British Columbia

Calgary Zoo to help revive B.C. caribou herd

Parks Canada and the Calgary Zoo are teaming up in hopes of saving southern mountain caribou herds from the threat of extinction.

Parks Canada says fewer than 250 southern mountain caribou are left, down from more than 800 in the 1980s

Southern mountain caribou in Jasper National Park (Mark Bradley, Parks Canada/Contributed)

Parks Canada and the Calgary Zoo are teaming up with an ambitious plan to save southern mountain caribou herds from the threat of extinction.

According to Parks Canada, there are fewer than 250 southern mountain caribou left in the national parks, down from more than 800 in the 1980s.

In spring 2009, an entire population of the woodland caribou herd were wiped out when several avalanches occurred in the Banff area.

"The numbers are so low they can indeed be wiped out by a natural event," said Jasper National Park Superintendent, Greg Fenton.

Staff within Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Banff and Jasper National Parks will use wolf and cougar control to revive the herd.

Parks Canada will also establish a breeding centre with the Calgary Zoo. Caribou will be flown to the centre, where the animals will mate and calve, then be transported back to their habitat.

There are fewer than 250 southern mountain caribou left in national parks in B.C. and Alberta (Contributed by: Mark Bradley, Parks Canada)

Fenton said it's the first time they've tried something like this, but the alternative is to watch the animals die out on their own -- which could have larger consequences.

"As well as being an iconic and amazing animal to see, they play an important role in the ecosystem. When they are in trouble it is an indicator of an ecosystem in trouble," said Fenton.

Critics say plan won't work

But not everyone is on board with the plan. Past president of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, Carmen Purdy says it's a waste of taxpayers' money.

He says caribou raised in captivity become easy prey for predators like wolves and cougars.

"They should look at what they want to accomplish before they start spending money on rearing caribou in captivity and putting these poor caribou who don't know anything about the wild in the wild. Teeth and claws are going to take them out."

He says a similar plan to re-introduce the burrowing owl in the Okanagan failed because of predator species.

"It's a waste of money because it has been a waste in the past. We have done it a couple of times and plan on doing it again. In some of the places we are talking about the caribou have already disappeared for good reason, it's predation."

Parks Canada says it hopes to bring the southern mountain caribou herd up to 350 across the four parks. The breeding program partnership with Calgary Zoo is expected to begin within the next three years.

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