In an effort to preserve the southern mountain caribou population in Jasper National Park, Parks Canada has developed a proposal to capture a small number of wild caribou and breed them in captivity. This species recovery strategy, also known as conservation breeding, would see the offspring released back into the wild to increase wild populations of southern mountain caribou in Jasper.
The proposal is based on research that Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists have undertaken with universities, provincial governments, and conservation programs to best understand how to protect and recover caribou. The use of conservation breeding requires careful planning and thought, as it is a high-risk strategy. But for the Jasper southern mountain caribou, it may be a last lifeline.
In the early 1970s, the park was home to several southern mountain caribou herds with hundreds of animals. But the number of caribou in the park has drastically declined. Jasper now contains only three herds of southern mountain caribou, one of which partially migrates out of the park. Another herd, nicknamed Brazeau, consists of less than fifteen caribou.
Conservation breeding for the southern mountain caribou would involve capturing wild caribou, breeding them in a protected facility, and then releasing the young animals bred in the facility back into existing herds, says Parks Canada. The animals would also be monitored upon release so that the program could be modified and adapted along the way.
“It’s clearly not ideal,” says Stan Boutin, a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, who was not involved in the Parks Canada proposal. “It has the added risk that you lose any of the traditional knowledge that the caribou had about where they were living.” Finding a source of female caribou may also prove tricky. “They’re just not that abundant.”
The success of a conservation breeding program also hinges on whether the captive-bred offspring are being released into a habitable environment.
“You should only do a conservation breeding program if you’ve made efforts to restore the habitat these animals are going back into,” says Boutin. “It’s just not acceptable to try to breed these things up and then stick them back into the environment where they weren’t able to cope.”
Parks Canada says that there is abundant habitat for caribou, and conditions are now favourable for this program. “The primary reason for declining herds of caribou within park boundaries in the last century was an imbalance in delicate predator-prey relationships. An overabundance of both elk and wolves created by early park management practices led to caribou increasingly falling prey to a growing wolf population.”
The development of roads and trails through Jasper gave wolves an advantage in hunting southern mountain caribou. They were able to travel along the same routes people were using and access deep snow areas where historically caribou had been safe from wolves. To tackle this problem, Parks Canada now closes access to occupied caribou ranges from November to the end of February in Jasper.
“They have certainly tried to restrict the amount of access up until the alpine where the caribou are in the wintertime, nobody at the ski trails up there, no human traffic up there,” says Boutin. But he adds that the biggest challenge for protecting caribou in the park is that outside of Jasper, development marches on.
“All of the action around the park continues to go at the same sort of pace that it has for the last ten to fifteen years. Some of these problems in the park may be related to activities surrounding it, and that has not improved.”
And then there’s the threat that looms over all species at risk; a changing climate. Boutin says that as a result of climate and environmental changes, there is a risk that some caribou herds on the edge of their distribution are no longer viable.
Parks Canada acknowledges that implementing a caribou breeding program would be a significant and long-term initiative, one using “partners that have the expertise, experience, and resources to make the program a success.”
The proposal is set to undergo a comprehensive review by external experts this January.