After years of decline, caribou herd shows signs of recovery

Zoë Ducklow
A caribou cow in a pen near Chetwynd. The new mother was one of 17 animals released back into the wild July 15 as part of a program to restore caribou populations.

Garrett Napoleon and Harley Davis walk up from their cabin with several bags of lichen, collected by community members from under the rock pines between Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge, where there are hoards of the food stuff.Over the last few weeks the herd has been weaned off a diet of pellets of fats, minerals and protein back to plain lichen in preparation for release back into the wild. It’s two days until Davis and Napoleon will open up the fence, and they feel sad to say goodbye.

“Sad but happy,” Davis says. “It’s time for the caribou to be out on their own, and we’ll still monitor them after they’re out.”

This maternal pen is run by Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations along with Wildlife Infometrics, which was hired three years ago to intervene in the sharply declining numbers of caribou.

The Klinze-za herd in Northeast B.C.’s Rocky Mountain foothills used to be hundreds of animals strong, but three years ago, there were just 16 caribou. Now, after three years of protected calving, the herd is up to around 70 animals. Maternal penning allows mothers and calves to bond in a safe place, and lets the calf get fast enough to keep up with the mother once they’re released.

“It gives them a much stronger fighting chance of survival,” says West Moberly Chief Roland Willson about the project.

Everyone seems encouraged by how the new calves are doing, but maternal penning is not a golden bullet for the caribou’s woes. The population has been in decline primarily due to habitat loss and changes to predation.

Caribou are a migratory animal and need wide uninterrupted spaces to roam. Access roads for logging, gas wells and mines fragment their habitat and inadvertently give predators easy access to terrain that used to be natural sanctuary for caribou. Wolves, for example, don’t travel well in deep snow like caribou do with their spindly legs, but access roads have paved a way for wolves to the formerly inaccessible mountain tops.

Brian Pate with Wildlife Infometrics scans the mountains for caribou who got out of the pen early when a portion of the fence collapsed in the heavy rain and flooding in mid-June. Four cows and and three calves left the pen, and all seem to be doing well according to location data transmitted by their radio collars.

There’s no avoiding the invasive capture process, but the team at Wildlife Infometrics do what they can to prevent harm, beginning with picking what cows to capture.

“We try to pick cows who don’t have a calf with them, or a teenager from last year. And we look at the group size, if there’s only two or three we won’t take one. We don’t want to break up the families too much,” says Brian Pate who works for the company.

The capture starts with a helicopter chase, where a professional shoots a net gun to trap the caribou, and the drops down to hold her in place until help arrives.

“Once he covers the eyes, usually they calm down pretty quickly,” Pate says. “The veterinarian lands in a helicopter just behind, and they’ll check over the cow and give her a nasal spray that’s like a relaxant.”

Assuming nothing when wrong with the net gun—broken legs are a risk, which is why they use a professional, Pate says—the main concern is temperature. Designed for life at -40 degrees Celsius, caribou are made to keep heat, not lose it. Running away from a helicopter is hot work, so the veterinarian wants to make sure the animal doesn’t overheat.

Next they’ll hobble her legs so no one gets kicked and load her into the helicopter, landing half-kilometer away from the pen so as not to frighten the animals already there.

They’ll bring her the rest of the way with a snowmobile and sleigh combination. At the pen, veterinarians check over her health, record weight and collect various samples before administering an antidote for the nasal spray.

“Within a minute or so she’ll bounce right up and be fine,” Pate says.

This is the cost of development, some conservationists say. It would be nice to think of maternal pens as an ideal solution to population decline, but in truth it’s far from it.

“We can pen and recover as many caribou as we want,” Willson says, “but it we don’t have the habitat for them, it’s not going to mean anything. They’re just going to keep on getting eaten.”

He’s called for wider habitat protection but says the provincial government is unwilling to protect area with natural resources.

“The only part they have protected is the high alpine, because there’s nothing that they want there. But low elevation habitat zones are just as critically important—the caribou can’t stay on top of the mountain all the time—but the government values the coal more than they value the caribou,” he says.

“We’ve said this all the time that, the First Nations are not opposed to development, but it’s got to be done in a sustainable and responsible manner.”

Harley Davis lives in the rustic cabin every second week from March until mid-July with cousin and fellow herder Garret Napoleon. “We gotta spend our whole lives together so, so no point in making it difficult,” he jokes when asked if they ever get stir crazy.

Napoleon and Davis are two caribou herders from Saulteau who live up in the mountains every other week from March to mid-July, rotating with two other herders from West Moberly.

“I stay out of the politics and just look after these guys,” Davis says, looking over the herd who are slowly making their way towards breakfast. “Some people do all this scientific stuff, but it’s simple, really. They just need food, a good habitat, fresh water and protection.”

Davis grew up in a time when caribou were plentiful.

“They were sustenance, they were clothing, they were medicine. They were everything,” he says.

“I think it’s our job to ensure that our children and our grandchildren are able to experience what we enjoy today. I don’t want them to see them in pictures or books or videos or whatever. I want them to go out there and see them in real life.”

By the time all the lichen was laid out in the troughs, the calves had gathered in a small meadow, watching but not approaching. Davis and Napoleon slowly circled around the perimeter coming up well behind the calves, passively herding them toward the food.

They’re careful to keep their distance, so the animals never become too accustomed to their presence. It’s also important not to make eye contact even if a cow or calf comes close enough.

“Predators look them in the eye,” Davis says. “It’s predacious behaviour; we don’t want to intimidate them.”

Friday morning the herders opened the fence releasing the nine cows and eight calves back to their usual haunts. By late afternoon, they had all left the pen, calves with their mothers.

Caribou calf in the pen a few days before the fence was opened for the cows and calves to return to the wild.
Caribou calf in the pen a few days before the fence was opened for the cows and calves to return to the wild.

Four cows and three calves got out in mid-June when a portion of the pen fence was damaged by heavy rainfall and flooding in the region. The crew has kept an eye on the animals that left early—so far they seem to be doing fine. Each animal is fitted with a radio collar that records their position once a day, and transmits the data to Wildlife Infometrics Wednesday afternoons.

“Scientifically we’re looking to see what habitat they choose. We’re interested to see if they join up with other animals,” Pate says.

“We also look to see that they aren’t moving around too much—this would be a sign they’re being pushed by predators. Normally caribou will find a place they like and stay there for a while, moving maybe 200 metres in a day. But if there’s a bear or something, they might run 10 kilometers in a day.”

Published by the Dawson Creek Mirror July 21, 2016