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Caribou to vanish without helping hand: strategy

Caribou have been wandering the Earth for more than 1.5 million years, but it is becoming increasingly apparent they may not survive the modern world without a helping hand from humans.

Caribou have been wandering the Earth for more than 1.5 million years, but it is becoming increasingly apparent they may not survive the modern world without a helping hand from humans.

With development and climate change destroying caribou habitat and natural predators like wolves increasing, Parks Canada has put forward a conservation strategy aimed at preventing caribou from vanishing altogether.

Parks officials say that without intervention, all five existing herds within the mountain national parks of Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier will likely shrink over the next decade. The Banff herd is already gone.

Greg Fenton, Parks Canada’s point man on the strategy, said Parks recognizes dramatic change is needed to save caribou, noting the federal agency has committed $4.5 million over six years to move forward on this strategy.

“The strategy identifies five key threats we need to focus on, and comes up with tangible actions if there is going to be any hope of this amazing animal continuing,” said Fenton, who is superintendent of Jasper National Park.

The deadline for public input on Parks Canada’s strategy to guide southern mountain caribou conservation actions closes Tuesday (Jan. 31). Go to to check out the strategy and comment.

Twenty-five years ago there were more than 800 caribou roaming the mountain national parks, while today there are fewer than 250 remaining in five separate herds.

The biggest threat to caribou in Banff and Jasper identified in the conservation strategy are predators such as wolves, which are also beginning to encroach on the declining Mount Revelstoke and Glacier herd.

Caribou generally make up a small portion of a predator’s diet, however, growing numbers of elk, deer and moose are leading to more predators. And the more predators, the more likely they will encounter and kill caribou.

According to the strategy, 44 per cent of all known caribou deaths in the mountain national parks are due to predation.

To deal with this threat, Parks Canada proposes to keep primary prey for caribou predators low by preventing elk refuges, which could include a limited cull of the ungulates.

Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) for the southern Alberta chapter, said a cull on prey species should be used as a last resort only.

“CPAWS believes a cull should only be used as a last resort when it’s been demonstrated that no other means would be successful in retaining imperiled populations or preventing significant long lasting and/or irreversible damage to ecosystems,” she said.

Mark Hebblewhite, a renowned caribou expert and professor in the wildlife biology program at Missoula’s University of Montana, said while certainly controversial, he is not necessarily opposed to a cull of prey species.

He said there are at least three projects in the province of B.C. where there are aggressive moose harvests aimed at explicitly helping troubled caribou populations.

“There are also examples of other national parks where culling is taking place to meet ecological integrity objectives,” he said, referring to a moose cull in Newfoundland and Labrador’s Gros Morne and cormorants in Ontario’s Point Pelee.

“It’s time to start thinking about the fact it’s absolutely unnatural to have big blobs of elk around Banff and Jasper.”

Another key threat to caribou persistence is facilitated predator access to caribou, in that wolves have easier access to caribou by cruising up man-made ski trails and roads into critical caribou habitat.

Encounters with humans, overhead aircraft and collisions with vehicles have also been identified as a direct threat to caribou in the mountain national parks.

Ongoing habitat loss is a major problem, particularly on neighbouring provincial lands, where logging, development, snowmobiles and heli-skiing are said to threaten caribou populations.

The strategy also indicates that if a caribou population is already small, it is more susceptible to inbreeding, disease and catastrophic events, such as an avalanche that wiped out the entire Banff herd.

While Parks has announced its plans for a captive breeding program, in partnership with the Calgary Zoo, to augment or replace Banff and/or Jasper caribou populations, other priority actions in the strategy include:

• keep primary prey for caribou predators low by preventing elk refuges, which could include a limited cull;

• development within important caribou habitat to be considered under exceptional circumstances only (which could include expansion at Jasper’s Marmot Basin ski area), but must not adversely affect caribou;

• provide visitors with opportunities for recreation in areas not important for caribou, while restricting recreation in caribou habitat;

• discontinue setting early season ski tracks that lead to caribou winter habitat;

• reduced speed zones on highways in important caribou habitat;

• periodic seasonal trail and road closures;

• relocate trails away from important caribou habitat;

• use prescribed fire in areas away from caribou habitat to maintain a safe distance between caribou and their predators;

• used prescribed burns to guard against large fires within caribou habitat;

• reintroduce or add caribou where herd sizes are critically low;

• manage other threats to prevent caribou populations from becoming small.

Syslak said CPAWS supports Parks Canada’s efforts to recover caribou, but says the biggest gap in the strategy is a failure to identify the location and quality of critical habitat for caribou, which should be the priority.

“If critical habitat is identified, that’s making sure it’s safe from development, over use, recreational activities, or whatever is affecting the species in that areas,” she said.

“Then those areas should be off limits or carefully managed to ensure caribou conservation.”

Hebblewhite said Parks Canada is in a bit of a “catch-22 situation” in that it is not the lead federal agency tasked with defining critical habitat, rather that’s Environment Canada.

That said, he said Parks Canada would want to be “pretty cautious” proceeding with development in what it refers to as important habitat, say for example, an expansion at Jasper’s Marmot Basin ski hill.

“Given there’s already a definition of critical habitat for boreal caribou, it’s hard to image how much different that definition would be for southern mountain woodland caribou,” said Hebblewhite.

“If Jasper’s Tonquin herd was a boreal herd, it would be very difficult to approve a development, like a ski hill expansion. It would be pretty embarrassing for Parks Canada if they ended up approving a development in areas they called important habitat, that end up becoming critical habitat.”

Hebblewhite said it’s important to note that 14 of the 16 other herds on provincial lands are also declining.

“If caribou are going to persist in Alberta, it speaks to the need for Parks Canada to keep these caribou on national park lands because we can’t trust the province to do it,” he said.

The Banff herd was killed in an avalanche in 2009. There have been no confirmed sightings since that time. The A La Peche herd in Jasper is the largest and is the only one that has been stable, with about 150 caribou.

Jasper’s Tonquin herd is in decline after a period of stability. There were about 60 caribou in 2010, and have declined by as much as 40 per cent over the last two years.

The Columbia South herd in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks had shrunk to seven in 2011, from 100 in 1994.

The Brazeau herd in Jasper had declined, too. In 2010, there were about nine caribou. The Maligne herd in Jasper had also declined, in 2010 there were about six caribou.

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