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Fog rolls over the boreal forest along the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

JIRI REZAC/GREENPEACE

An ambitious three-year research project is using eyes in the sky to produce what may be the clearest picture yet of the impact of the energy and forestry industries on threatened wildlife in northern Alberta.

High-resolution satellite images, together with information from industry, will also yield the first data on what effects snowmobilers and off-roaders are having on caribou, grizzlies and wolves.

"We're going to let the animals tell us when they're no longer disturbed," said biologist Gordon Stenhouse, who's overseeing the research.

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Stenhouse and his fellow scientists will start with data from energy and forestry companies that details all their activities, including disturbances such as cutblocks, seismic lines and lease roads. That information will be combined with wildlife tracking information from GPS-fitted collars.

"We have all this incredibly detailed GPS data," Stenhouse said. "We get a reading from them every hour as to where they are on the landscape."

The problem has been that knowing an animal's location says little about how it is responding to disturbances on the landscape – unless it's known what the condition of that landscape was at the time the animal passed through.

"You need to match the forest condition to when the animal was there."

Using about $500,000 committed by industry, government and environmental groups, Stenhouse is combining all the data with pictures taken from space using high-resolution laser imaging called lidar.

"You can measure tree heights. You can look at vegetation," he said. "It helps us to understand how the vegetation is different on different lines."

Some disturbances are decades old; some are new. Until this project, biologists had to assume wildlife was behaving the same no matter the age.

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Lidar and ground-mounted cameras will also allow biologists to measure how commonly seismic lines, cutlines and lease roads are used for recreation.

"I call them quad highways," said Stenhouse.

"We rarely remember to factor in the human dimension. It might be that if we kept people away, the habitat [disturbance] isn't an issue."

Weather data will also be factored in to see if snowfall affects how animals use – or stay away from – disturbed areas.

Pressure on caribou and grizzly bears is increasing in Alberta's forests due to energy exploration and development and forestry. All 15 of Alberta's caribou herds have been shrinking rapidly. Some are expected to die out in a generation unless habitat is restored.

Research suggests that caribou avoid being within 500 metres of any disturbed area, meaning even a narrow road cuts a one-kilometre swath through the bush.

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Stenhouse said preliminary results could be available as soon as next spring.

"The results of this work will probably be used to understand species at risk, their habitat needs and how resource development extraction may impact the needs of wildlife habitat," he said. "When we understand better what the animals do on recovered habitat, then we can better focus on restoration efforts."

Stenhouse's project could lead to better, faster ways to bring damaged forests back to where they can support sensitive wildlife, said Andrew de Vries of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a non-governmental organization that has provided $100,000 for the research.

"It's one of the key questions in forestry today – how to manage better caribou and forests," he said.

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