Jason Stockfish | [email protected]
Parks Canada hosted an in-person public session on June 27 to discuss a proposal to rebuild declining caribou herds through a conservation breeding program.
The intent of the session was to allow the public to hear the details of the proposal from Parks Canada staff and to provide an opportunity to ask questions or concerns of staff involved in the implementation of the proposed initiative. if she went ahead.
Although the proposal has yet to be approved, the federal government’s 2021 budget has made more than $24 million available for caribou conservation in Jasper National Park.
Mark Young, Manager of Indigenous Relations at Parks Canada, moderated the panel discussion.
Indigenous partners and knowledge holders agree with archaeological evidence that humans and caribou have co-existed for thousands of years.
Dave Argument, Resource Conservation Manager, explained that the caribou went in and out of the park and the different herds had interconnections and were not separated and isolated as they are today. .
Written records from park rangers show that there were as many as 700 caribou in Jasper National Park until the 1970s, but over the past 50 years their numbers have declined dramatically.
There are a few main reasons for the steep decline in caribou populations.
More importantly, Parks Canada reintroduced elk to the area in the 1920s, thinking tourists would rather see elk than their predators, Argument noted.
Additionally, wolves were shot on sight and as a result the elk population increased by the thousands.
In 1959 Parks Canada changed its policy and stopped killing predators and wolf numbers soared in response.
The major problem was that the wolves also took down the caribou.
Wildlife biologist Layla Neufeld said this is called apparent competition: when the number of a prey species increases dramatically, the number of predators increases accordingly and a prey species that is not not large (in this case, the caribou) suffers the consequences. .
“The caribou numbers dropped from there,” Argument said.
Once the number of creatures dwindled, disease, human intervention and avalanches had a disproportionate impact on the herd’s survival and their numbers continued to decline to the point of extinction, meaning local extinction .
Since 2000, Parks Canada management has taken steps to try to reverse the decline, such as reducing public access in early winter to high elevation areas to prevent humans from leaving a groomed trail allowing wolves to easily reach areas where caribou gather.
But their efforts came too late and now a conservation breeding program appears to be the only viable option to save local caribou herds.
South of Highway 16, there are three ranges in Jasper National Park: Tonquin, Brazeau, and Maligne.
The last caribou seen in the Maligne herd dates back to 2018.
The number of females remaining in the Tonquin herd is 11 or fewer, and there are three or fewer females remaining in the Brazeau.
At such low numbers, the herds cannot produce enough female calves or calves in general to grow their herds, and the current situation is that the Brazeau and Tonquin herds are facing imminent demise.
“With the Brazeau and Tonquin herds at a level of near extinction, we are now in a very difficult situation,” said Jean Francois Bisaillon, program manager.
“Our vision is to recover the herds in Jasper so that they become abundant, healthy and resilient over time.”
The biggest threat is that there are not enough females, which is why Parks Canada offers the Caribou Enclosure Conservation Program.
Bisaillon said the purpose of the proposed program is just a tool to create herds that no longer need human intervention to maintain their numbers.
The basis of the project is to take the remaining caribou from the Brazeau herd, some from the Tonquin and some from a regional herd and raise them in captivity releasing the young each year.
The argument explained that the proposal is to focus on the Tonquin, as the Brazeau population is almost entirely extinct, so integrating them into the Tonquin herd allows Parks Canada to preserve their genes.
“Going forward, if we are successful, we can get to a point where we can rebuild (the Brazeau herd) but at this point the risk is so high of losing them entirely,” he said.
Neufeld added that identifying these “source animals” is the first step.
“Whatever we do, it is of the utmost importance that herds are not affected by the removal of source animals,” she said.
Parks could use a few animals from different herds to ensure impacts are minimized with the ability to return them to source herds after breeding.
“There are a number of regional herds that are genetically suited to creating a breeding herd (that is) genetically close to Jasper’s animals,” Neufeld said.
The proposal is to have 30-40 females in captivity with the expectation that they will have 28-36 young each year, and if all goes well, half of these will be females available for release.
The breeding facility will be located approximately 30 kilometers from Jasper, just past Geraldine Fire Road.
The location was chosen because the area is relatively quiet, undisturbed by humans, close to current caribou habitat, and close to where Parks intends to release the animals in the Tonquin Valley.
The location is also away from domestic livestock which can carry diseases.
In total, the facility will be approximately 65 acres in size and at least four staff members will monitor and care for the animals on site on a daily basis.
The aim is to start with the Tonquin herd, with a target of around 200 animals by 2030.
“Imagine for a moment, hundreds of caribou as you hike and travel through the park,” Bisaillon said.
“Imagine being able to experience these beautiful animals.”
Quoting a colleague, Bisaillon posed a question.
“If not Jasper, then where?” And if not now, then when?
Edit: The story has been updated to read “apparent competition” rather than “parental competition”. A typo has also been corrected in the title.