Jasper National Park says one caribou herd gone, two others on the brink of local extinction

The Alberta Wilderness Association says that southern mountain woodland caribou populations in Jasper National Park are dangerously low, and are calling on Parks Canada to intervene.

'Probably every month and maybe every week matters,' conservation specialist says

A caribou maternal penning project in northeastern B.C. aims to restore endangered herds. The Alberta Wilderness Association says Jasper National Park needs to act swiftly to save its herds. (Wildlife Infometrics)

Caribou populations in Jasper National Park are in deep trouble. 

Of three southern mountain woodland caribou herds managed by Parks Canada, one — the Maligne herd — is now considered extirpated, or  locally extinct, while the other two are dangerously small, according to the Jasper National Park's Species at Risk report. 

Worse, neither of those herds has enough breeding females to be able to grow the herds, a situation that has an Alberta wilderness society calling for swift action.

"The Tonquin is estimated to have about 45 caribou left only, the Brazeau less than 15. And a key thing for caribou is the number of breeding females," said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist for the Calgary-based Alberta Wilderness Association.

"In each case, unfortunately, these two populations have 10 or less breeding females. That means they cannot grow any bigger and they're very vulnerable to sudden disasters or setbacks." 

Caribou have one calf per season. 

Another herd, the À La Pêche, migrates across the northern border of the park and is managed by the Alberta government. It is believed to have about 150 animals, according to the park's 2019 annual report.

'Too small to recover'

Three aerial surveys of the Maligne Valley conducted in 2018 and 2019 failed to locate caribou tracks or animals, the annual report stated. It says the Tonquin and Brazeau herds are "too small to recover on their own."

Campbell and the AWA have written a letter to Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister of environment and climate change, and Alan Fehr, superintendent of Jasper National Park, urging them to take action. 

Campbell told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active that the populations can be saved, but quick intervention is needed. 

"Probably every month and maybe every week matters for how small these herds now are," she said.

"That's why it's so important to have this discussion now."

AWA is urging Parks Canada to proceed with an emergency population augmentation program for the remaining caribou herds, a measure she said the association rarely endorses. 

"We know because of [their website], that Parks Canada has been working for some years actually on what they call a conservation breeding [program]" said Campbell.

"We still need to see details but the idea is that if this is a really dire situation, we might be best to proceed with some kind of enclosure that would grow the population and be an insurance against extinction," she said.

Campbell says that a project like this in Jasper National Park could result in healthy caribou populations in 10 or 20 years.

There are many reasons for the herds' dwindling populations. 

Parks Canada's website says that early park management practices resulted in too many wolves, while trails used for skiing and snowshoeing also made easy access for wolves to prey on the caribou herds. Habitat loss as a result of increased wildfires, insect outbreaks and human activity have also contributed to the population decline. 

Land-use decisions have also made the national park a less-than-pristine habitat for caribou, Campbell said.

"These are mountain caribou, and so for one thing, they need to migrate in the winter to secure foothills areas and unfortunately, in the 20th century we didn't know that," she said.

"Foothills outside our national parks really were fragmented by roads, dams, mines and other industry. So those caribou lost the ability to migrate safely and they remained inside the national parks."

Too little, too  late

In the past few years, Parks Canada has taken steps to help caribou populations, such as restricting access to ski trails and lowering speed limits. Wolf populations are now low enough that they don't pose a risk to the remaining caribou herds.

But Campbell said the restrictions were too little and too late.

"We would call on Minister Wilkinson to move past this inaction … and move urgently to recover these populations so future generations of Canadians can rightly know that there will be caribou in Jasper for them to marvel at and be inspired by."

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