Tsay Keh Dene Lead Caribou Project to Re-Grow Lichen
Imagine if a wildfire burned through your local grocery stores and wiped out your food supply for decades.
In 2014, that’s what happened to Northern Caribou in the Chase herd when two significant wildfires wiped out large portions of high value pine lichen habitat. The fires eliminated the primary winter food source for these at-risk ungulates of special concern. The size and location of the fires contribute to the declining condition of winter range when added to industrial pressures, and migration barriers that also reduce available winter forage for the Chase Northern Mountain Caribou herd.
It’s true that wildfires are a natural part of maintaining the productivity of an ecosystem. But certain lichen species can take 60 years to regrow and establish. A reduced amount of lichen puts further stress on this at-risk species.
That’s when Chu Cho Environmental, in collaboration with the Tsay Keh Dene Lands, Resources and Treaty Operations, and the Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations put together a plan, with funding from the FWCP and the Society for Ecosystem Restoration in North Central British Columbia, to help the vulnerable caribou herd.
“We believe we can accelerate the natural process for lichen regeneration in the area by transplanting terrestrial lichen to the site, overcoming dispersal restraints that would otherwise lead to a slower process of lichen establishment within the burned area,” said Sean Rapai of Chu Cho Environmental.
Using more than 3,000 litres of lichen gathered by hand near Wittisichica Creek, the team set out to fast-track lichen re-growth. The Tsay Keh Dene Lands Resource and Treaty Operations department donated employees to the program who lent a hand, literally. They helped spread a mix of lichen fragments and lichen mats across 80 test plots near Chase Provincial Park along the Mesilinka River in July 2016. The plots will be monitored, and while it’s too early to know how effective this approach will be, the study team is optimistic.
“It’s important to try new approaches and then share the results with others so we can make informed decisions about conservation and enhancement,” says Duncan McColl of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
Northern Mountain Caribou Post-Fire Habitat Restoration
The northern mountain population of Woodland Caribou is listed as threatened in B.C. One reason for the decline of this species is the reduction or alteration of critical habitat. Northern Caribou are specialists that require mature upland habitat with an abundance of terrestrial lichen. These lichen serve as a critical food source in the winter. The goal of this project is to restore terrestrial lichen populations in the area of the Chase herd that was burned by wildfire in 2014, with the intention to seed forage lichen in the burned region. This work will enable lichen to colonize areas that are distant from source populations and accelerate the return of the region to high-quality caribou winter range.
The primary goal of the restoration program is to restore high-quality northern Mountain Caribou winter habitat for the Chase and (to a lesser degree) Finlay herd. Fire, industrial pressures and migration barriers have severely reduced the area available to these herds for winter forage. Lichen succession in the burned area is dispersal limited, and transplanting viable lichen propagules to the burned area is expected to accelerate the natural succession process. Natural colonization by lichen is expected to take 40-70 years, and based on the literature, seeding lichen could restore high-quality caribou winter habitat in 20 years. When compared to the closure and planting plans developed for the mining and forestry industries, 20 years is well within the accepted expectations for returning an area to high-quality wildlife habitat.
The Northern Mountain Caribou Post Fire Habitat Restoration Program was initiated in 2014 by Tsay Keh Dene Nation. The program is a partnership between Tsay Keh Dene Lands, Resources and Treaty Operations, Chu Cho Environmental and the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
One reason for the population decline of northern mountain caribou is the alteration of critical habitat (B.C. Conservation Data Centre, 2016 a). Northern mountain caribou are specialists, relying on pine – lichen habitats for forage during the winter months (Cichowski, 1993; B.C. Conservation Data Centre, 2016a). In 2014, the Mesilinka wild-fire eliminated a large portion of high value pine lichen habitat for the Chase herd. The intensity of this fire, coupled with industrial pressures and pine beetle kill has reduced the winter forage for the Chase herd. It is expected that it could take 40 – 70 years for the burned area to become productive lichen habitat naturally (Carroll and Bliss, 1982; Thomas et al., 1996; Dunford et al., 2006). Following a review of the available literature, our team concluded that seeding the area with lichen fragments and colonies could accelerate the return of the area to a productive lichen habitat in as little as 20 years (Crittenden, 1999; Duncan, 2015). The expectation is that the seeded fragments will provide a source lichen populations for the larger burned area.
Click the provincial database link below to read the full report for this project.