Quintette Caribou Herd Remains Stable

Lynsey Kitching

Caribou decline in BC has been an ongoing problem for a long time. Throughout the province and also in Alberta and the Yukon, caribou herds have been on a steady downturn and the reasons for this all leads back to one changed factor; industrial development altering the landscape.
Wolf predation on the caribou has been brought under the limelight as the main cause for the caribou decline, however, this predation in the eyes of some professionals, is only a cause of industrial development.
Dr. Dale Seip is a Wildlife Ecologist for the ministry of Environment. It is his research that has become the platform for the caribou protection plan in the South Peace. “I have been studying caribou in BC for 30 years but working in the Tumbler Ridge area for ten.”
He explains the main caribou herds close to Tumbler Ridge are the Quintette caribou herd, which in the wintertime stay up in the mountains and use the alpine area, and the Bearhole-Redwillow caribou that come down into the forest southeast of Tumbler Ridge.
Both of those groups go farther back into the Rocky Mountains in the summer to calve. 
The caribou research is done by monitoring caribou who have a radio-collared device. Seip says, “We go out each year in March and look at what percentage of calves are left and what percent of collared adults die each year. Putting those two numbers together it appears the Quintette herd is probably stable because there are enough calves surviving to balance the adult mortality. Bearhole-Redwillow caribou certainly are declining rapidly because there isn’t enough calf survival to balance off the adult mortality.”
The reason for the low calf survival rate is unknown. Seip says, “We don’t really know for sure why calves are dying. We know more about the adult mortality.  When a radio-caribou dies we can go in there and try to find out why it died. They die for a wide range of causes. Wolf predation seems to be one of the reasons for high mortality.”
This is not an uncommon feature of the caribou life cycle, as a low calf survival rate, as Seip explains is quite common. “There’s been calves born but they don’t survive. We believe that from catching adult females and doing blood tests on them, they’re mostly pregnant. Virtually all the calves are being born but it’s just they have a very low survival rate. This is normal for caribou. Lots of calves always die throughout the summer. It’s just you need to have at least 15 to 20 percent survive, we’re not even getting that anymore.”
For the calves, their main predators are not wolves. Seip says, “Not really, there are places where calves have been killed by eagles and things like coyotes can kill calves. Once you get up there a little older it’s going to take bigger predators, the wolves, the wolverines and bears. It is later in life where the wolves become a problem.”
Over a ten-year period Seip explains there to be a 10 to 20 percent mortality rate of collared animals. The study conducted by Seip concentrated on the Quintette, Bearhole-Redwillow, Moberly, Burnt-Pine and Kennedy Siding herds. All of these herds are declining except the Quintette herd.
Over the course of a ten-year period, 41 collared caribou have died. Of this, the main causes of death are unknown predators causing 18 deaths, unknown reasons causing 11 deaths and wolf attacks causing 16 deaths, although seven of these wolf induced deaths were in the Kennedy Siding herd specifically.
When asked why the Kennedy Siding herd were specifically so targeted by wolves, Seip says, he does not know.
Most of the other herds had a maximum of three radio-collared caribou deaths from wolves over the ten-year period, on par with the other two main causes, which are unknown.
When asked if a shortage of lichen could be a cause of the calves not surviving and the older caribou dying Seip says this is not likely. “Lichen is the main thing in the winter time. Lots of green in the summer, but in the winter it’s almost entirely lichen. As the population goes down, there’s even more food for each individual caribou, with less competition when there was more.”
Though this seems plausible, industry and First Nations are rather concerned about lichen and are taking measures to learn more about this organism. It takes lichen decades to grow naturally.
The disturbance of the natural order seems to be the catalyst for the caribou woes. Seip explains the natural connection or lack there of between wolves and caribou. “Clearly caribou and wolves co-existed for 10,000 years and got along just fine. Suddenly in the last decade or so, we have caribou populations declining from high wolf predation. It seems to correspond to industrial activity, logging, oil and gas and road building on caribou ranges.”
Seip continues, “In the past, caribou lived in low densities in large continuous areas of older forest. As you begin to break up that landscape with roads, cut blocks and other activities, the caribou can no longer space away from wolves. Now the wolf population travels throughout that whole area and are more likely to encounter caribou.”
