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Captive breeding last hope for dwindling national park caribou herds

“Canadians at large really want caribou on the landscape more than we want caribou on the back of our 25 cent piece."

BANFF – Saving Jasper’s dwindling caribou herds through captive breeding is Parks Canada’s priority, while the reintroduction of Banff’s extirpated herd is likely decades away, if at all.

The remaining five animals in Banff National Park were wiped out in an avalanche near Molar Creek north of Lake Louise in April 2009. Jasper’s precarious Tonquin and Brazeau woodland caribou herds are at risk of disappearing too.

Jasper’s Maligne herd persisted for almost 15 years with fewer than 10 animals but was extirpated, meaning locally extinct, in 2018 when the last animal was believed killed by a wolverine. These herds are all part of what is known as the Jasper-Banff local population unit.

Parks Canada officials say Jasper’s herds are the priority, noting the federal agency is on the verge of approving a conservation breeding program in Jasper, following years of research, to try to save the remaining caribou.

“The Tonquin and Brazeau herds are facing imminent extirpation,” said Lalenia Neufeld, a biologist and ecosystem scientist with Jasper’s caribou recovery program since 2006 during a Jan. 24 Bow Valley Naturalists’ presentation.

“Basically, the number of females in those herds is so small that they are unlikely to recover on their own.”

Twenty-five years ago, more than 800 caribou ranged in the mountain national parks living in mature forests and high alpine areas to avoid predators, moving between alpine areas in summer and subalpine forests in winter. Today, fewer than 220 animals remain in these areas.

In Jasper National Park, caribou can be found in the Tonquin Valley, the Brazeau mountain ranges near the Icefields Parkway, while the more stable À la Pêche herd lives on either side of the park’s northern boundary.

The Tonquin herd is estimated to have 45-55 caribou and the Brazeau herd to have fewer than 15 caribou.

The number of breeding female caribou is now so small – an estimated nine in the Tonquin and less than three in the Brazeau – that these caribou will not produce enough calves each year to grow the herds. Small herds are especially vulnerable to predators, disease, and accidents like avalanches.

In Banff National Park, caribou have historically been found in the northern reaches of the park, including the Upper Pipestone, Siffluer River and Mosquito Creek drainages before the remnant herd was killed in the avalanche.

Banff resident and conservationist Peter Poole said previous studies seemed to suggest there was habitat east of Lake Louise for up to 1,000 caribou, yet the new Banff National Park Management Plan is largely silent on reintroducing caribou in Banff, other than a reference to Banff and Jasper working together.

“Some of us have had this general hope over 15 years that there ought to be 100 to 1,000 caribou in this area, and we’re waiting patiently for some people like you to say, ‘yes we can make it happen’,” he said during the BVN presentation.

“Canadians at large really want caribou on the landscape more than we want caribou on the back of our 25 cent piece,” he added. “I think there’s no better place than the national park for us to get this right.”

Jean-Francois Bisaillon, an ecologist and program manager with the caribou recovery program in Jasper since 2014, indicated this is not being considered any time soon.

“We’re many, many years, perhaps decades before we’re in a situation to reintroducing caribou outside Jasper National Park,” he said.

“By the time we’re successful with the Tonquin and then we turn our attention to the Brazeau and the Maligne populations, we have between 10 to 20 years before we get there.”

The federal government has provided $24 million for caribou recovery in Jasper National Park.

The goal is to form a conservation breeding program by capturing a small number of wild caribou from regional herds with the closest genetic and behavioural match, and to bring them to live in a facility to be built near Athabasca Falls.

If everything goes according to Parks Canada’s plan, construction of the breeding facility would start this spring following final approval. The first capture is planned for 2025, while the second capture and the first release would be in 2026.

Bisaillon said modelling shows that if 12 to 15 female caribou are released every year, the Tonquin caribou herd could grow to more than 200 animals within five to 10 years.

“If we implement status quo, we know in a few years from now we can see the Brazeau and the Tonquin disappear, so we’re left with the option to look for approaches to augment those small herds,” Bisaillon said.

“We would start by bringing caribou from the Brazeau – we know the Brazeau is functionally extirpated so we would salvage or rescue those animals – and bring them in captivity. We will also take a number of females from the Tonquin herd,” he added.

“Then we need to turn our attention or focus to other regional herds and we need to keep working with Alberta and B.C., other stakeholders, to find other populations that are either large enough to sustain a limited number of capture, or other populations that might be prime candidates for rescue.”

One of the prime objectives for the herds from which caribou are captured for conservation breeding is to make sure those wild herds are not negatively affected in any way.

“This is really important. We don’t want to steal caribou and put other herds or populations at risk to save the Jasper-Banff local population unit,” said Bisaillon.

Animals at the breeding centre will require feeding, water, and care for their health and wellbeing.

Young caribou – aged 10 to 14 months to be released each year – will not be around humans as much as possible.

Bisaillon said that will require an intense management approach.

“I don’t like using that term, but it’s essentially a little bit like a farm where we’ll need to feed the caribou, we’ll need to provide water, we’ll need to provide care, make sure we take care of their well being and their health,” he said.

“We have a duty from an ethical perspective and many other perspectives to make sure these caribou are healthy and that we’re successful.”

Once animals are ready to be released into the wild, Parks Canada will use what is known as a soft-release approach, whereby the young captive-bred caribou will initially be put in a small fenced pen in the Tonquin herd’s home range.

