Banff may get new caribou herd

Scientists in Banff National Park are trying to decide whether to bring in a herd of caribou to replace those lost in an avalanche last spring.
Wildlife biologist Jesse Whittington walks on the slope where an avalanche wiped out Banff's caribou herd. ((CBC))

Scientists in Banff National Park are trying to decide whether to bring in a herd of caribou to replace those lost in an avalanche last spring. 

After last April's avalanche north of Lake Louise, the herd is considered extinct.

"From a large perspective, this is one of the first large mammal extinctions of an animal in Canada in a national park in a long time," said Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife biologist the University of Montana who has studied Canadian caribou for 20 years.

Officials at Parks Canada are considering moving caribou into Banff from British Columbia or elsewhere in a process known as translocation. They are monitoring elk populations — the main prey for wolves — to see whether wolf populations will be high as well.  

"We have much lower elk and wolf densities now than we did in the past, so we think conditions are much more favourable for successful caribou translocation now than they were five or 10 years ago," said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife biologist with Parks Canada.

"However we want to do more analyses to make sure conditions are indeed favourable for successful caribou translocation," he said.

At its peak, the Banff caribou herd numbered about 30, but the animals started dying off and the herd's rate of reproduction dropped. People rarely saw the caribou because they kept to the high alpine ridges in the summer where there is plenty of lichen and few predators.

When the herd dwindled to about 10 animals, it was placed on the threatened list under the federal government's Species At Risk Act (SARA). That was supposed to trigger a recovery plan, including a strategy for protecting habitat, Hebblewhite said.

"They kind of fell through the cracks," he said. "There's all these rules and policies about SARA and it's all very confusing but at the end of the day, the caribou in Banff fell through administrative cracks. I would say adequate funding and resources weren't really directed to them when they really needed it."

Environment Canada refused comment on Hebblewhite's allegations.

There are about 16 caribou herds across the province of Alberta, Hebblewhite said, warning that they, as well as herds across the country, could also go extinct.  

"This problem is going to occur in other national parks in Canada. For example, Pukaskwa National Park on the shores of Lake Superior has a small caribou herd of 10 to 20, and if it's OK to let caribou go extinct in Banff, which is Canada's oldest national park, then then it's OK to let them go extinct in other national parks," he said.