White-tailed Deer Distribution and Density in Alberta’s Boreal Forest

Jason T Fisher, PhD, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures
GL 13-AU-ERPC-07

Alberta’s woodland caribou populations are declining, and wolf predation is considered a primary cause (Wittmer et al. 2005). Predation increases where seismic line density is high (ASRD 2010), so mitigation and reclamation of linear features is being undertaken to reduce this effect. These costs are borne by industry, and these activities may not be effective alone. High densities wolf alternate prey, such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), may increase wolf abundance and caribou predation rates (e.g. Seip 1992), potentially amplifying the effect of seismic line density.

White-tailed deer are increasing in numbers and range in Alberta’s northeast boreal forest (Dawe 2011), with potentially severe ecological ramifications for Threatened woodland caribou. Elevated wolf densities have changed wolf-caribou dynamics (Latham et al. 2011) by increasing predation, and caribou mortality. Recovery of woodland caribou in areas of oil and gas activity may necessitate alternative deer management, which requires detailed information on deer density and distribution. However, although we can predict spatial patterns of white-tailed deer expansion (Dawe 2011), we have limited real information on deer distribution and densities within the expansion zone. Our goal is to determine white-tailed deer abundance and densities in Alberta’s northeast boreal forest.

Deer density is usually estimated from aerial surveys, but these are uniquely challenged in the boreal. Dense canopies and different sightability among habitats make aerial surveys very imprecise. Obtaining robust estimates of deer densities in this ecosystem requires the application of new techniques. We will apply a novel statistical approach that uses a combination of satellite telemetry data from white-tailed deer and presence-absence data from infrared remote cameras surveys, to estimate deer density and habitat selection in the vicinity of the East Side Athabasca River (ESAR; a.k.a Christina) caribou herd. By linking habitat selection and movement rates from satellite collars with deer occupancy estimates from cameras, we will estimate deer density; provide an inexpensive, camera-based method to monitor boreal deer populations; and model deer density expansion across the boreal, building on past research. If deer densities can be sufficiently managed to reduce wolf density, then predation on caribou may be eased and the effect of seismic line densities may be ameliorated. This two-prong approach of seismic and deer management may reduce costs and improving environmental performance.

Policy Issue
The effectiveness of mitigation activities. The oil and gas industry is committed to mitigating negative environmental impacts wherever possible. Mitigation specifically refers to measures identified to avoid, minimize or remedy impacts to, in this case, natural resources. These mitigation measures ideally lead to practical action to offset the adverse environmental impacts of oil and gas activity, however it is important that they be tested and proven to be effective in meeting their objective.

Knowledge Gap
Wildlife (particularly ungulates and predators) use of seismic lines and other linear features

2013 Report

2012 Report

2012 Presentation

2013 Presentation

2014 Presentation

2015 Presentation