‘I just prayed and prayed’: a chopper’s-eye view of our Tahltan caribou collaring feature

In the remote ranges of Tahltan territory, biologists and Indigenous guardians are working together to protect the Tseneglode caribou herd. Photographer Jeremy Koreski and reporter Malcolm Johnson spent time in northwest B.C. documenting the joint effort

Jeremy Koreski had taken photos in a helicopter before, but never quite like this. In a remote mountain range in Tahltan territory, with the chopper doors open, Koreski positioned himself to get a view of another helicopter a few hundred feet below. There, seasoned pilot Clint Walker inched within feet of the ground as biologist and net gunner Conrad Thiessen set his sights on a caribou below.

The actual moment of capture is swift. Blink and you might miss the action.

“I had a long telephoto lens and our pilot would position us in a safe area so that we could see the whole scene unfold, and I just prayed and prayed,” Koreski told me. “And there were a ton of sharp images, so I was really happy.”

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Koreski and reporter Malcolm Johnson spent time in northwest B.C. to document a joint effort between the Tahltan First Nation and the provincial government that’s showing how Indigenous and colonial governments are working together to manage a little-studied caribou herd.

Climate change, mineral exploration and increased predation are having a profound impact on caribou across B.C., with seven herds going functionally extinct since 2003. In the remote ranges of Tahltan territory, biologists and Indigenous guardians are combining Traditional Knowledge with collaring data to build a roadmap to protect the Tseneglode caribou herd from the same fate.

Clements Brace, a Tahltan guardian, says the Tahltan no longer see caribou in regions where they used to be plentiful.

“In the past you’d just drive up the highway and walk off the road, and they’d be there. Whereas now, you have to basically hire a helicopter to go get a caribou.” Brace said it’s not too late to change the way the landscape and the caribou are monitored and managed.

Any changes must start first with data collection. For the research team in the field that plays out through a series of careful steps. After the net capture, the biologists blindfold the caribou to keep them calm. Then the animals are collared and given an ear tag. The team takes blood, hair, skin and fecal samples and uses a comb to check for ticks.

biologists and guardians hold hold down blindfolded caribou

Photo: Jeremy Koreski / The Narwhal

We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from our readers on Johnson and Koreski’s on-the-ground (and in-the-sky) feature, but some expressed concern for the well-being of the caribou. They wanted to know: are these creatures being harmed?

“You don’t really see it from the still photos, but when they’re flying to get close to the animals, the helicopter is basically shepherding them into a safe area where they can net the animal so it’s not in trees, it’s not coming up to a cliff, it’s not a super-dangerous area,” Johnson told me. “There were quite a few times where they were close to a group of caribou and they just couldn’t get a shot in a safe location so they eventually had to pull off, let the animals go and try again in another spot.”

While there isn’t zero risk — the mortality rate during captures is two per cent — Thiessen and other biologists argue it would be riskier to do nothing for the caribou.

Thiessen explained it this way: “the value of having a better understanding of the population as a whole outweighs that cost — because if we don’t know what’s going on with the population, we can’t help it.”

Trust us, you’re going to want to read more about this. Oh, and the pictures are stunning.

Take care and GET TO THA CHOPPA,

Arik Ligeti
Audience engagement editor

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