph, whose boreal caribou research may help the threatened animal survive.

A caribou in Nunavut, Canada

Credit: Don Johnston/Alamy

For scientists studying a threatened species, transcendent experiences in nature are among the rewards of the job. Tyler Rudolph, a Canadian wildlife ecologist who has studied caribou for more than a decade, will never forget one of his earliest encounters with these magnificent animals. It was 2004, and he was surveying an important woodland caribou calving area, northwestern Ontario’s Trout Lake Conservation Reserve. Each year, female caribou travel to the secluded islands of this freshwater archipelago to give birth and rear their young.

Traveling by boat with an assistant on their way back to camp, Rudolph remembers, “we saw something moving in the water ahead. As we got closer, we realized there were four caribou” crossing a channel between two islands. “I turned off the motor, and we watched in wonder as they swam across our bow.” One by one, the enormous, graceful animals bounded up onto the shore and then disappeared into the woods. “We were thrilled,” Rudolph says. “It was really a gift for us to have experienced this.”

Rudolph with his son, Elliot, at the La Romaine river, along Quebec's North Shore
Credit: Courtesy Tyler Rudolph

Growing up in Manitoba, Rudolph developed a passion for the outdoors, landing a job as a tree planter in northwest Ontario after graduating from high school. “It was very hard work, but I was happy to be outside every day and experiencing the beauty and wonder of nature firsthand,” he says. That job led him to study forestry as a college undergraduate.

His first real taste of studying caribou came after university when he began work as an intern at Ontario’s Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. Within two years he had surveyed dozens of island environments used by the animals to raise their young. “A little light bulb started to come on,” says Rudolph. As he proceeded to analyze the data and read more scientific papers about caribou and forest dynamics, he discovered he had an affinity for the research.

So he made caribou the focus of his master of science degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, the city where he lives today. “It wasn’t until my second year into my master’s degree that I thought about the funny coincidence that my last name is Rudolph and I was studying caribou,” he says with a laugh.

Rudolph’s work focuses on boreal caribou, which live across Canada’s Boreal Shield Ecozone and rely on vast stretches of forest for their survival. They are elusive and highly sensitive to disturbances on the landscape, which makes them especially vulnerable to the growing presence of industrial activity—namely logging and oil and gas extraction. Boreal caribou now occupy just half of their historical Canadian habitat, according to a report by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. The animals are listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, and a 2012 scientific assessment by the government agency Environment Canada found that 37 of the nation’s 51 populations of boreal caribou had fallen below sustainable levels. The reason: habitat loss and fragmentation.

Rudolph readily admits that studying a rapidly disappearing and famously shy animal is a tricky proposition. “We call them phantoms of the forest,” he says. “They are very difficult to spot in nature because they’re so reclusive, and they’re very well camouflaged.” As a result, Rudolph became a skilled tracker looking for clues in the landscape. The most obvious one is trails. “If there's an area where they frequent, then you’re going to start to see well-worn paths pretty quickly,” he says. Caribou also have noticeable sleeping spots. “You can see where they have bedded down; you find their hair there, and sometimes you’ll find antler sheds.” Another clue is, of course, scat. “They eat a lot of lichen so it’s rather sweet smelling—not offensive at all.”

Lichen, an important food for the boreal caribou
Credit: Dany M./Flickr

Because boreal caribou survival is intricately tied to their habit, Rudolph has also spent a lot of time collecting information about the forest areas they frequent. “For example, it’s essential to know the age, density, and species composition of the forests that grow in these areas, and their proximity to roads and other linear features.”

Instead of living for weeks in the woods as he did early in his career, Rudolph now spends most of his time at a computer. “I have a young family, so this works well for me at the moment,” he says. His expertise centers on what scientists call applied conservation biology. “I analyze population and habitat data to understand how we can more effectively conserve caribou populations.” For example, he develops spatial models that predict where caribou are most likely to be found, based on their habitat preferences. “In areas such as these, special protection measures are warranted,” he says.

Much of the work he does is for provincial governmental agencies who have a mandate to develop boreal caribou conservation plans. Some of his recent efforts have focused on identifying and mapping large tracts of old-growth forest habitat in and around areas of industrial activity, to see whether they are still connected. "The objective is to maximize the connectivity of a caribou habitat network,” he says. “When habitats become disconnected, they can become unavailable to caribou. Animals that continue to use them may become isolated and run a greater risk of falling prey to wolves.”

Ultimately, Rudolph explains, his work helps government agencies determine exactly where they should be investing their limited restoration dollars in order to have the greatest benefit. And it’s an understatement to say that such investments are urgently needed. In 2017, only 19 of the 51 ranges were found to have 65 percent or greater undisturbed habitat (down from 21 in 2012). That means that the majority of caribou ranges do not meet the government requirement of undisturbed habitat. “Sixty-five percent is the minimum, but more is needed in certain cases,” Rudolph says.

Rudolph is quick to point out that helping caribou would have a broader impact. Boreal caribou are considered an umbrella species, which means that protecting and restoring their habitat would benefit other species also dependent on old forests. These include fishers, pine martens, and many species of birds. “When we ensure that boreal caribou have what they need in the landscape, then we’re also increasing the likelihood that many other species will have what they need as well,” Rudolph explains.

Caribou in the Broadback Valley, Quebec
Credit: (c) Gordon Welters/Greenpeace

But as with many large wildlife conservation efforts, Rudolph concedes that it’s not always easy to enact protections due to the various competing interests and demands on natural resources. He’s hoping that all the information he collects will help force better policies.

“We know more about caribou than virtually any other large mammal species in the boreal forest, and we know what actions are required if we’re to succeed in maintaining them,” he says. “Providing the best available tools and knowledge to make the best possible decisions—that’s what my job is. But it’s up to the decision makers to take the information I provide and do what is necessary to conserve boreal caribou for future generations.”

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