Slocan valley farmer Jim Ross spotted an unusual convoy on Monday as he pulled into a gas station near Salmo in the afternoon twilight — three B.C. government trucks and a stock trailer with plywood tacked over the slats.
Intrigued, Ross asked the government employees what kind of animal was in the trailer while they filled up their vehicles at the snowy Centex station. He didn’t get an answer, so he asked again. And again.
“They all looked like deer in the headlights and behaved like they were on some secret mission,” Ross wrote that evening in a Facebook post. “When I wouldn’t stop pressing, the driver told me they were caribou.”
Inside the stock trailer were two female caribou and a male — three of the last survivors of two highly endangered caribou herds in southeastern B.C. known as the South Selkirk and South Purcell subpopulations.
The caribou, already fitted with radio-collars, had been tracked by helicopter that morning, captured with net guns, blindfolded and hobbled, sedated, flown to staging areas, and loaded into the trailer as part of an elaborate government rescue mission that B.C. wildlife biologist Leo DeGroot estimated cost between $20,000 and $30,000.
After two hours on the road, the animals were still a five-and-a-half hour drive from their final destination — a pen near Revelstoke, where they would be sedated again the next morning and flown briefly by helicopter to join an orphaned caribou calf named Grace in the enclosure.
“A sad day when the remaining caribou in the southern interior fit in a stock trailer with room to spare,” posted Ross, who raises hogs and has lived in the Kootenays for most of his life.
Thirty years earlier, Ross had chanced upon 40 to 50 caribou from the South Selkirk herd in a clearing near Kootenay Pass, a sight so arresting that he nearly drove into a ditch and then pulled off the highway to watch in awe, he told The Narwhal.
Now the unwitting Ross had become a witness to the same herd’s extirpation, or local extinction, as two more B.C. caribou herds join northern spotted owls on the list of wildlife populations recently extirpated from the province.
“It just saddens the hell of me,” Ross said in an interview. “I have two daughters who are 19 and 21 and they’re never going to see a caribou. It’s just not going to happen for them unless they see it in an enclosure.”
“I got home and I thought ‘man this is frickin’ epic. I should post this.’ So I did.”
The loss of the two Kootenay-area herds erases the southern boundary of B.C.’s caribou populations, redrawing the line closer to Nakusp, and also makes history through the disappearance of the transboundary South Selkirk herd, the last herd in the contiguous United States.
It comes as the B.C. government promises a plan of action to protect endangered caribou herds, following a declaration last May by federal environment minister Catherine McKenna that southern mountain caribou face “imminent threats” to their recovery and require immediate intervention.
If McKenna is not satisfied that B.C. has a suitable plan of action to protect endangered herds, she can ask the federal Cabinet to approve an emergency protection order under the federal Species at Risk Act.
That would allow Ottawa to make decisions that are normally within the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, including whether or not to grant permits for logging in caribou critical habitat.
DeGroot, a wildlife biologist with B.C.’s ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations, confirmed that the South Selkirk herd is now extirpated while the South Purcell herd, with only three males remaining in the wild, is functionally extirpated.
“It’s sad to see these animals go,” DeGroot said in an interview. “It’s such an iconic animal. They’ve been on this landscape for thousands and thousands of years. Due to human influences largely, they’re gone now.”
Human disturbances, including clear-cut logging, mining and oil and gas development, have given natural predators like wolves easy access to caribou whose habitat has been destroyed or fragmented right across the country, with disastrous consequences for once-robust herds.
Thirty of B.C.’s 54 caribou herds are at risk of local extinction, and 14 of those herds have fewer than 25 animals.
DeGroot said three males from the South Purcell herd who evaded capture, sheltering in the trees and refusing to emerge even when buzzed by a helicopter, will likely be left to live out their lives in the wild. One was a youngster previously unknown to biologists that was missed in the last caribou count, he said.
“From an animal welfare point of view it’s probably best just to leave them. They’re all males. They’re not biologically important to another herd.”
Biologists plan to release Grace and the three adult caribou from the pen in the hope that they will join the Columbia North herd. At close to 150 animals, it’s by far the largest of what were once eight caribou subpopulations in the Kootenay Boundary area, home to 56 of B.C.’s 1,800 species at risk of extinction.
DeGroot said the arrival of the relocated caribou was welcomed by the calf named Grace, who has been the pen’s only occupant since August. Her mother was killed by wolves and the youngster was chased by a black bear and a grizzly bear before being let back into the enclosure where she was born.
In photographs taken Tuesday by ministry staff, the shaggy eight-month-old calf — who hasn’t yet grown antlers — is seen expressing great interest in the new arrivals, who are lying groggily in the snow in one photograph and then rising to their feet as sedation drugs wear off.
“She bonded with one of these cows immediately,” DeGroot said. “From what I heard it was kind of a heart-warming story for this Grace to have other members of her species dropping from the sky.”
Scientist Chris Johnson said the extirpation of the two herds is “not a surprise to anyone,” noting that scientists have been sounding the alarm about imperilled caribou populations for almost two decades.
“We’ve watched these herds — and we’ve watched them in other places — decline slowly…These caribou are going to disappear,” said Johnson, an ecology professor at the University of B.C. who sits on committees advising the federal government on caribou recovery.
The B.C. government has very few options when it comes to dealing with caribou populations so depleted, Johnson pointed out.
“One is to cross your fingers and hope you get lucky and that they have a whole pile of good years, that they produce a calf every year and that predation is really light and in some miraculous world that the population naturally rebuilds.”
He said that scenario is unlikely and that if the three animals hadn’t been captured they would likely “wink out on their own.”
“Obviously we should have dealt with this before,” Johnson said. “That’s the lesson. Whether we learn from it or not is another question. At this point in time there’s no options other than to let them disappear or remove them.”
According to DeGroot, the B.C. government plans to launch a captive breeding program where caribou will be raised in a year-round facility, the location of which has not yet been determined.
Once the program has produced “surplus offspring,” they will be released to augment wild populations, he said.
“We’re not ruling out that they won’t be returned to the South Selkirks or the South Purcells. That decision will have to be made at the time.”
Habitat protections in the South Selkirks and South Purcells will remain for now, DeGroot said, noting it will be more difficult to release “naïve animals that grew up in a facility into an environment devoid of caribou” than to release them onto a landscape that is still home to caribou populations.
Johnson said caribou are fairly easy to breed in captivity, pointing out that penning projects, while expensive, have had cautious success.
But he described penning as a “stop-gap measure” that won’t work on its own unless underlying reasons for the precipitous decline of caribou populations are addressed, including the loss of low-elevation habitat to human disturbances that include logging, mining, and oil and gas development.
And then there’s the question of whether captive breeding programs can even be called conservation, Johnson said, given that “you’re effectively growing caribou in a pen and throwing them to the wolves or the cougars.”
Ross said even though he is not a biologist or a caribou expert he has a strong association with caribou and “it’s hard to see” their demise.
Yet he said he’s had to admit that he’s “as much of the problem as anybody else,” noting that he drives over the Kootenay Pass that bisects caribou habitat.
“I’m talking to you on a phone that runs on electricity,” Ross said. “I heat my house with propane but it could be natural gas which is what the line is that runs through there [caribou habitat]. My house is built from wood. Minerals and the results of mining are everywhere in my house in all kinds of my devices.”
“That saddens me too on some level.”
McKenna’s press secretary Sabrina Kim said the federal government is “working very closely” with the B.C. government to finalize a province-wide caribou conservation agreement.
The agreement will contain immediate and long-term measures to support the recovery of southern mountain caribou, Kim said in an e-mail to The Narwhal.
She also confirmed that Ottawa is working with the B.C. government and West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations to finalize a partnership agreement that will focus on key conservation measures to support the recovery of southern mountain caribou populations in the nations’ traditional territory in the Peace region.
The two nations took matters into their own hands in 2014, launching a unique caribou penning project that has boosted the population of the imperilled Klinse-Za herd from 16 to 66 — for a price tag of about $125,000 for each caribou calf born in the pen.
News of the arrival of the three caribou to the Revelstoke pen comes after the B.C. government released the results of a Kootenay region pilot project on priority threat management, described as “a mathematical equation to determine how to save as many species as possible for the least cost.”