Monthly Archives: November 2017

On Caribou and Hypothesis Testing

Mountain caribou populations in western Canada have been declining for the past 10-20 years and concern has mounted to the point where extinction of many populations could be imminent, and the Canadian federal government is asking why this has occurred. This conservation issue has supported a host of field studies to determine what the threatening processes are and what we can do about them. A recent excellent summary of experimental studies in British Columbia (Serrouya et al. 2017) has stimulated me to examine this caribou crisis as an illustration of the art of hypothesis testing in field ecology. We teach all our students to specify hypotheses and alternative hypotheses as the first step to solving problems in population ecology, so here is a good example to start with.

From the abstract of this paper, here is a statement of the problem and the major hypothesis:

“The expansion of moose into southern British Columbia caused the decline and extirpation of woodland caribou due to their shared predators, a process commonly referred to as apparent competition. Using an adaptive management experiment, we tested the hypothesis that reducing moose to historic levels would reduce apparent competition and therefore recover caribou populations. “

So the first observation we might make is that much is left out of this approach to the problem. Populations can decline because of habitat loss, food shortage, excessive hunting, predation, parasitism, disease, severe weather, or inbreeding depression. In this case much background research has narrowed the field to focus on predation as a major limitation, so we can begin our search by focusing on the predation factor (review in Boutin and Merrill 2016). In particular Serrouya et al. (2017) focused their studies on the nexus of moose, wolves, and caribou and the supposition that wolves feed preferentially on moose and only secondarily on caribou, so that if moose numbers are lower, wolf numbers will be lower and incidental kills of caribou will be reduced. So they proposed two very specific hypotheses – that wolves are limited by moose abundance, and that caribou are limited by wolf predation. The experiment proposed and carried out was relatively simple in concept: kill moose by allowing more hunting in certain areas and measure the changes in wolf numbers and caribou numbers.

The experimental area contained 3 small herds of caribou (50 to 150) and the unmanipulated area contained 2 herds (20 and 120 animals) when the study began in 2003. The extended hunting worked well, and moose in the experimental area were reduced from about 1600 animals down to about 500 over the period from 2003 to 2014. Wolf numbers in the experimental area declined by about half over the experimental period because of dispersal out of the area and some starvation within the area. So the two necessary conditions of the experiment were satisfied – moose numbers declined by about two-thirds from additional hunting and wolf numbers declined by about half on the experimental area. But the caribou population on the experimental area showed mixed results with one population showing a slight increase in numbers but the other two showing a slight loss. On the unmanipulated area both caribou populations showed a continuing slow decline. On the positive side the survival rate of adult caribou was higher on the experimental area, suggesting that the treatment hypothesis was correct.

From the viewpoint of caribou conservation, the experiment failed to change the caribou population from continuous slow declines to the rapid increase needed to recover these populations to their former greater abundance. At best it could be argued that this particular experiment slowed the rate of caribou decline. Why might this be? We can make a list of possibilities:

  1. Moose numbers on the experimental area were not reduced enough (to 300 instead of to 500 achieved). Lower moose would have meant much lower wolf numbers.
  2. Small caribou populations are nearly impossible to recover because of chance events that affect small numbers. A few wolves or bears or cougars could be making all the difference to populations numbering 10-20 individuals.
  3. The experimental area and the unmanipulated area were not assigned treatments at random. This would mean to a pure statistician that you cannot make statistical comparisons between these two areas.
  4. The general hypothesis being tested is wrong, and predation by wolves is not the major limiting factor to mountain caribou populations. Many factors are involved in caribou declines and we cannot determine what they are because they change for area to area, year to year.
  5. It is impossible to do these landscape experiments because for large landscapes it is impossible to find 2 or more areas that can be considered replicates.
  6. The experimental manipulation was not carried out long enough. Ten years of manipulation is not long for caribou who have a generation time of 15-25 years.

Let us evaluate these 6 points.

#1 is fair enough, hard to achieve a population of moose this low but possible in a second experiment.

#2 is a worry because it is difficult to deal experimentally with small populations, but we have to take the populations as a given at the time we do a manipulation.

#3 is true if you are a purist but is silly in the real world where treatments can never be assigned at random in landscape experiments.

#4 is a concern and it would be nice to include bears and other predators in the studies but there is a limit to people and money. Almost all previous studies in mountain caribou declines have pointed the finger at wolves so it is only reasonable to start with this idea. The multiple factor idea is hopeless to investigate or indeed even to study without infinite time and resources.

#5 is like #3 and it is an impossible constraint on field studies. It is a common statistical fallacy to assume that replicates must be identical in every conceivable way. If this were true, no one could do any science, lab or field.

#6 is correct but was impossible in this case because the management agencies forced this study to end in 2014 so that they could conduct another different experiment. There is always a problem deciding how long a study is sufficient, and the universal problem is that the scientists or (more likely) the money and the landscape managers run out of energy if the time exceeds about 10 years or more. The result is that one must qualify the conclusions to state that this is what happened in the 10 years available for study.

This study involved a heroic amount of field work over 10 years, and is a landmark in showing what needs to be done and the scale involved. It is a far cry from sitting at a computer designing the perfect field experiment on a theoretical landscape to actually carrying out the field work to get the data summarized in this paper. The next step is to continue to monitor some of these small caribou populations, the wolves and moose to determine how this food chain continues to adjust to changes in prey levels. The next experiment needed is not yet clear, and the eternal problem is to find the high levels of funding needed to study both predators and prey in any ecosystem in the detail needed to understand why prey numbers change. Perhaps a study of all the major predators – wolves, bears, cougars – in this system should be next. We now have the radio telemetry advances that allow satellite locations, activity levels, timing of mortality, proximity sensors when predators are near their prey, and even video and sound recording so that more details of predation events can be recorded. But all this costs money that is not yet here because governments and people have other priorities and value the natural world rather less than we ecologists would prefer. There is not yet a Nobel Prize for ecological field research, and yet here is a study on an iconic Canadian species that would be high up in the running.

What would I add to this paper? My curiosity would be satisfied by the number of person-years and the budget needed to collect and analyze these results. These statistics should be on every scientific paper. And perhaps a discussion of what to do next. In much of ecology these kinds of discussions are done informally over coffee and students who want to know how science works would benefit from listening to how these informal discussions evolve. Ecology is far from simple. Physics and chemistry are simple, genetics is simple, and ecology is really a difficult science.

Boutin, S. and Merrill, E. 2016. A review of population-based management of Southern Mountain caribou in BC. {Unpublished review available at:

Serrouya, R., McLellan, B.N., van Oort, H., Mowat, G., and Boutin, S. 2017. Experimental moose reduction lowers wolf density and stops decline of endangered caribou. PeerJ  5: e3736. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3736.