April 11, 2012 Calgary Zoo

Stopping the Slide for Mountain Caribou

Helping Caribou Continue to Call the Rocky Mountains Home

When a wall of snow roared down a mountain near Molar Creek in Banff National Park in April 2009, it left more in its wake than displaced boulders and broken trees. The last tiny herd of mountain woodland caribou that had been eking out a fragile existence in the park was instantly wiped out.

With neighbouring populations in Jasper unlikely to disperse into Banff, it looked like a sad end to the species in the area. But a new partnership between Parks Canada, the British Columbia Government and the Calgary Zoo, announced last November, is offering new hope for this threatened species in all of the mountain national parks.

Taking Action to Help Caribou

John Wilmshurst, ecosystem science coordinator with Parks Canada, says the newly published mountain woodland caribou conservation strategy is a critical first step. “Unlike many endangered species, we actually know a lot about caribou ecology and population dynamics. We have identified the five key threats they face and know what the solutions are. With appropriate action, we can realistically see a recovery of this species.” The threats Wilmshurst mentions affect each of the caribou populations in Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks to varying degrees; some have greater issues around predation, while others are dealing primarily with habitat loss or disturbances caused by roads. Regardless of the cause, caribou numbers in every park are on the decline. “We know that the small populations of these animals will not recover unless we do something bold, such as captive breeding and reintroduction,” he explains.

With their memorandum of understanding only a few months old, the three partners are already actively creating plans, working through logistics and preparing to build facilities. Wilmshurst says that the captive breeding program’s first year will likely involve moving up to 20 caribou from large, wild herds in B.C. to the Calgary Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre (DWCC).

When these first members of the conservation herd arrive, the zoo will draw from experience breeding woodland caribou and involvement in several other Canadian endangered species reintroduction programs. Scientists from the zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research will also have an important role to play. While it’s too early to determine the exact focus of their research, endangered species researcher Lea Randall says that it will likely involve determining the suitability of animals born in captivity before release to the wild and evaluating their success afterward. “We will be carefully watching the early stages of the project and targeting our research on the areas of greatest need.”

Breeding Caribou at the Calgary Zoo

In the second year, an additional 20 wild caribou will augment the conservation herd. By year three, the first yearlings born at the DWCC could start being introduced to the wild. When it comes to deciding where those yearlings will make their new home, Banff National Park is a priority but Wilmshurst says it may not necessarily be the first choice. “Our primary concern is always to introduce animals to wild areas where they have the greatest conservation value and the best chances of survival. That can change from year to year, depending on conditions; certain parks may have high predator numbers or issues with visitation, so we use a list of criteria to determine the best choice at any given time.”

“Unlike many endangered species, we actually know a lot about caribou ecology and population dynamics. With appropriate action, we can realistically see a recovery of this species.”

While there is much optimism, Wilmshurst emphasizes that the project is not a quick fix. “Conservation biologists generally use a guideline of three generations before measuring the success of a reintroduction program,” he explains. “Generation time in caribou is seven years, so it will likely be about two decades before we can confidently state the reintroduction is successful.”

Many Canadians will be watching closely as this project evolves, hoping that the iconic species adorning the country’s 25-cent coin will once again grace the slopes and valleys of its first national park.

As published in the Spring 2012 issue of Wildlife Matters in Canada, the official publication of the Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums.

Photo by Mark Bradley

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