The much-studied South Selkirk mountain caribou herd is teetering on the brink of extinction.
That discovery this month has focused international attention on the disaster faced by the only herd that roams between the U.S. and Canada, but biologists are warning that the crisis extends to other herds in the south of the province.
The southern mountain caribou population has dropped to about 3,800 animals this year, down from about 4,500 last year, according to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which is calling for emergency action to protect critical habitat.
“For decades B.C. has failed to protect sufficient critical habitat to even maintain mountain caribou, never mind recover them,” said Candace Batycki, program director for Y2Y.
“Canada has failed in its responsibility under the federal Species At Risk Act to intervene when provincial recovery measures are insufficient.”
The caribou census found that the South Selkirk herd is down to three females from 11 last year and biologists estimate that at least 14 of B.C.’s 54 herds could be in trouble.
Provincial government wildlife biologist Leo De Groot said finding out there were only three females remaining in the South Selkirk herd was a surprise.
“I was hoping we would at least have as many as last year, if not more,” he said.
One animal was known to have died, but there is no clue what happened to the others and it is not yet known whether any of the remaining females are pregnant, he said.
This winter the aim was to put pregnant females into a maternity pen, built with money raised by the Kalispel tribe in Washington state, but the snow was too deep to carry through with the plan, he said.
At least four other southern herds are down to critical numbers and, as the federal and provincial governments face pressure to protect more habitat from logging, road-building and recreational use, some scientists are wondering whether efforts should be concentrated on herds where there appears to be at least a slim chance of success.
Robert Serrouya, director of the Caribou Monitoring Unit at the University of Alberta and a Revelstoke resident, was not surprised at the South Selkirk herd’s imminent demise, because of habitat loss around the U.S./Canada border.
“That herd is facing conditions in the environment that are not suitable for persistence. It would be very difficult at this time to recover that herd,” he said.“You can’t fix the habitat problem overnight; that takes decades.”
“Unlike a few exceptional, rare herds further north where we are actually seeing glimmers of recovery, down there you have permanent land conversion — agriculture and human settlement — so it’s almost impossible to restore farming and range land back to natural forest.”
With limited funds, it would make sense to prioritize recovery efforts, Serrouya said.
De Groot agrees triage is part of the discussion, and said even the idea of transplanting animals from other herds, which has been done in the past in South Selkirk, is not gaining traction because of fears it would be a wasted effort.
“No one is offering up any caribou,” he said.
No simple solution
Problems started last century when explorers and prospectors shot as many caribou as they could. Then, as attitudes about an unending supply of wildlife shifted, caribou were faced with forest harvesting moving from the valleys to high elevations, meaning wolves, cougars and bears moved into mountain caribou habitat to follow the deer, elk and moose that thrived in the clearcuts.
Caribou are an easy catch as they are not as skittish as deer and don’t kick as hard as moose. Given their slow rate of breeding, the results can be devastating, De Groot said.
In addition to predation, mountain or deep snow caribou need to survive the winter by eating lichen from old-growth trees, meaning newly planted forests cannot support them.
Biologists hoped that with predator control, such as the controversial wolf cull, an increase in moose hunting and maternal pens to protect pregnant females and new calves, caribou herds could survive until forests regenerate, but that is now unlikely for the South Selkirk herd.
“We have made huge advances in habitat protection since 2007 and we now have 80 to 90 per cent of their core habitat protected from future logging, but we are still dealing with the legacy of previous logging. The trees don’t grow that fast and it takes decades for the clearcuts to grow in so that they are not attracting the elk, moose and deer,” De Groot said.
“We had hoped that, maybe, if we could get the caribou through the next decades, these cutblocks would have grown back.”
Ongoing activity in critical habitat
Some people doubt whether habitat protection has been enforced and Batycki, pointing to voluntary industry habitat protection measures in the Peace area, wants an interim moratorium on industrial activity in critical habitat while governments sort out their recovery plans.
“The federal government has the power to do that,” she said.
Gwen Bridge of Yellowstone to Yukon said mapping and analysis clearly shows that logging and road building has been ongoing in critical habitat, even in areas that were supposedly protected through the 2007 plan.
The herds are also facing increased stress from recreational users, Bridge said.
“New proposals for extensive helicopter-based recreation on the South Purcells are illustrative of the many stresses facing caribou in southeast B.C.,” she said.
DeGroot agrees recreational use of the area is a problem as caribou move away from disturbance and, in winter, that movement takes energy, using precious body fat, and tends to move the animals through avalanche territory, he said.
One of the few bright spots in the mountain caribou world is the Klinse-Za herd, which was down to 36 animals when consulting biologist Scott McNay, of Wildlife Infometrics Inc., started working with the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations in 2013.
The herd has now doubled in size through the use of maternity pens with 24-hour-a-day shepherds, habitat protection, restoration of forest cover, blocking access to predators and wolf removal.
“We thought the herd was going to be extirpated in two years…and the reason that this is working here is that we are throwing everything at the recovery effort. It’s a slow process, but it’s working,” McNay said.
But recovery efforts are expensive and, province-wide, much will come down to economic constraints and whether there is social will, McNay said.
“First I think we have to prove that in at least one case we can restore a caribou herd and it hasn’t been done yet,” McNay said.
If all subspecies of caribou in B.C. are counted, there are about 19,000 animals, down from about 40,000 in the early 1900s, said Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson.
“We need to do whatever we can to help enhance and recover caribou habitat to rebuild the numbers of this iconic species,” he said at B.C. Wildlife Federation’s annual conference, when he announced a $2-million grant to the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation to help restore caribou habitat and reduce predation through reforestation, fencing and changing sight lines.
Up to $50 million over five years has been slotted for the province’s caribou recovery program and the Alberta government has announced $85 million over the next five years for caribou habitat restoration.