British Columbia is looking to transplant more caribou and build newborn calf protection pens in hopes of boosting endangered caribou herds that roam the province’s border with Idaho and Washington.
Although several steep hurdles remain before any caribou from the province’s healthier, northern herds could be brought south, such a move might take place as early as the spring of 2008, according to Leo DeGroot, mountain caribou recovery coordinator for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.
Caribou are the rarest mammal in the United States. An estimated 37 of the shy ungulates live in the dark, wet forests of the southern Selkirk Mountain range, which runs from the Priest Lake area of North Idaho into southeastern B.C. Most of these caribou are believed to be in Canada. A smaller herd also lives in the Purcell Mountain range north of the border.
“At what point do you step in and try to do something before it’s too late?” DeGroot asked Tuesday at the semi-annual meeting of the International Mountain Caribou Technical Committee.
The group includes scientists and activists from both sides of the border. They met in Spokane to share information on recovery efforts, including a proposal unveiled in recent weeks by B.C. to boost the size of the South Selkirk and Purcell herds to at least 75 animals each. Transplants are expected to be part of the plan, as would specially designed birthing pens.
A team of independent scientists helped develop the province’s plan. “It’s probably the most complex recovery strategy ever attempted in North America,” said Steve Wilson, a wildlife biologist from B.C. who led the team. The province has yet to commit to funding the plan, though discussions are beginning now on implementation, Wilson said.
Everything from logging in old growth forest to increasing cougar populations to harassment from backcountry snowmobiling and skiing is being blamed for the plummeting herd sizes. A decade ago, about 2,500 mountain caribou lived in southeastern B.C. and a northern sliver of Idaho. Today, there are about 1,900, with the vast majority concentrated in the remote Hart Ranges of the Rocky Mountains, hundreds of miles north of the border.
DeGroot said caribou transplants have ensured the continent’s southernmost herds have not been wiped off the map – the most recent transplant took place in 1998 when a dozen animals were released at Stagleap Provincial Park, just north of the point where Idaho, Washington and B.C. meet. Six transplants are believed to be alive today.
“If we weren’t transplanting, we wouldn’t have a South Selkirks population anymore,” DeGroot said.
Although habitat protection remains the only long-term hope for survival, one of the quickest fixes would be to protect newborn calves, DeGroot said. The tiny, wobbly-legged caribou make easy meals for wolves, cougars, bears, wolverines and even eagles.
In the wild, only about 15 percent of calves make it to their first birthday. Scientists in the Yukon, however, have figured out a way to keep three-quarters of calves alive through the first year. Since 2003, nearly 100 pregnant females from a large herd in the Yukon have been captured with nets then released inside a large, fenced enclosure.
The pregnant caribou are fed a diet of “reindeer pellets” and lichens that were collected by local children. The gates to the enclosure are opened in early June, about three weeks after most of the calves are born.
One of the biggest problems is building a fence tall enough to rise above the average 10-feet of snowpack in caribou birthing areas. In October, specially designed fencing fabric was strung up near Kootenay Pass, not far from Stagleap Park. Scientists are testing the different materials to see which holds up best against the heavy snow. A recent visit to the site showed some large footprints walking up to the material. “The caribou have been checking it out,” DeGroot said, while showing a photo of dinner plate-sized hoofprints in the snow near the fence.
DeGroot said an actual birthing pen could be built in the area next fall to be ready for the first transplant of about 20 animals. No transplants will take place until a long-running dispute is resolved between the government and Canada’s Indian tribes, though DeGroot said he’s hopeful this will happen soon.
Mark Sprengel, director of the Priest River-based Selkirk Conservation Alliance, fears the transplanted caribou would not find a hospitable environment should they wander into their herd’s stomping grounds south of the border. For the last two years, environmental groups have been trying to limit the amount of snowmobiling on caribou habitat north of Priest Lake, claiming the increasingly popular and powerful machines scare skittish caribou.
“If you lose the habitat, it’s making a mockery of our best efforts,” Sprengel said. “I think we’re kidding ourselves. … All the captive rearing in the world is not going to achieve that objective.”
New research from Canada presented at Tuesday’s meeting backs that claim. Dale Seip, a scientist with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, tracked caribou over four winters on five separate blocks of prime, high-country caribou habitat. Caribou were common on all five tracts, except the one block where snowmobiling was allowed. The radio-collared animals only showed up during one of the four winters on the tract – and at far fewer numbers than the habitat would have been expected to support, said DeGroot, who presented the research in Seip’s absence.