The helicopter swoops out of the sky, dropping alongside a boreal woodland caribou in full gallop across a frozen bog near Snow Lake. Seconds later, a net bursts from the open side door of the aircraft, enveloping the animal.
The pilot quickly puts down and a lone figure runs to the caribou, untangles the net and ties up its legs. Two additional helicopters land a short distance away, spilling passengers from both Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Conservation who wade through knee deep snow towards the capture site.
It's the morning of February 1 and staff from Manitoba Hydro, including Gerald Neufeld (Division Manager, Transmission Planning & Design) and Fiona Scurrah (Licensing & Environmental Assessment), are in the north to observe a caribou collaring study funded by the corporation's research and development program and as part of the environmental assessment studies for the Bipole III transmission line.
Within minutes the animal will be released wearing a satellite tracking collar — becoming part of a collaborative effort to gather information on Manitoba's boreal woodland caribou population that will be an important part of the route selection for any future transmission lines.
"What we are trying to do is get a sense of where these caribou are living within the area," said Fiona, moments after assisting with the capture and collaring. "With Bipole III, a lot of where we're looking to route down the west side of the province may impact some of the caribou ranges. And, because woodland caribou are listed under federal and provincial legislation as a threatened species, it's incumbent on Manitoba Hydro to ensure we're not creating issues that would further endanger them."
Leading the research is Doug Schindler, a biologist who has worked with caribou for years, first with Manitoba Conservation and now as a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba.
One of the potential issues that may arise from linear developments, such as transmission lines, explains Doug, is the creation of pathways that can be used by predators such as wolves to prey on these caribou. For obvious reasons, caribou tend to keep their distance from wolves — especially when calving. Linear developments, however, can open up the boreal forest and close those distances.
So, along with the caribou, Doug and his team are also collaring wolves in an effort to establish their movement patterns and the relationship between the two species and human development.
"We really want to get a good handle on the wolf and the caribou numbers and whether or not human activities create stress on the caribou populations," said Doug. "The big concern is higher predation rates may result from things like transmission lines, logging roads or mining developments that create corridors that allow wolves to more effectively hunt caribou."
A boreal woodland caribou leaps to his feet sporting a new GPS tracking collar around his neck as members of the capture crew watch on.
The actual capture of the animals is a carefully orchestrated operation involving experts from across North America.
Two trackers from Alaska pilot small planes searching for caribou and wolves. Once an animal is spotted, the call goes out to the capture crew from Quebec who quickly fly their helicopter to the location marked by the circling plane.The capture crew's pilot then uses the highly maneuverable helicopter to herd the animal into an open area, such as a frozen lake or bog, where his colleague will have a clear shot with the net gun. Once the capture is made, and the animal is untangled from the net, the legs are tied for safety and the eyes covered to help calm the animal.
"Ten or 15 years ago, it was common to use tranquilizer darts," said Doug. "But, darting from aircraft is dangerous for the animal first of all, and difficult. Aerial net gunning results in a lot less handling time, no drugs, and you don't have to stick by the animal and wait for it to regain consciousness. It's very quick. And, once they are released, they just bounce up, tail up, tongue in, and they're gone — no worse for wear."
It's complex and time consuming work. In fact, this study is a collaboration because no one agency could put the information together, says Kent Whaley, the regional wildlife manager with Manitoba Conservation in The Pas. But, the information coming out of this work, says Kent, will be invaluable.
"The data we gather from all the radio telemetry work shows us where animals are distributed across the landscape, where they concentrate, and the areas that are critical to that herd remaining healthy," said Kent. "And, that information is used by Manitoba Conservation to identify if there's major industrial development going on in some critical areas. It creates an opportunity to get a heads-up with the company that's proposing the work and try to get some mitigative planning by avoiding, by moving things around, by trying to protect those really important areas for caribou."
By dusk, the capture crew has collared three wolves and 10 caribou successfully — reaching their target number for this particular group and ensuring a statistically valid sample of animals will be monitored. The crew will continue on to The Pas the next morning to continue collaring another group of caribou. Once the collaring is complete, approximately 120 caribou and 24 wolves will be monitored across the northwestern and northeastern regions of the province.
The collars will operate for three years updating an animal's location eight times a day. When the monitoring is completed, a timed release mechanism will open the collar so it drops harmlessly to the ground.
"This collaring is absolutely critical," said Gerald Neufeld. "We want to make sure that any transmission facility we install in the north, or anywhere in the province, is done in a manner that does not have a negative effect on the environment around it."