Humans, not wolves, are behind declining caribou populations in Alberta's oilsands region, an analysis of animal feces shows.

The same research also found there may be many more caribou in the region than previously thought, meaning there may still be time for industry to change how it does business without resorting to wolf culls to protect the herds.

"Nobody is denying that the trend in caribou decline is alarming," said University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser, lead author of a paper published Wednesday in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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DNA in the feces suggest there were about 330 caribou in Alberta's oilsands region, more than double the government's population estimate of 150.

"While we still think we need to do something now, we think that there's a little bit more time than some people have been advocating."  

Caribou in the oilsands are considered a threatened species and have been in decline for decades. Balancing oilsands development and healthy herds has proved to be a tough act for the provincial government, which is still trying to develop a caribou policy for the area.

Some scientists have predicted caribou will be gone within 30 years, suggesting the desperate measure of a wolf cull could be the only way to preserve them. Alberta does cull wolves to protect caribou, but not in the oilsands area.

Upcoming interview

Sam Wasser talks to Quirks & Quarks on Saturday, June 25 at noon on CBC Radio One.

In 2006, Wasser and his team were brought in by oilsands leasee North American Oil Sands to look for answers. Their research continued when the lease was sold to Norway-based Statoil, which has so far spent about $500,000 on Wasser's work.

Using dogs trained to sniff out caribou, wolf, moose and deer droppings, scientists eventually found about 2,000 samples and carefully marked when and where each was found. Those samples were carefully analyzed for chemicals that revealed how the animal was feeling at that moment.

Animals under stress produce hormones that show up almost right away in their feces. Feces can also reveal how well-nourished an animal is. DNA contained in the material can even identify — and count  individual animals.

Population higher than thought

After four winters of sampling, the researchers concluded that there seem to be a lot more caribou than previously thought.

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Biologist Samuel Wasser and his team were brought in by oilsands leasee North American Oil Sands, and their research continued when the lease was sold to Norway-based Statoil. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Government estimates put the number in the area at about 150; DNA in the feces suggest there were about 330 animals. Nor did that number change during the study period.

They also found that about 80 per cent of the wolf diet was deer, with only about 11 per cent from caribou. Wolves even seek out deer in preference to caribou.

And once they started analyzing scat for stress hormones, they found what really bugged caribou was people. Stress increased the closer the animals got to busy roads and also during times when humans were nearby.

Caribou — unlike moose and deer — are so skittish they'd rather hang out somewhere where the food isn't as plentiful if it's further from human impact, Wasser concluded.

Court battle

Environmental groups are seeking a court order to protect caribou herds from oilsands development in northeastern Alberta.

Ecojustice was in Federal Court in Edmonton Wednesday on behalf of the Pembina Institute and the Alberta Wilderness Association, seeking an order that would force Environment Minister Peter Kent to recommend emergency protection of the caribou. The hearing was scheduled to continue Thursday.

The groups said in a news release that there are 34 approved oilsands projects and 12 proposed projects within the herds’ ranges.

Previous studies have linked human disturbance and caribou declines before. One study released Monday found that, on average, about 75 per cent of the caribou range in the oilsands area is disrupted either by industry or forest fires.

Wasser found, however, that caribou didn't care so much about the road or the wellsite itself. What they cared about was how close it was and how busy it was.

"Psychological stress was highest and nutrition poorest when humans were most active in the landscape, but caribou recovered when oil crews left the area," the report says.

That leaves plenty of avenues for humans to change their ways, said Wasser.

Roads should avoid grassy areas: scientist

Now, crews tend to build roads through open, grassy areas because that's where it's easiest. But those areas, which provide a clear view of approaching predators, are places caribou like as well.

Wasser said roads could be built to avoid those areas.   

"It's not the (industrial) footprint, it's the use of that footprint," he said.

Hoping to encourage caribou by shooting wolves won't work — and might even hurt them by boosting deer numbers and forcing them to encroach on caribou habitat.

"That is really a bad way to approach the situation," said Wasser.