Wolves are not seeking out caribou to eat. They prefer deer, elk and especially moose. Seip says, “We’ve studied the wolves in that area and by far their major food source is moose. They don’t eat a lot of caribou, they eat mostly moose, but when they’re travelling around the land looking for moose, now that there’s lots of industrial features they can travel and hunt on, they’re more likely to find caribou. High predation which is well above natural levels of which wolves and caribou used to co-exist, seems to be related to industrial changes on the land, which just makes wolves more effective at finding and killing caribou.”
He continues, “What we usually find is almost half the calves die within a week or two of birth from a whole lot of things. Sometimes they’re just weak and can’t survive or are killed by bears. All sorts of things kill them and even if two thirds are killed within two weeks, after that time it seems like just a few extras being taken by wolves is enough to put it down a level that it’s not enough to keep the population going.”
The combination of low calf survival and industry enabling the wolves to be better hunters has caused experts to predict that if something isn’t done, caribou populations will decline from 1,100 to 800 over the next 20 years.
So what action is to be done? What are our options?
Force industry out of caribou habitat? Force industry to re-activate roads and replant indigenous species? (For more information on what industry is doing to help the caribou please read the article found in this issue.)
Those are some of the options, however, the aerial shooting of wolves seems to be the number one option to put wolf numbers down to a level where other protective measures can be effective. Though, this measure itself has proven to be pretty ineffective over the long term and costly. Seip says, “There is wolf control in Alberta to try and protect the caribou herds and it’s just amazing how many have to be shot each year in order to keep the population down. As soon as you stop they’re back right away. It’s very difficult to do.”
According to the Wolf Management plan, 80 percent of the wolf population would have to be killed annually for the aerial shooting to have an effect on their population. 
The options of trying to re-establish the boundaries separating caribou from wolves seems to Seip to be near impossible. “It would be very difficult because there is so much industrial activity down in the low elevation caribou range. Even if it were to stop, it would take quite a long time before those areas grew back. In the meantime the only thing one can do is have a wolf patrol program.”
The other option being presented, which has proven effective in the Yukon as well as in Alberta is penning the pregnant mothers and calves until they are at a stage where they are stronger, but even this humane option seems out of reach for BC. “We talked about penning last week for the Moberly herd. Again, it is something that has been done and demonstrated to work. It worked out that it was just going to be very difficult and expensive to do. In theory it would work, but practically it has real problems.”
“We would have to keep animals in the cage for months and there needs to be people there full time watching over them to make sure no predators come around trying to get in. The price estimate for doing the pen in the Moberly was about $400,000 a year. Once you get to that stage it become very difficult.”
So what options are left? Could we pack up the caribou herds and send them to the mountain-tops and hope they sort themselves out? This is already what the Quintette herd has done and they are the apparently the only stable herd.
Seip says, “I guess they could survive given the Quintette herd do. We have reason to believe more of the Quintette caribou used to come down low in the forest even a few decades ago, but they just don’t do that anymore because it’s a more dangerous place to be,”
He continues, “Whereas for some reason the Bearhole-Redwillow still have this tradition of coming down low. I think there is better food if they can come down, it’s just much more risky in terms of running into predators in the wintertime in the forest than up in the alpine.”
We don’t understand how the Quintette caribou decided to start staying up in the alpine, but all we know is it is saving their herd. Seip says, “We think that anybody who did go down, is now dead and the ones who don’t do that are the ones who are surviving. The one’s whose ancestors didn’t go down into the forest are the one’s who survived.”
With all of these factors, the BC government is trying to implement a plan to help protect the caribou in the South Peace. Mark Zacharias, Assistant Deputy Minister for Environmental Sustainability & Strategic Policy for the government of BC says, “We will developing the implementation plan over the next 60-90 days and it will become clearer around what needs to be done.”
He continues, “We have identified habitat targets, for each of the herds. What we will be doing over the next 12-18 months is figuring out spatially where on the landscape those habitat protections should be put. What we want to do is find areas for caribou that have the best and highest caribou values and also have the lowest social and economic costs. Areas that are preferably untenured or have a minimal number of tenures on them, or areas where it’s not really economically feasible for industry to go to.”