A bounty of snow has snuffed out this year’s maternal pen project in British Columbia to preserve a critically endangered remnant group of mountain caribou that ranges into the United States in the Selkirk Mountains.
Plans called for a 19-acre pen built last fall to temporarily protect newborn calf caribou from predators this spring. But the pen has been rendered unusable by a snowpack that’s approximately 140 percent of normal and still mounting.
“On the positive side, nature is stepping up to provide caribou with deep snow – their natural protection from predators,” said Bart George, project coordinator and wildlife biologist for the Kalisipel Tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department. “Wolves won’t go up into the deep snow to hunt a few caribou when they have deer and elk at lower elevations.”
The international effort called for aerial netting the last 11 remaining mountain caribou in the South Selkirk Mountains next month, including the pregnant cows, and transferring them into the pen so their calves could be born protected from predators.
The cows would have been allowed to nurse and raise their calves until they were strong enough to have a good chance to move and flee predators such as bears, cougars and wolves. The technique has boosted calf survival in a separate herd of mountain caribou farther north in the Selkirk Mountains, said Aaron Reid, provincial wildlife biologist based in Nelson.
The South Selkirks mountain caribou, like all subspecies of woodland caribou, are adapted with oversized hooves to move on deep snow and live high in the mountains during winter while elk and deer congregate at lower elevations.
George said the 15-foot-tall fence is nearly covered with snow and won’t have enough height to hold the caribou this spring.
Not far away from the high-elevation pen site, the total snowfall recorded this season at Whitewater Ski Resort near Nelson is roughly 375 inches, with 113 inches of settled snowpack still increasing on the resort’s slopes.
The deeper-than-normal snowpack elevates the caribou so they can feed higher in trees for arboreal lichen, their main winter food source, George said. Meanwhile, the Kalispel Tribe and British Columbia partners will also be using the deep snow as a ladder to assist in adding another 5 feet to the top of the existing pen fence to accommodate a wealth of snow should it occur again next year, George said.
The South Selkirk caribou herd had been growing, with roughy four dozen of the animals counted in the early 2000s. However, numbers started plummeting soon after wolves recovered in the area around 2009, George said.
British Columbia wildlife officials have been controlling wolf numbers in the caribou recovery zone for several years to give the endangered caribou a break.
Although mountain caribou were listed as endangered species in the U.S. in 1983, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the states of Washington and Idaho are not actively involved in the maternal pen project or controlling the caribou predators even though the caribou range extends south into Idaho and Washington.
“Caribou numbers are so low, it can be a big deal to prevent even one loss to predators,” said George.
The Kalispel Tribe and First Nations groups in Canada have vowed to make the last ditch effort to save the herd, he said.
About 150 pounds of lichen has been collected by volunteers to feed the caribou when they’re first released in the pens so they can transition to special pellet food. Cheryl Moody, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, has been coordinating the volunteer effort and the storing of the lichen since last year.
The lichen that’s snagged with poles and removed from tree branches is lightweight after it’s cleaned and dried, she said. A storage shed near Priest Lake is filled with lichen hanging in bags. About 12 pounds of lichen fills a mesh bag designed to hold 10 basketballs, Moody said.
Volunteers, including the Idaho Conservation League, will try to collect an additional 80-100 pounds of lichen this year to be ready for next year’s maternal pen project, Moody said.
Meanwhile, the Kalispel’s raised roughly $17,000 at a pen project fundraiser Saturday night from approximately 200 guests who filled the Pend Oreille Pavilion at the Northern Quest Casino. “That’s in addition to the money we raised from sponsored tables and donors before the banquet, said Mike Lithgow, spokesman for the Kalispell Fish and Wildlife Department.
Money raised from the event and its live and silent auctions will go directly to ongoing recovery efforts for the herd, including putting GPS collars on additional caribou this spring, he said.