Some backcountry areas of Jasper National Park will be off limits to people for a portion of each winter in a bid to save declining populations of caribou.
Parks Canada has announced there will be “delayed winter access” to important habitat in three areas of Jasper National Park to reduce the likelihood of packed trails helping wolves hunt threatened caribou.
At the same time, to appease backcountry enthusiasts, the federal agency said it would open up new trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Parks Canada officials say they believe changes from an original proposal based on public feedback are still effective for caribou conservation – but note this step alone is not enough to save caribou.
Officials say a 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 habitat.
“We want to prevent backcountry users from setting tracks from the valley bottoms up into caribou habitat in winter so wolves have easier access,” said John Wilmshurst, Jasper’s resource conservation manager. “But we know this is absolutely not enough, that it’s just addressing one of five identified threats to caribou.”
Three of the four woodland caribou herds found in Jasper National Park have dropped to critically low numbers and are at risk of disappearing. The fourth, a trans-boundary herd, is also in decline.
Twenty-five years ago there were more than 800 caribou roaming the mountain national parks, while today, there are said to be fewer than 250 individuals left.
Starting in winter 2013-14, recreational access will be banned until Feb. 28 in the Ŕ La Pęche and Brazeau caribou ranges in the park, and until Feb. 15 in the Tonquin caribou range.
Based on public feedback, Parks Canada modified boundaries and timing of the original caribou conservation proposals to accommodate skiing, as well as mountaineering and ice climbing routes.
They also announced plans for new and expanded winter recreation activities in two areas: Decoigne – on Highway 16 west of Jasper – and at Pyramid Lake.
New winter recreation in these areas will include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, winter walking and access to new subalpine and alpine ski touring terrain that is not considered important caribou habitat.
The Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE) was against the original recommendation, but officials say the final decision is a reasonable compromise.
Monica Andreeff, the group’s executive director, said AMPPE plans to make sure Parks Canada meets its commitment to establish new winter recreation areas in conjunction with the seasonal activity restrictions.
“This decision shows that conservation doesn’t have to happen at the expense of recreational opportunities in national parks – it represents a balance in decision-making,” said Andreeff.
“At the beginning, they were talking about outright closure of 2,500 square kilometres of land. A seasonal activity restriction can be revisited a lot easier than closures can be rescinded.”
Andreeff said the decision shows Parks Canada recognizes winter use and visitation are important.
“By opening up new areas, it should enhance Jasper National Park’s winter offering in general,” she said.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) supports the decision, but the local Jasper Environmental Association still has concerns about Parks Canada’s overall plan to save caribou.
“We are supportive of anything that might contribute to keeping predators out of caribou habitat in winter,” said Jill Seaton with Jasper Environmental Association.
“But we are frankly disgusted that at the same time that Parks is proposing these closures, it is considering allowing additional development in the Maligne and Marmot Basin/Whistlers Creek area.”
Seaton said the Maligne Valley is habitat for the remaining six animals in the Maligne herd, which are sometimes seen on or near Maligne Road from October to April. Maligne Tours months of operation are from April to November.
She said Marmot Basin wants to construct two ski lifts on the Whistlers Creek part of its lease, which she said falls within the range of the Tonquin herd that is often seen on those slopes in the winter.
“Parks Canada’s history of caribou protection is, frankly, disgraceful,” said Seaton, noting Parks Canada knew the herds were declining back in the 1970s.
“Ottawa refused to allow closure of the Maligne Road in winter, which meant the wolves had an easy trip up the 46-kilometre road into important caribou habitat, with a result that in the last 12 years caribou numbers in that area have dropped from about 40 to only six.”
Of the Jasper herds, the Tonquin caribou range continues to be Parks Canada’s highest priority given that herd is the only southern Jasper herd that may be capable of recovering without herd augmentation.
This herd – which has fewer than 60 animals – also has the highest probability of increased caribou-wolf encounters due to packed trails, and is the one that has declined the most in the last five years.
All access trails into the Tonquin lead directly from valley bottom wolf habitat into large areas of prime caribou wintering habitat.
The biggest threat to caribou in Banff and Jasper, identified in Parks Canada’s 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, but 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 Parks Canada’s ongoing research, approximately 44 per cent of all known caribou deaths in the mountain national parks are due to predation.
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 also a major problem, particularly on neighbouring provincial lands where logging, development, snowmobiles and heli-skiing are also claimed to threaten caribou populations.
Parks’ strategy also indicates that if a caribou population is already small, it is more susceptible to inbreeding, disease and catastrophic events, such as the avalanche that wiped out the entire Banff herd in 2009.
Wilmshurst said Parks Canada continues to work with the Calgary Zoo and B.C. government on a caribou re-introduction project to boost the dwindling caribou population.
“We’re working actively with those groups trying to make sure we have secure sources of animals for an augmentation program,” he said.
“Right now we’ve applied for secure long-term funding from Parks Canada. We know what we want to do. We have the confidence of senior management.”