British Columbia

Caribou maternity project does more harm than good, environmentalists claim

A program meant to save the plummeting number of caribou in B.C. may actually be doing more harm than good, says one environmental group.

In 2014, just 2 of 9 newborn calves survived the year, worse than outcomes in the wild, says group

Blair Lekstrom was appointed by the premier as a "community liaison" after opposition to the caribou recovery plan boiled over in the Peace in 2019. (Getty Images)

A program meant to save the plummeting number of caribou in B.C. may actually be doing more harm than good, says one environmental group.

The Valhalla Wilderness Society says B.C.'s caribou "maternity pens," are placing unnecessary stress on the endangered animals and have not improved their outcomes above what would naturally occur in the wild. 

The project captures pregnant cows and relocates them to a protected space where they can rear their young without fear of predation.

So far this year, seven caribou including one adult have died at the two maternity pens in B.C. near Revelstoke and Chetwynd. 

In 2014, the first year of the program, only two of the nine calves born at the Revelstoke pen survived the year.

Habitat, not predation, the issue

​Craig Pettitt, director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, suspects that the reason for the poor outcomes goes beyond predation.

He believes many of these pregnant females are giving birth to underweight and weak calves because of human-caused stress, and he says similar stressors persist within the maternity pen setup.

"How do you capture a female caribou? First of all, you chase her with a helicopter in the open, get a net over it. Then you tranquilize it with tranquilizers that we don't know the full side effects of," said Pettitt.

Caribou penning project

8 years ago
Duration 1:44
Caribou being caught and penned in Revelstoke.

"What we're saying is there is insufficient habitat, and the habitat that we've set aside is still being heavily used by humans," said Pettitt

This project is modelled after a similar initiative in the Yukon, which unlike B.C's, was met with great success.

This initiative is just one of the many efforts to boost the dwindling number of caribou herds, which also includes the province's controversial wolf cull ordered earlier this year in the South Selkirk Mountains and the South Peace.

Independent review will begin

Results at the maternity pens have improved this year, with 15 live births at the Revelstoke pen, said Kelsey Furk, executive director of the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild penning program.

Of those, four calves died before they could be released back into the wild. The other 11 calves are still alive and are subject to daily tracking, she said. 

"We can expect that 50 per cent of calves that were born in the wild would not make it to the first month of life. So at this stage ... our operation in the pen went as well as it possibly could have," Furk said.

But Furk said she recognizes the need for oversight and accountability, which is why her society has commissioned an independent review to investigate.

The study will be led by two scientists from the University of Alberta beginning in November, and the results of the review will be made public.

To hear the full interview with Craig Pettitt and Kelsey Furk, listen to the audio labelled: B.C. pregnant caribou pens may be causing more harm than good.