Tiny bugs in Quebec could be carrying clues about the future of some of the most iconic animals in Saskatchewan.
University of Saskatchewan Professor Philip McLoughlin is one of the authors of a new paper that found outbreaks of spruce budworms, which also appear in Saskatchewan, are impacting caribou populations.
"It's bound to also be a factor in other places, including possibly northern Saskatchewan," McLoughlin said.
Woodland Caribou have been listed under the Federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) since 2003. A 2019 study by the University of Saskatchewan's department of biology pegged their numbers provincially at around 4,000.
The study in Quebec found that budworm outbreaks can start a flush of vegetation that attracts moose, but also draws in wolves who will pick off caribou when given the chance, McLoughlin said.
There's fewer moose in Saskatchewan, but he suspects a very similar process can happen with deer.
"Almost all of (the caribou's) mortality from predation is due to wolves," he said. "Caribou are kind of in a tight spot. When you have more wolves on the landscape, they don't tend to persist."
Salvage logging — which applies to areas that have experienced damage from things like fires or insects — can magnify those problems, he said.
The practice "isn't as benign as we think," he said.
"If humans go ahead and log that area it magnifies the impacts to caribou, because it makes the habitat better for wolves to access (them)."
The province's 2019 caribou plan indicated "that much of the Saskatchewan woodland caribou population is at risk from landscape-level disturbance."
In the areas studied, the province found humans disturb about 19 per cent of high-potential habitats. It set a goal to leave roughly 80 per cent unaffected.
With a wildfire season in Saskatchewan that's more than doubled the five-year average, McLoughlin thinks it may be worth considering the impact on caribou when salvage logging burned areas.
There are other worries. An area of active research for McLoughlin is the possibility that the landscape changes he's studying could lead to crossover between caribou and deer afflicted with chronic wasting disease.
That can have serious repercussions for northern Saskatchewan as a doorstep to caribou ranges that stretch all the way to the Arctic, he said.
"If we lose caribou, we know that there's something that's tipped out of balance," he said. "And for the most part we can easily point our finger at ourselves."
Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix