This week I had the opportunity to tag along with the Government of Alberta's Caribou team to pick up fecal samples in the Red-Rock/Prairie Creek herd near Grande Cache.
It was my first time doing surveys by helicopter so this was a pretty exciting moment for me! Our task was to complete 37 transect lines along the caribou range in search of cratering sites, which are pits in the snow that caribou dig to find food.
We flew with Gemini Heli and our pilot Shane was great - he thought I might be sick since I'm prone to motion sickness so he took extra care to fly smoothly over the ridges. Thankfully, I didn't get sick but I did have 2 gravol in my system.
We had two teams fly over the transects, one starting at either end. Our team flew over the Willmore Wildnerness with steep slopes and valley bottoms, where the other team started in the more disturbed foothills region.
On day 1 we flew most of the day without landing, circling spots where we identified tracks from the air to determine if they were caribou or moose tracks. Moose generally travel along the valley bottoms and can be identified by the length of their stride, absence of cratering, presence of bedding prints, and single or double tracks. Caribou in comparison tend to occur in larger group sizes and on top of ridges with lots of cratering. We saw several moose and 8 mountain goats but no caribou.
On day 2 we were closer to the core of the caribou range, moving away from the tallest ridges. We found a group of 10 caribou and later a group of 8! We were able to land at these sites as the caribou moved off the cratered areas and collected samples. We used whirl packs and tongue compressors to scoop poop, leaving the tongue compressors behind to mark samples we had already collected. For every caribou, we need to collect 1.5 samples. For example, we collected over 15 samples for 10 individuals. These fecal samples will be analyzed for the DNA on the surface of the poop to identify individuals, and ultimately estimates for the population.
On day 3 we finished off in the disturbed part of the range as we were weathered out of the mountains. No caribou this time, but plenty of moose, bighorn sheep, and elk.
I had a great time on these surveys not only because of the scenery and pristine wilderness, but because I could see first-hand the habitat that caribou live in and the extreme contrast between in-tact and disturbed boreal forest. This experience allowed me to visualize the impact that industrial activity has on this majectic species, and provided me with a more personal connection to the individuals that I model in GIS every day with fRI Research.