Funding threatens caribou program

Updated November 6, 2014

Woodland Caribou, Tonquin herd, Jasper National Park, endangered species, COSEWIC, Calgary Zoo

Tonquin caribou in September – by Scott Nicholson

From the Rocky Mountain Outlook by Cathy Ellis

The future of a captive breeding program to boost dangerously low caribou numbers in the mountain national parks now appears uncertain.

The Calgary Zoo pulled out of the program with Parks Canada due to lack of funding and support. Parks Canada is believed to be in preliminary discussions with the University of Calgary on the issue.

“The Calgary Zoo has decided not to proceed with the breeding and recovery of the woodland caribou project, a collaboration between Parks Canada and the B.C. government,’’ according to a statement from the Calgary Zoo.

“We concluded that the funding proposed by Parks Canada put too much of the financial burden on the Calgary Zoo at a time when we have many other conservation and flood recovery priorities.”

In November 2011, the federal government announced a caribou captive breeding partnering arrangement between Parks Canada, the B.C. government and Calgary Zoo. The captive breeding program is a cornerstone of Parks Canada’s caribou conservation strategy.

The goal is to provide source animals from B.C. to supplement critically small herds in Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks, as well as to reintroduce caribou to Banff National Park.

Twenty-five years ago, more than 800 caribou ranged in the mountain national parks. Today, fewer than 250 animals remain.

A remnant herd of five animals in Banff National Park was completely wiped out in an avalanche in 2009. Three of four herds in Jasper have dropped to critically low numbers, with two of the herds – the Maligne and Brazeau – having less than 10 animals.

Earlier this year, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) declared caribou are more at risk than ever. They listed the central population of mountain caribou, which includes the protected regions of Banff and Jasper, as endangered.

At the time the captive breeding program was announced, the plan indicated captive breeding would be a long-term project with a goal of supplying caribou for approximately four to six sub-populations over a 10- to 20-year period.

It stated that year one would see potentially 20 caribou, likely from suitable wild herds in British Columbia, moved to the Calgary Zoo’s ranch facility south of Calgary. The conservation herd would then be augmented by an additional 20 wild caribou the following year.

Under the captive breeding plan, the first yearlings would be trans-located from the conservation herd to the wild in year three.

Conservationists say it would be a shame to see the captive breeding program held up or shelved.

But, they say, protection of existing habitat is critical, noting Parks Canada should say no to expansion of Jasper’s Marmot Basin ski hill as well as close Maligne Lake Road in winter – both areas fall within caribou habitat.

Wendy Francis, program director for the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative, said caribou are an important species in the national park system.

“They’ve disappeared from Banff and are in a lot of trouble in Jasper, and this particular project held out a lot of hope that we could restore caribou to Banff and strengthen numbers in Jasper,” she said.

“It is disappointing that we might not get that chance, at least in the short-term.”

Carolyn Campbell, Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist, said the most important issue behind plummeting caribou populations across Alberta, including national park lands, is habitat loss.

“The top priority should be to really focus on restoring habitat so caribou actually have a chance to survive. I don’t see it as much of a concern if there is delay in captive breeding – that’s not the root cause,” she said.

“Even though we think of national parks as pristine, they have been really altered by roads and trails. What we would really support is efforts by Parks to work with users to try to pull back our footprint.”

Several key threats have been identified as contributing to declining caribou populations in the national parks, including altered predator-prey dynamics with increasing elk, deer and wolves, and increased access by wolves into caribou range on packed trails.

Other threats include human disturbance, including roads that pose the risk of caribou being run over and killed. Caribou can also be displaced from prime feeding grounds by hikers and dogs.

On neighbouring provincial lands, the most significant and immediate threat to caribou is increased predation by wolves, resulting from dramatic habitat alteration due to industrial activities.

Industrial activities such as logging, mining and mineral exploration, and oil and gas exploration and development remove or destroy caribou habitat and create habitats favoured by other prey species such as moose and deer.

Because wolves prefer to eat moose and deer, increased numbers of those prey species support higher numbers of wolves than would occur naturally in ecosystems dominated by older forest ecosystems. Wolves can also easily travel up roads with industrial and recreational activities, giving them much easier access to caribou.

Parks Canada did not get back to the Outlook by press time. All media queries must be cleared by Parks Canada’s national office.

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