“We would keep them in a small pen for a number of weeks with hopefully a few wild animals. They would hopefully bond together and then we would open the gate and they would rejoin with the rest of the population,” said Bisaillon.

“When we’re done with the Tonquin, we’ll turn our attention to reintroducing caribou in either the Brazeau population or the Maligne population, but that’s five to 10 year at the minimum from that so we’ll have time to learn and find the best approach to do that.”

Caribou populations grow slowly and can decline quickly, and are highly influenced by female mortality.

Neufeld said female calves have a 50 per cent chance of making it to being a yearling, a 65 per cent chance to subadult and an 85 per cent chance of living to the following year for breeding.

“It takes many, many years for a reproductive female to essentially replace herself as a reproductive female,” she said.

“There are lots of chances for that individual to die along the way … each female really does matter at a population level at this point.”

Parks Canada’s marching orders for saving caribou come in the form of a recovery plan.

The federal agency has identified five past, current and future risks to caribou, including small populations, altered predator-prey dynamics, human disturbance, human-facilitated wolf access into caribou habitat, and habitat loss.

Human disturbance by trail users, dogs or aircraft has been shown to displace sensitive caribou from areas that are safe or that have good food. In addition, caribou can be killed in vehicle collisions on busy park roads.

Wolf access into caribou territory has also played a role in the dramatic decline. Caribou have evolved to survive in the deep snow that drives wolves to lower elevations where prey like elk and deer are easier to find and hunt. However, trails packed by skiers and snowshoers make it easier for wolves to get into these otherwise inaccessible areas.

To protect critical habitat and prevent people creating packed trails, access to occupied caribou ranges in Jasper is closed from November until mid-May and Parks Canada no longer sets cross-country ski tracks or permits the use of snowmobiles for park staff or outfitters.

Parks Canada also bought out two businesses in the Tonquin Valley – Tonquin Valley Adventures and Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge – as part of a deal reached late last year. The Alpine Club of Canada and Hostelling International also close their Tonquin facilities in the winter.

Neufeld said there are several documented cases of wolves using packed trails to get up into caribou habitat, including when wolves travelled on ski trails from Marmot Pass down to Portal and up to Maccarib Pass where they killed a caribou in 2009.

Another example involved a wolf killing caribou within days of opening the Mount Edith Cavell access road, she said.

“That wolf pack was farther south, then came up the main valley, they hung out in the valley a little bit before they jumped onto the snowmobile trail and ran quite deep into the Tonquin, followed the ski trail up and killed caribou,” she said.

“These are just a couple of anecdotes to show that direct association, but there are a number of different analyses that are beyond these… that show wolves consistently select for packed trails and travel faster on those trails and are accessing caribou habitat.”

While climate change will affect caribou into the future,  Neufeld said recent analysis suggests that caribou range is more sensitive to the direct effects of habitat loss and human disturbance than climate.

She said climate impacts will likely be felt through changes to habitat and or predator numbers, but Parks Canada is working with Natural Resources Canada to quantify this.

“We don’t really know what those impacts will be, but what we do know is if we take no action we won’t have caribou long enough to find out what the climate change effects will be,” said Neufeld.

“We are concerned about climate change impacts, but the short answer is we’re more concerned about pressing current issues.”

During the BVN presentation, Banff resident Dwayne Leptizki, who has been a 14-year member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – a non-government independent organization that recommends the status of species for the Species At Risk Act (SARA) – raised some concerns.

He said a COSEWIC-commissioned independent report on designatable unit structures of caribou in Canada was finalized in 2011, and in 2014 COSEWIC determined the regional Rocky Mountain park populations were now part of the Central Mountain population and no longer part of the Southern Mountain population.

“Yet, Parks Canada and [Canadian Wildlife Service] CWS continues to insist on using the old designations, whereas now the central mountain caribou including Jasper are now endangered and no longer threatened, according to COSEWIC,” Leptizki said.

Leptizki was also concerned about the “genetic integrity” of the program.

“If you use caribou in your caribou breeding program from a designatable unit outside the central mountain DU, COSEWIC will view the entire program as a threat event to the genetic integrity of those caribou which are remaining in Jasper,” he said.

Neufeld said Parks is using the designation that is currently on Schedule 1 of SARA – the official list of wildlife species at risk – and until the governor-in-council adopts COSEWIC’s assessment formally under schedule 1, the word threatened continues to be used.

“That said though, I don’t actually think it’s going to change that much with how we manage either critical habitat or our recovery goal and objectives for reintroducing or supporting caribou recovery in Jasper National Park,” she said.

Neufeld said Parks Canada has been working with experts on genetic research which has indicated “a very high association” between the central caribou group and the southern population.

“We really do want to make sure we get the genetics right and that we want to include caribou that have the right behaviour characteristics and genetic characteristics when we’re thinking about source animals,” she said.

“It will be a really important consideration and we haven’t made any decisions yet on where those animals will come from, but that genetic component and any of the recent research … specifically looking at designatable units will continue to inform our sourcing strategy.”

The next steps involve a final decision from Parks Canada on the caribou conservation breeding program now that planning, public consultation, a detailed impact assessment and design of the breeding facility have been completed

“We’re hoping to make a decision in the next few weeks or few months hopefully,” said Bisaillon.