The Saskatchewan Government has approved $200,000 for part of the research on woodland caribou that needs to be done to meet federal habitat protection plan requirements set five years ago. 

Woodland caribou are listed as a threatened species under the federal Species At Risk Act. In 2012, the Government of Canada gave provinces five years to develop a strategy to combat the decline. As of the deadline last fall, none had delivered a plan, and woodland caribou populations are still declining.

The Saskatchewan government posted a draft range plan for the boreal plain ecozone online for the public to review. The 60-day comment period for the range plan closed on Dec. 29. 

The $200,000 covers the cost of using helicopters and planes to survey 16,000 square kilometres where the caribou are active.

"You can imagine trying to do that," said Gigi Pittoello, a habitat ecologist with the Fish, Wildlife and Lands Branch of Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment.

"It can't be done on the ground, so we have a flight crew that goes and looks for these activity sites."

'The potential is there that the population in this area is not doing as well as we like.' - Gigi Pittoello, habitat ecologist 

The researchers don't have to see the animals themselves; caribou leave marks on the land that researchers recognize.

Once they've pinpointed the locations, the researchers send crews out on the ground to collect samples that will allow them to determine how many caribou there are, what areas they're using and whether their population is stable, increasing or decreasing.

"We like using this method because it's non-invasive so we don't have any effect on the caribou themselves," said Pittoello.

"We aren't interfering with them in any way and yet it gives us some really good information about their populations and status."

Out-of-date information

Determining the range of the caribou will help direct the activities the province and industry will take in the future.

"It kind of gives us a baseline of measurement so as we move into the future we'll understand what changes have happened."

Right now, the information they have about the caribou populations in Saskatchewan is out of date. The survey will help update that information.

This project is only for a portion of the province's caribou habitat. They'll be doing other portions in the future as funding is available.

"The potential is there that the population in this area is not doing as well as we like, and that's why we need to go out and collect this information, to get a better understanding."

Northern caribou stable

They do have good news from the boreal shield area of the province, which is further north: The caribou population in that area appears to be stable.

"We have a lot less human-caused disturbance in that landscape."

The end goal is to come up with a plan that will allow the province to maintain the caribou population and still allow for development.

"We have actually identified some areas that are pretty key for caribou, and we would like to see less development in those areas than some of the other areas that are available."