Monitoring Mammals
Monitoring Moose and Deer in the Oil Sands Region
By Sarah Dunn, AEMERA

Spotting an animal in the wild is a humbling experience. The majesty of deer and moose is particularly breathtaking to witness. These antlered masters command respect from critters and humans alike. But, even deer and moose are not immune to the impacts of modern development. Urban, agricultural, and industrial growth all affect the well-being of these hooved animals.

Oil sands expansion is believed to have changed deer and moose population, especially in areas of higher landscape disturbance. For example, a recent increase of White-tailed Deer populations has been documented in the boreal region of Alberta. Simon Slater, a Terrestrial Ecologist at Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA), leads our wildlife biodiversity program. He earned his Master’s of Science in Conservation Biology from the University of Alberta, with his research focusing on woodland caribou conservation in Alberta. Simon’s role at AEMERA is to monitor woodland caribou, barred owls, and ungulates (hoofed mammals) in the oil sands region.

Historically, the monitoring data for moose and deer populations in northern Alberta has been patchy, with surveys happening once every 5 to 10 years. As part of the Oil Sands Monitoring program, the number and frequency of population surveys has increased.

“The increased number of surveys will help us get a better idea of moose and deer population numbers in the region,” says Simon. “With more data, we will better understand population trends over time – whether moose and deer populations are growing or declining – and ultimately answer the questions of why and how.”

Moose and deer are important resources for Aboriginal groups, hunters, and outfitters. The data collected from these surveys will also help policymakers at Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) set hunting allocations and support AEMERA with population trend reporting.

Simon and his team use a surveying method called distance sampling to estimate the size of moose and deer populations and where they are distributed throughout the region. “We use a helicopter to fly through designated areas [set by Alberta Environment and Parks] known as Wildlife Management Units (WMUs),” Simon explains. “We fly over each area in 10 kilometre-long cross cuts. Any moose or deer encountered along the flight path are identified and counted on sight.”

Distance sampling method.
deer

The aerial surveys are done in the winter, when it’s easier to spot moose and deer against the snow. Photo credit: Delaney Anderson (AEP Wildlife Biologist).

Simon enters the observations into a software program called Distance, which calculates a population estimate based on the inputs. The more data points collected, the greater the accuracy of the population estimates. It’s hard to paint an accurate picture of moose and deer populations when the monitoring data is sparse and old. That’s why high sampling frequency is so important. “The last sampling we have for moose numbers is 10 years old now,” explains Simon.

For the rest of the season, Simon will complete the first round of baseline surveys for all the Wildlife Management Units. “We will be surveying three to five more WMUs,” he says. “Then, we will start going back and resampling the units from five years ago.”

At this point, the team will be in a better position to start assessing and reporting on the trends. “We will not only be able to confirm whether the populations are decreasing and at what rate, but also explain why.”

What has Simon’s team learned about Alberta’s deer and moose populations? Explore the data on the AEMERIS data library and Alberta Environment and Parks’ Fisheries and Wildlife Management Information System.

This work is done in collaboration with Alberta Environment and Parks, Operations Division (Fish and Wildlife).

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