Caribou penning program enters second year

Trent Ernst, Editor

The Klinse-Za Maternal Penning Program, an initiative of the Peace Northern Caribou Committee (PNCC) is heading into its second year.

The project is a recovery action plan developed by West Moberly First Nations and supported by various levels of government as well as industry. The purpose of the penning is to protect pregnant cows and their young from excessive predation during calving season

However, the program enters its second year with a shortfall of $50,000, which they are hoping to cover with a crowdfunding campaign to help cover ongoing operational cost of the program.

The project is an attempt to avert the extirpation of the Klinse-Za herd as well as to demonstrate the viability of maternal penning to help bolster other vulnerable caribou populations in the South Peace region of Northeastern BC.

In addition to West Moberly, the project has been supported by the Province of BC, Environment Canada, West Fraser Mills, Teck Resources Ltd., Spectra Energy, TransCanada Corp., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the Peace Region Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, AngloAmerican and Walter Energy.

Following an extensive population analysis, a group of selected caribou females are captured and transported via helicopter to a remote, secure penning site. This year, with the help of Wildlife Infometrics Inc., 11 caribou cows from the Klinse-Za herd were safely transported a seven hectare pen, to carry out their last trimester of pregnancy and deliver their calves apart from the pressures they normally face in the wild.

Once inside the cows are fed and protected, at a distance, by First Nations shepherds that reside in a nearby camp. The cows are slowly transitioned from an exclusive diet of lichen to specialized pelleted rations, which they will consume until they are transitioned back to lichen before release.

Shortly after their birth the calves are outfitted with radio collars, which allow wildlife biologists to monitor their travel and general state of well-being (mortality).

The capture of the females happened in early March, as they enter the third trimester of pregnancy. The release of the cows and calves will happen about four to six weeks following the births, sometime around the beginning of June.

Lead shepherd Nik McEwan says that all the cows are looking good and healthy, and all have taken to the pellets quite nicely. “They are now on a 100% pellet diet, but have been observed foraging within the pen as well,” says McEwan. “The pen and electric fence is a constant project as the snow melts, but the shepherds have been doing a great job at keeping onto of this maintenance.”

In addition to First Nations leadership and staff members, the maternal penning program team consists of an advisory team that includes representatives from other caribou penning programs in BC, a University of Northern BC wildlife ecology and nutrition professor, game farm owners and the Province of BC.

There is also a technical team made up of First Nations knowledge holders, regional wildlife biologists, veterinarians and the First Nations shepherds.

According to the PNCC, the maternal penning program is a labour of love, but it does come with a hefty price tag. “Despite being able to secure support from regional industry proponents, the Province of BC and Environment Canada, we’re still coming up short to meet some of the operational costs that are an integral part of the program,” says the PNCC on their page. “ These costs include wages and supplies for the First Nations shepherds that live on the mountain 24/7 to ensure that the caribou are fed and kept safe, as well as the purchase and delivery of pelleted rations for the caribou.”

McEwan says there has been no predators around the pen, but during the evening of Sunday, April 19, a pair of coyotes were seen around the shepherd camp. “Luckily,” says McEwan, “the coyotes did not go near the pen and left down the hill.”

Last year’s release was not without its issues. According to Wildlife Biologist Scott McNay, three calves and one cow were killed within two km of the pen two days after the release. “All those deaths happened in one major event,” says McNay. “It started two ridges over from where the pen is. Wolves caught up with a cow and calf there, and killed the calf. The mother got chased back to the hill where the pen was one, she went out into a lake to avoid the wolves, and stood out there for ten hours, but wolves finally got her. Meanwhile, the rest of the pack caught up with the other caribou, killed two of the calves, injured one mother, who we thought was not going to make it, but she survived.”

So this year, the BC government took the next step: reduce the number of predators that the caribou have to face.

As part of a controversial wolf cull earlier this year, the BC Government shot 73 wolves in the South Peace in the hopes of reducing the number of predators caribou face. Wolves are responsible for up to 40 percent of caribou deaths, according to the BC Mountain Caribou Recovery Strategy.

McNay says that the Moberly Lake and Saulteaux nations have also been out trapping and shooting wolves, and have managed to destroy another twenty, most of those in the area around the pen. “There are still one or two around the area,” he says. “Under the penning program we have the authority to get that one that’s walking around the pen there. We’ll try and get rid of those wolves this spring before the release. The whole reason for that is we don’t want to compromise pen results.”

Over the last twenty years, the population of Mountain Caribou has declined from about 2500 animals to 1700 in 15 distinct herds today. This decline, says the Government, is linked to predation and disturbance in the short term. “Wolf predation is considered the major factor limiting the growth of caribou populations in North America and there is ample evidence that reductions in wolf populations can result in immediate and dramatic increases in caribou populations.”

According to the management plan, wolf impacts on caribou can be devastating. If a wolf population is solely supported by the herd, as the herd declines, the wolves will decline, too. However, if there are other prey species like moose and deer, the wolf population won’t decline, and may even rise, even as the local caribou populations are wiped out.

How many wolves are too many?According to the BC Government, caribou populations tend to be stable when there are an average of 6.5 wolves per 1000 square km. Above that, caribou populations declined, while below that, caribou populations thrive. “Where caribou herds are most at high risk, less than 1.5 wolves per 1000 square km should be the target and removal of all resident packs within ranges of these herds could be considered.”

Furthermore, reductions of less than 29 percent of the wolf population has proven to be ineffective, says the government. “removing a few individuals is unlikely to have an effect on wolf density and would be expected to have no impact of caribou growth rates.”

In the Peace, there could be as many as 3000 wolves. There are only 23 caribou in the Klinse-Za herd.

McNay says last year’s release was successful, but only marginally so. “We did have enough survival of the penned animals to increase the herd by two animals. There was a considerable amount of mortality. We lost one cow and five calves. Out of the total penning project, we had four calves to survive. Without the pen, survival rates are about two.”

However, they’ve learned a lot of things in the first year that they are bringing to this year’s project. The first thing they plan to do is hold onto the caribou for a few weeks longer. “The calves are born in two pulses, as that’s the way the rutting season goes. The ones that died were largely the youngest of the two pulses; they were about a week or a week and half younger than the older calves. So this year, we’re going to hold on to them for longer. Some of the older calves were able to escape predation attempts.”

Secondly, this year, they plan to shepherd the animals for a time after release. “Last year, the released animals went up on top of the hill, but the wolves caught up with them right away. If we keep the shepherds on longer, they can help avoid that.”

Finally, this year, they’ve cleaned up the pen. The first mortality last year came inside the pen, when a calf got tangled in the underbrush and died.

Of the remaining calves, one died just a few months ago, from unknown causes.

The last calf to be killed died when it and its mother were chased down off the ridge and into the valley by wolves. The caribou escaped the wolves, but the calf was hit by a vehicle as it was attempting to cross the highway to get back into high country.

And that’s the issue with mountain caribou recovery. While short term, survival rates can be improved by reducing predation, in the long term, the biggest threat to the caribou are human factors. Humans build roads into the mountains, which breaks down the natural barriers that have existed between caribou and predators. Wolves can follow snowmobile tracks into places where, a hundred years ago, they could not get.

Caribou habitat is also suffering from fragmentation alteration and loss of old growth forest.  “Habitat recovery continues to be an important part of caribou recovery, but cannot address the critical needs of these herds in the short term,” said the BC Government in a statement.

If you want to find out more about the penning program, or want to participate in the crowd funding program, CLICK HERE.