Extirpation of caribou herd in Jasper should trigger urgent action for remaining herds

September 9, 2020
By: admin

Extirpation of caribou herd in Jasper National Park should trigger urgent action for remaining herds

Extirpation of caribou herd in Jasper should trigger urgent action for remaining herds
September 9, 2020

EDMONTON, AB – Jasper National Park has announced one of the four caribou herds in the park, the Maligne caribou herd, is considered extirpated after several years of aerial surveys with no sightings. The official change in status comes from an update on Parks Canada’s webpage for Woodland Caribou in Jasper National Park.

“It’s a tragedy to lose any population of a species at risk,” says Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Manager. “The herd has been in steep decline for a long time, so although not unexpected, the extirpation should trigger urgent intensification of the steps being taken to save the remaining caribou herds in Jasper.”

The permanent habitat protection afforded by the National Park worked in the favour of the mountain caribou to sustain the isolated populations in the Rockies after dramatic range contractions caused by habitat disturbances outside of the park’s boundaries (see map below). The odds have been stacked against them from cumulative factors compounding over many decades inside and outside of the park. 

CPAWS Northern Alberta expects more for the two remaining herds whose ranges are now limited to entirely within the boundaries of the Park. “The extirpation should be a wake up call,” says Chow-Fraser. “The public has an expectation that species at risk in our National Parks are being cared for to the highest standards.” 

Given the precarious situation for caribou in Jasper National Park, Parks Canada should use the full suite of management options to maintain caribou populations, including seasonal closures and preventing tourism infrastructure development within high elevation caribou habitat. Appropriate measures must also be taken with provincial governments to improve habitat and predator-prey dynamics on the lands surrounding the park. These external issues must be addressed to provide caribou inside the park a fighting chance, if they are able to be augmented. 

In 2017, a Multi-Species Action Plan for Jasper National Park was released outlining conservation actions for federally-listed species at risk within the park, including mountain caribou. One of these measures includes completing a feasibility assessment of a captive breeding program in the park to artificially augment populations. 

Seasonal closures have also been instated to limit recreational access to mountainous areas for caribou habitat during the winter months. Wolves can learn to access these traditionally inaccessible alpine areas using packed down trails from recreational uses, such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing, which is why the closures are put in place. We emphasize that these seasonal closures are necessary and must be enforced in the remaining Tonquin, Brazeau, and A La Peche caribou ranges that still need urgent action to recover long-term. 

More broadly, the maintenance and recovery of species at risk in National Parks aligns with the demand that ecological integrity be a priority for park management. The persistence of healthy caribou populations on the landscape is the highest indicator of a vibrant and sustainable ecosystem. 

Historical context for the mountain caribou declines in Jasper National Park: 

The National Parks provide some safety in permanently protecting caribou habitat from destruction, but the historical context for mountain caribou has resulted in dangerously low population numbers that make recovery increasingly difficult. 

The range for mountain caribou in Alberta used to extend much farther east of the National Parks. Rapid industrial development in the foothills caused caribou range contraction entirely into the National Parks. As partly migratory animals, range contractions can be especially harmful to the long-term survival of the herds. 

There were also a few management missteps by Jasper National Park early on. In 1920, the park re-introduced elk to the landscape with the intent of increasing wildlife viewing opportunities for the public. In the same year, the park initiated a predator control program to ensure the elk successfully proliferated. Eventually, the program ended in 1959, after which wolf numbers quickly and effectively rebounded due to the buffet of elk available to the apex predators. Unfortunately, the increased predation rates were unsustainable and has been strongly driving population declines over decades, in combination with many other cumulative factors. 

Two other mountain caribou herds remain entirely in Jasper National Park, the Brazeau herd estimated at 8 individuals and the slightly larger Tonquin herd estimated at roughly 38 caribou. Both herds are in decline. The A La Peche herd is a partially migratory herd whose range overlaps with the northern portion of Jasper National Park and extends onto provincial lands, including provincial protected areas in Alberta. 

The federal government carried out a Imminent Threat Assessment in 2018 and found that southern mountain caribou are facing imminent threats, “in the sense that immediate intervention is required to allow for eventual recovery.”

Mountain caribou used to range much farther east. Range contractions were driven by widespread development of the foothills via roads, mining, forestry, and oil and gas development. (Historic range derived from COSEWIC Southern Mountain Caribou Report, 2014)

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Check out our Caribou & You page for more information on CPAWS Northern Alberta’s work to conserve woodland caribou

Read the federal Imminent Threat Assessment (2018) for Southern Mountain Caribou

For more information:

Gillian Chow-Fraser
Boreal Program Manager, CPAWS Northern Alberta
[email protected]

BACKGROUNDER

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is Canada’s only nationwide charity dedicated solely to the protection of our public land and water and ensuring our parks are managed to protect the biodiversity within them. Over the last 50+ years, CPAWS has played a lead role in protecting over half a million square kilometres – an area bigger than the entire Yukon Territory. Our vision is to protect at least half of our public land and water so that future generations can experience Canada’s irreplaceable wilderness.

CPAWS has chapters in almost every province and territory across Canada, and two chapters here in Alberta – a Southern Alberta chapter located in Calgary and a Northern Alberta chapter located in Edmonton. As a collaborative organization, CPAWS works closely with government of all levels, industry representatives, and communities to manage our impact on a shared landscape. We also advocate for the creation of parks and protected areas for the benefit of both current and future generations of Canadians.

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