Airlifting Pregnant Caribou Away From Wolves

Caribou herds in British Columbia are threatened by a new predator. Indigenous people are taking extreme steps to save them.

On a clear sunny day in March, in a snow-covered area of the South Peace River region of British Columbia, a female caribou is on the ground, struggling to get back on its feet.

Surrounded by a team of biologists, veterinarians, and First Nations community members, the sedated animal is slowly opening its eyes. Cec Heron, lands and resource manager for the West Moberly First Nations, gently strokes its back and speaks to it in a soft voice.

“I am just letting her know that she is now in a good place and will be very well looked after,” Heron says.

Along with ten other pregnant females, this one has just been captured in the Rocky Mountains, by a net fired from a low-flying helicopter, and airlifted to a valley about 35 miles east of Mackenzie. In a pen guarded day and night by First Nations shepherds, protected from wolves and bears, the caribou will give birth and raise their calves, then be returned to the wild when they are less vulnerable.

Caribou are a vital part of aboriginal culture, traditionally used for food, clothing, and tools. They’ve been on the Canadian quarter since 1936. Known as reindeer in Europe and Asia, the species, Rangifer tarandus, is not endangered worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of so-called barren-ground caribou still roam across Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

But the distinct and more southerly subspecies known as woodland caribou is another story. Some of its populations are in deep trouble.

The woodland caribou that live in and around the Rockies in southern British Columbia and Alberta are listed as threatened by the Canadian government; the committee of scientific experts that advises the government considers them endangered. In the South Peace region, the Klinse-Za herd has declined from 191 animals in 1997 to only 16 in 2013, with no calves surviving predation that year.

“Caribou were here for us when we needed help. We have to be there for them now,” says Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nations, one of two aboriginal groups behind the penning project. “We have to do everything we can to try and fix the wrong that has been done here.”

A Vanished Sea of Caribou

In the South Peace, First Nations elders say, the land was once a “sea of caribou.” Numbers started to decline after the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was built on the Peace River in the 1960s; the reservoir created by the dam disrupted a caribou migration route. Over time, logging, oil and gas exploration, and coal mining further altered the landscape, opening up the forest and pushing the caribou away from their traditional range.

Ecologist Chris Johnson of the University of Northern British Columbia studied five caribou herds in the South Peace over 22 years. In a paper published earlier this year, he reported that caribou avoid roads, seismic lines, and other disturbances created by resource operations. The five herds had experienced habitat loss as high as 66 percent, Johnson found.

Clearcuts in the region have produced an environment more favorable to other ungulates, such as moose and deer. They in turn have attracted wolves to the region. Caribou in the South Peace didn’t use to encounter wolves much. Now the wolves travel along roads, pipelines, and seismic lines into previously inaccessible caribou country.

The remaining caribou survive in small, isolated herds on windswept mountaintops, where they feed on terrestrial lichen. In the low-elevation forests where they also used to roam, they’re routinely killed by wolves and other predators. “It is not a very good time to be a caribou here,” says Willson.

The maternal penning project, now in its second year, costs about 500,000 Canadian dollars a year (about US $380,000). Last year, only four calves survived, and the project increased the overall population by two animals.

It was nevertheless worth it, says Scott McNay, an ecologist with Wildlife Infometrics, which is advising the First Nations:  “We predicted extirpation of that herd in 2015. They are still here because of the actions that have been taken.”

Is Killing Wolves the Answer?

The British Columbian government is also taking more drastic measures to save the caribou. Earlier this year it shot 73 wolves by helicopter, and it plans to kill as many as 800 more over the next five years.

British Columbia is following in the footstep of its neighbor. In the Rockies of west-central Alberta, about 1,000 wolves have been killed since 2005 to save the Little Smoky herd— roughly 70 animals living on land so disturbed by development, mostly for oil and gas, that only five percent of the forest is intact.

The project has been highly controversial.  A study published last year demonstrated that the wolf cull stabilized but did not increase the Little Smoky herd. “All it did is buy us time,” says Mark Hebblewhite, ungulate ecologist at the University of Montana and co-author of the study. “The question is what do we do with this extra time?”

Alberta, he says, has used the time to drill for more oil and gas. Since 2012, 170 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the Little Smoky range. “It is irresponsible and unethical to continue to kill wolves while continuing to degrade habitat,” Hebblewhite says.

McNay agrees that wolf control alone can’t save the caribou. “The only way to keep the animals around is to eliminate mortality, stop the bleeding,” he says. “But if you don’t look after habitat there is no argument for doing wolf control.”

Caribou or Coal Mines?

The B.C. government’s plan for caribou management in the Peace region allows industrial development to occur in up to 20 percent of the animals’ winter habitat. Economic imperatives explain why “British Columbia is not committed to 100 percent protection,” says Chris Ritchie, who manages the caribou plan at the province’s forest ministry.

A few years ago, the West Moberly First Nations won a court case against the provincial government for granting a coal mining exploration permit in the habitat of another herd—which has since been wiped out.

Despite the legal victory, more open-pit coal mining projects are planned in the region as well as wind farms, which are also not caribou-friendly. “We are going to have to make very hard social decisions on whether we want caribou or more coal mines,” says Johnson.

Some wildlife managers think the only way to save woodland caribou, given how hard it is to stop development, is to build a large fenced area in which they could spend their entire lives.

Alberta is considering such a project. Others believe it’s not realistic to try and save all caribou herds, and that wildlife managers, like battlefield doctors, should practice triage—allocating financial resources only to those caribou herds that have the greatest chance of survival.

Around the caribou pen in the South Peace region, that argument is strongly rejected. “It is not a question of economics, but a question of ethics,” says McNay. Because humans have created the threat to the caribou, “we are morally obligated to do something to help the species,” he says.

Ryan Desjarlais is one of the  shepherds tending to the caribou. In March, after the first animal was captured, Desjarlais was anxiously waiting on his snowmobile, close to the pen, for the helicopter to bring in more caribou. Desjarlais spent the next few months watching and feeding the caribou in the pen. Seven calves were born between May and June, and two died shortly after birth.

At the end of July, the fence was pulled down to release the females and the five remaining calves. The animals slowly moved west and stayed within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the pen. All are still alive, an improvement over last year when several caribou had been killed by wolves within the first few days of the release.  

“It means a lot to try and protect a species, especially one that is as hurting as this one,” Desjarlais says. “It would be nice to take my kid up to the territory where caribou used to roam, and say there are caribou back where they always were.”

Follow Isabelle Groc on Twitter.

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