We don’t share the message often enough. In fact, it happens so often we barely give credit. Oil and gas companies like Bellatrix Exploration Ltd. (Bellatrix) make decisions every day to protect wildlife and their habitat. At Gen7 Environmental Solutions (Gen7), we were fortunate to experience these efforts first hand this summer.
While assessing the environmental suitability of a proposed natural gas well site for Bellatrix, the Gen7 field crew encountered a prey cache. The cache consisted of a pile of leaves, branches, and other woody debris piled up. The deer legs sticking out haphazardly from the pile was what gave it away. When the crew called and sent a photo, there was no question it was a prey cache. We automatically assumed it belonged to a cougar as they’re the only carnivore that would cache a white-tailed deer, right? Apparently not. Our two most field-savvy personnel at Gen7 identified it as a grizzly bear cache after seeing the photos. Of course, a friendly bet across the office ensued.
In Alberta, both grizzly bears and cougars are known to most commonly prey on deer. More often than not, they find their prey in forested areas and cache the kill close to forest edges in high cover areas (Cristescu et al 2014, Knopff 2010). Caching by both predator species is believed to be mainly to avoid being found by scavengers (Cristescu et al 2014, Knopff 2010).
When the field crew came upon the cache, they just finished collecting a wildlife camera previously set up to look at a small mammal burrow. The burrow was found near the proposed padsite during a previous field visit, and appeared active. Bellatix wanted to ensure a sufficient buffer was provided depending on the species and status. It turned out that the burrow was simply a food cache belonging to a groundhog. This meant that the field crew had on hand a wildlife camera that could be set up to monitor the prey cache to determine the predator species it belonged to: a cougar or grizzly bear!
Although we all eagerly anticipated the photos of the cache we agreed with Bellatrix that providing sufficient time for the predator to conclude its business was absolutely necessary for the safety of the predator, and for ours. Before continuing with the assessment of the site we gave the predator space to finish eating its kill. This avoided any potential wildlife-human conflicts, which makes it safer for everyone (and everything) involved.
Grizzly bears take an average of 24 hours to consume prey from a cache (Cristescu et al 2014), whereas cougar consumption of a kill usually takes several days (Naughton 2012). We identified the cache during the day on June 12 and did not return until June 26. At that time, there was absolutely no indication that a cache was present at all. But that’s not what the photos on the wildlife camera showed!
A cougar visited the cache once on June 13, 2018 just after 7 AM, and once again on June 15, 2018 at 7:50 pm. It isn’t exactly clear in the photos, but the cougar appears to pick up and take away an ungulate leg during each visit. The length of visit was only a couple of minutes each time. The cougar did not revisit the site after June 15, 2018; obviously the time we afforded the cougar to finish his meal was enough!
This is not the first time that Bellatrix has adjusted plans to avoid impacts to wildlife. In 2015, Bellatrix voluntarily cancelled an approved padsite because an occupied bear den was observed about 115 m away from the construction site (even though the prescribed buffer is only 100 m). Interestingly, a little over two years later that den was entirely lost due to natural weather conditions. The dead tree adjacent to the den fell over, and half of the den went with it.
We are lucky to have careers where we get to spend time outside. It is easy to forget that we encounter forests and wildlife every day, because our focus is on completing jobs associated with industrial development. The little things that companies like Bellatrix do every day go above and beyond regulatory requirements. Their actions truly benefit the wildlife and communities they work in. It took Christyann Olson, Executive Director of the Alberta Wilderness Association (albertawilderness.ca) to point out this positive, wildlife-oriented approach to oil and gas when discussing the opportunity to share this story with her. They may seem like small efforts, but over the course of years, they can add up and make an important difference.
Cristescu, B., G. B. Stenhouse, and M.S. Boyce. 2014. Grizzly bear ungulate consumption and the relevance of prey size to caching and meat sharing. Animal Behaviour. 92: 133-142.
Knopff, K.H. 2010. Cougar Predation in a Multi-Prey System in West-Central Alberta. PhD Thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.
Naughton, D. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals: Opposums and Carnivores. University of Toronto Press.