Sask. team works to understand rapid change in boreal forest

A caribou moves through the Algar region of northeastern Alberta in September 2017 in a handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of British Columbia-Cole Burton)

Change has come to the boreal forest — and a University of Saskatchewan research team is working to understand it.

Biology professor Philip McLoughlin and his team are looking at a swath of forest between Prince Albert and La Ronge, which is part of the Boreal Plains ecosystem stretching from eastern Manitoba to the foothills of Alberta.

"In particular, we have white-tailed deer moving deeper and deeper into the boreal forest, species like wild boar moving into the forest and fundamentally the ecosystem is changing. So we're tasked with this really difficult assignment of how to assess change, how to do that effectively, and then how to respond to some of the risks presented by change," McLoughlin told CTV News.

The deer are moving north partly due to milder winters and partly due to physical inroads humans have made into the forest with roads, trails and seismic lines, he said. In western Alberta, one part of the caribou range saw a 17-and-a-half-fold increase in white-tailed deer over around 15 years. That led to a much higher number of wolves and a decrease in caribou. In addition, researchers now know that white-tailed deer with chronic wasting disease are present in the caribou ranges in the Boreal Plains, he said.

That's important because Indigenous communities in that area and further north rely on moose and caribou for food and cultural practices, he said.

"And you look at this occurring across this really important ecozone, the boreal plains, what does this mean for how we use our forests? How we hunt there, what species can hunt there? And are there ways in which we can manage things better?

"So for example, right now, we have a policy in Alberta of wolf control, to promote caribou in some of these ranges. But we're asking the extent to which that is a good idea if one of the beneficiaries of wolf control is white-tailed deer and those white-tailed deer have chronic wasting disease."

To measure the deer, caribou, moose and wolf populations in a large area, his team is using a thermal drone camera attached to a plane that can cover about 1,000 square kilometres a day.

"This is a first at this scale for Canada, using some equipment that is one-of-a-kind in Canada, in fact, right now," McLoughlin said.

While many of the issues at play could be difficult to address, especially climate change-related issues, the team may be able to learn practical ways to mitigate the invasive deer and boar.

"I myself am a population ecologist. And so there's always a lot of math involved in understanding how populations work and predator-prey dynamics. So out of an academic curiosity point of view, I just love to understand how systems work, how complex population dynamics might work, the mechanics behind them. That's where I'm quite excited.

"I work on a number of systems. And this, the western boreal because of the change that's happening, was a very interesting system for me to study."

The team is working with other departments, other universities and Indigenous groups, he said, giving special credit to Coun. Chris Gareau of The Key First Nation.