JASPER – A plan to build a captive breeding facility to save Jasper National Park’s dwindling and precarious caribou herds has been given a boost with a $24-million federal government investment.
Parks Canada is looking to breed caribou in captivity at a fenced facility to be built near Athabasca Falls, with its first priority to boost the 45-member Tonquin herd to what is thought to be a self-sustaining population of at least 200 animals.
Parks Canada officials say construction of the facility could begin in 2023, and animals could be brought into captivity as early as winter 2024, allowing the release of the first captive-bred caribou into the Tonquin range beginning in the spring of 2025.
However, officials say all of this will be based on the results of Indigenous and public consultation as well detailed design of the facility and a detailed impact assessment – Parks Canada’s most comprehensive level of environmental assessment.
“There are many steps required before a conservation breeding program and facility construction can begin,” said Steve Young, a spokesperson for Parks Canada in a statement.
First up, Parks Canada will hire an independent engineering consultant for the detailed planning and design of the facility.
Young said Parks is working with experts with more than 25 years experience in managing caribou in captivity or involved in caribou healthcare to develop a comprehensive list of facility requirements, and animal husbandry and health care protocols.
“The detailed facility design will be based on these requirements and protocols to ensure animal welfare,” he said, noting it will also incorporate any recommendations that come out of the environmental impact assessment.
Jasper, which had hundreds of caribou in the 1960s, is now home to three herds of southern mountain caribou – the Tonquin, Brazeau, and À La Pêche herds.
A fourth herd, the Maligne, was recently declared extirpated. The carcass of the last surviving breeding female was discovered buried in snow in 2018. It’s believed a wolverine killed it.
The Tonquin herd is estimated to have 45 caribou and the Brazeau herd to have fewer than 15 caribou. With 10 or fewer females in each herd, the Tonquin and Brazeau herds do not have enough female caribou to recover without assistance.
The À La Pêche herd on Jasper’s northern boundary is a partially migratory group of about 150 animals primarily managed by the province of Alberta. Some animals in the herd stay in Jasper year-round, some stay in the foothills and some migrate back and forth.
A herd in neighbouring Banff National Park was wiped out in an avalanche north of Lake Louise in 2009.
Environmental groups, such as Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative and the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), say conservation breeding in Jasper is a tragic yet necessary interim recovery measure for caribou.
However, they say access management must be further strengthened to support caribou survival, noting a costly captive breeding program only makes sense if caribou have high quality, secure habitat to live in once they are released.
“When I saw this proposal, I had really mixed feelings because there’s a heaviness and a sadness that it’s come to this for Jasper caribou,” said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with AWA.
“You never want to be seen embracing a captive breeding option, and we recognize it is a tragic but necessary step, but it really needs to be matched with stronger access management decisions than we’ve seen.”
From January to April 2021, Jasper National Park convened a scientific review involving more than 40 experts, which concluded that a conservation breeding program is necessary to recover Jasper’s critically low numbers of caribou.
An ambiguous announcement in May, 2021, Parks Canada indicated it would review winter-time human access in caribou ranges to focus “on what is most effective” by this upcoming winter.
The conservation groups urge Parks Canada to commit to further improve existing management of caribou habitat in the park, including human use management, as recommended by experts in the scientific review earlier this year.
“Experts in the 2021 scientific review repeatedly emphasized the importance of reducing disturbance from people, improving connectivity to other herds and habitat, and reducing habitat loss outside the park as part of recovering caribou in Jasper National Park,” said Aerin Jacob, a Y2Y conservation scientist, who participated in the scientific review.
Even though the habitat situation in Jasper National Park is far better than on provincial public lands, Campbell said Parks Canada still needs to reduce winter, summer and fall recreation pressures so as many wild caribou as possible remain and can re-occupy their ranges.
She said a lack of human access management led to the demise of the Maligne herd.
“Good grief! Jasper National Park has an obligation to do what it can to prevent caribou extirpation. We need them to commit to reducing human access pressures,” she said.
“They didn’t do enough ahead of the Maligne, but they need to do more while there are still wild caribou in Tonquin and a few in Brazeau.”
Young said Parks Canada will continue engagement and work with Indigenous partners and the general public on the conservation breeding proposal and the draft impact assessment, beginning as early as this fall.
“The information gathered from Indigenous and public consultation and from the impact assessment will be considered and where appropriate incorporated into the final program plan,” he said. “This process is expected to take place over one year.”