Breeding program ‘being worked on’ to boost caribou population in Jasper National Park Jasper’s source for news, sports, arts, culture, and more -…

Posted: November 4, 2020 at 11:57 am

Parks Canada is looking into a conservation breeding program to increase Jaspers dwindling caribou population. Resource conservation manager David Argument said this has never been attempted before for southern mountain caribou. | Parks Canada/Layla Neufeld photo

Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter |

With the Maligne herd extirpated and the Tonquin and Brazeau herds in Jasper National Park at dangerously low population levels, Parks Canada is looking at conservation breeding for caribou.

David Argument, resource conservation manager for Parks Canada, described the move as the only remaining suitable tool here for circumstances in Jasper.

He said: The work that weve been doing indicates the herds are too small and have been too small for some time, to rebuild naturally.

A well-developed proposal is being worked on, he said, and theres a timeline of several weeks and months as it goes through an expert review process.

Even with the urgency of declining populations, Argument emphasized the need to ensure the conservation breeding program will work before it is put in place.

Conservation breeding for caribou has actually never been attempted for southern mountain caribou, he said.

Its never been attempted on the scale were thinking will be necessary here in Jasper.

He added with low caribou numbers, bringing the animals into captivity has to be done correctly to ensure propagation of the species.

With the finalizing of the proposal a long way down the road, Argument said Parks Canadas attention is focused on working on retaining existing conservation measures that help to keep the remaining caribou persist on the landscape.

We know the numbers in Jasper are low, Argument said. The Tonquin herd is sitting around 45 animals and has been at that number for years. We survey that (area) annually and keep close tabs on how that herd is doing. We expect them to persist into the foreseeable future, barring some calamitous event which is possible with any wildlife population.

The last caribou in Banff National Park were declared extirpated when an avalanche killed the remaining five animals in an avalanche north of Lake Louise in 2009.

Argument said theres no reason to expect the Tonquin herd is going to follow the Maligne herd in the immediate future.

The Maligne herd, unfortunately, in reaching its end, got to lower numbers earlier and reached those lower numbers before the threats to caribou persistence were fully understood, and before the full suite of conservation measures we now have in place were developed, he said.

The Maligne herd is considered to have been at a functional extirpation level for quite a long time, because they havent had enough breeding females in that herd for a longer period.

The Tonquin herd we expect to persist and were not proposing any drastic measures in the immediate term, nothing that well take undertake this fall.

The number of breeding females is more important than the number of breeding males, Argument noted.

If there are below 10 breeding females in a herd, then theres a very small, very limited chance theyll be able to rebuild the herd naturally, he said.

There could be 100 bulls hanging around but if we have less than 10 breeding females then were in trouble. Thats what were really talking about when were talking about whether or not a herd is functionally extirpated.

About the conservation breeding proposal, Carolyn Campbell, Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist, said, As we understand, theres been quite a bit of expert review. If theyre going to do another review, make it quick and transparent.

We believe its time to tell Canadians. Make a decision. In any case, those caribou have no time to lose.

Addressing calls for change

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) has called for Parks Canada to stop clearing snow beyond Maligne Canyon.

That and backcountry skiing, the AWA says, may inhibit potential caribou dispersal from the adjacent Tonquin or Brazeau ranges, and support wolf travel.

Argument said removing recreational opportunities is something that needs to be thought about fairly carefully in the national parks.

Argument said, Its not that the habitat is bad. Weve addressed the threats to caribou habitat in Jasper. Winter access restrictions are a significant part of that and those will remain wherever there are caribou present on the landscape.

We feel conditions are good right now: the predator density, the predator numbers are low, due in part to our management activities over the last 10 or 15 years.

In our view the conditions are actually very good in Jasper for the re-establishment of caribou herds.

Altering access

With the confidence that the Maligne herd is no longer there, Parks Canada has changed some access restrictions to the area.

Winter closures protect more than 3,000 square kilometres of winter habitat for caribou in Jasper National Park from November to March. The purpose of these closures is to prevent people from creating trails that wolves can use to prey on caribou in places that are otherwise inaccessible.

But this year, the boundaries of the closure in the Maligne Range have been changed, effective Nov. 1, to allow some limited opportunities for recreation.

Winter access has been opened to some terrain in the Bald Hills, and the area between Big Shovel and Little Shovel Passes is no longer restricted.

Travel along the Skyline Trail between Little Shovel Pass and the Bald Hills will not be permitted until after Mar. 1, 2021.

Even so, Campbell, AWA conservation specialist, said, Were concerned that the ongoing winter plowing and opening of trails still allows for early wolf access and wolf re-establishment in prime Maligne Valley caribou habitat.

We acknowledge the two trails are limited in area, and we appreciate that dogs are still not allowed, but we still think its urgent to end Maligne Road plowing.

Campbell said Parks Canadas decision to remove restrictions in those areas will make it hard to rescind them.

Parks Canada said that if caribou are observed in the Maligne Range, the closure will be reassessed and reinstated at any time.

Counting caribou

Argument said Parks Canada spend a great deal of effort surveying caribou, monitoring where they are actually living and the herd sizes that remain.

We have a pretty good handle on the numbers of each of these herds and where theyre spending their time, he said.

Argument said in the past, when the herds were larger, there would be natural distribution, also called natural immigration, between the herds. For example, 50 to 100 years ago, the Brazeau herd and the Maligne herd probably saw a lot of interchange of animals when their numbers were bigger, when the males were prospecting for different territory.

Now were in a situation where the Brazeau herd is down to 10 animals remaining and we know where theyre spending their time in the winters, Argument said.

Theres very, very little chance that those animals will naturally immigrate to the Maligne range to where the Maligne herd used to live. If that were to happen, well, wed be very excited to see that.

Argument said if that happens, Parks efforts would be put in place and any changes to how they manage visitor access would be put right back into the protection mode. Immediately.

He said although tracking collars have been used in the past to keep tabs on the number of animals, Parks Canada now uses less invasive tools.

Every year at about this time of year when we first get a good snow cover in the alpine areas, we fly in those areas so we can see the animal tracks, he said, adding that a survey was recently done in the Brazeau range and the caribou tracks stood out clearly.

Parks Canada staff go for the minimum count when they do surveys. Whatever number we come up with in that survey, we know with 100 per cent certainty that is the minimum number of animals remaining in that herd, Argument said. It may be that there are more, it may be that there are some that are not observed, some hiding in the trees.

That information is augmented by the skat DNA method, where skat is collected and sent to a genetics lab to make it possible to keep track of how many individuals are in that herd over the year. Skat is directly tied to the sex ratio male or female, an increase or decrease in the herd, age distribution.

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Breeding program 'being worked on' to boost caribou population in Jasper National Park Jasper's source for news, sports, arts, culture, and more -...

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