Backgrounder: Management implications for mountain caribou in Jasper National Park
CPAWS Northern Alberta
What do caribou in Jasper National Park need?
Woodland caribou herds are declining in Jasper National Park, with one of four herds (Maligne) announced as extirpated in 2020. The two herds that do not leave the Park, the Tonquin and Brazeau, are at critically low numbers. As an iconic species at risk in a national park, caribou recovery is of national importance.
CPAWS believes that more needs to be done in Jasper National Park to maintain the remaining herds:
- While there are currently actions addressing key threats to the caribou in Jasper, recent experience with the Maligne herd, as well as the available science, suggests that more can be done with respect to access management and human disturbance.
- Based on the Maligne herd experience, increased transparency of findings by caribou experts (both staff and independent scientists) that inform park management decisions would help Jasper implement strategies with a strong focus on the precautionary principle and ecological integrity, as required by the Canada National Parks Act.
- Some of the activities ongoing may be destroying critical habitat and could therefore contravene section 58 of the Species at Risk Act.
Below, we’ve compiled information collected from various sources, including reports from Parks Canada, to support our understanding of the immediate needs for caribou in the park.
Access and predation risk concerns:
There is considerable science and expert opinion that would support a more proactive approach to limiting human disturbance in caribou ranges in Jasper National Park.
Winter access and snow compaction:
Current winter access restrictions extend only until early winter each year. In the Tonquin, access is closed from November 1st to February 15th, and in the Brazeau and Maligne closures extend until March 1st. Our understanding from the 2014-2016 Jasper National Park Caribou Progress Report is that the February 15th end date is “arbitrary” as a “compromise to stakeholders” and not based on sinking depth potential, as the difference in sinking depth is marginal until April (Parks Canada Agency, 2017).
There are increased wolf-caused mortalities in late winter and increased vulnerability in spring for the Tonquin herd (Schmiegelow and Czetwertynski, 2014). Data from the 2009-2013 Caribou Progress Report suggests that wolf use can be immediate on Cavell Road after being track-set and such movements resulted in caribou mortalities (Parks Canada Agency, 2014). For example: In 2009/2010, after closures were lifted, a wolf pack killed a bull caribou on February 14th, and then accessed the range 9 times in the month of March (March 1, 5, 16, 22, 23, 26, 27, 29 and 30). In 2010/2011, on February 23, a wolf pack killed a caribou within 2 hours of using the track-set Cavell road.
Thus, we believe the extension of the access closures is supported by Jasper’s own data. Any and all mitigation measures that can reduce predation risk should be given priority.
Assessment of access impacts on caribou in Jasper seems to account mostly for contribution to predation rates, but behavioural changes and functional loss of higher quality habitat should also strongly inform assessment of access impacts, especially with population numbers as low as they currently are. Dr. Fiona Schmiegelow, in her assessment of risks to the Tonquin caribou herd, described human use in the Tonquin herd as the “second most important contribution to population viability after disturbance and predation risk.” (Schmiegelow and Czetwertynski, 2014)
Recreational activities are a pervasive risk, with science pointing to caribou absence from areas that had extensive snowmobile use, even though the area contained high quality caribou habitat (Seip et al., 2007; Simpson,1987). Further, displacement from good quality habitat within the range of a species at risk is not desirable. Recreational activities can also have indirect effects by increasing levels of stress hormones in caribou, with elevated stress hormones documented in caribou up to 10-km away from winter recreational activities (Freeman, 2008). Continued stress could lead to poor body condition and potentially lower survival and reproductive rates (Simpson and Terry, 2000).
Underestimating predation risks and the potential for rapid changes:
CPAWS commends the work that Jasper staff have done to reduce wolf densities to a point that can likely support a self-sustaining caribou population. However, we fear that the low wolf densities have resulted in less emphasis on access management. We are concerned that the magnitude of predation risk is underestimated, and insufficient emphasis has been placed on the impacts of direct disturbance.
The Jasper National Park Caribou Conservation Program asserts that wolf proximity to caribou range is key to explaining population declines (Parks Canada Agency, 2018). The magnitude of risk of wolf movement into caribou ranges is high, and the negative impact that a single wolf can have on the caribou herds is substantial given small population sizes. Indeed, although a smaller caribou population is harder to find, more damage can be done to a larger proportion of the herd once found. As wolf behaviour is dynamic and often unpredictable, the potential threat of predation is high should wolf use increase in the Tonquin or Brazeau ranges.
Finally, we note that predator-prey dynamics within the park are affected by activities on adjacent provincial lands, such as ongoing predator control in the A La Peche range. As wolf culls are not a long-term solution, wolf densities within the park may be affected by future changes to provincial predator control programs. They would also be affected by changes to primary prey populations (i.e.: elk and moose) and their distributions.
Transparency and Timeliness: Looking back at the Maligne Herd experience
We recognize that we cannot go back and change what has been done with respect to management of the Maligne herd. However, ignoring what happened risks leading to the same outcome being repeated with the other herds. Telling the story of what led to the extirpation of the Maligne herd can help decision makers and stakeholders understand why changes need to be made to current management practices.
It is often flagged how historical management decisions from 1920-1960 negatively impacted caribou by boosting wolf populations in the park. However, more recent access management decisions also contributed to the extirpation of the Maligne herd, and these are often not mentioned. Particularly worthy of note is the 2002 decision to continue plowing and accessing the Maligne road, despite an initial decision approved by the then Superintendent to stop doing so.
In the early 2000’s, the Maligne herd was under immense predation pressure because of the occupancy of multiple wolf packs in the range. Our understanding is that concern regarding the plowing of the Maligne road had been expressly raised by multiple experts, and that the Jasper Superintendent at the time initially approved the closure of the road, but that the decision was overturned in Ottawa days later. The damage of keeping the road open was enormous and the herd’s numbers plummeted. CPAWS, along with scientists following this herd, believe that the closure of the Maligne road could have been significant in reducing predation rates and helped in maintaining a healthy population.
Seasonal access closures were implemented in the Maligne range over ten years later, in 2013, though they still exclude the road. Herd numbers were already drastically low, and the final members of the herd were last seen in 2018.
We note that the approval of the Tres Hombre ski runs is similar in profile. In 2017, the Tres Hombres off-piste runs were approved in the Marmot Basin ski area. An expert risk assessment, which was not released publicly by Jasper or Marmot, identified the area proposed for the runs as critical habitat for the Tonquin herd and cautioned that “new developments within the Tonquin range could exacerbate current conditions, and therefore would not be consistent with the need for active recovery efforts to address threats to the rapidly declining Tonquin caribou population” and that the state of the Tonquin herd “warrant[s] limiting any activities that could result in the displacement of animals from parts of their range or the direct loss of critical habitat.” (Schmiegelow and Czetwertynski, 2014)
In a decision process that has not been transparent to the public, the Tres Hombres area was quietly approved, despite strong concerns about its impacts. The approval means increased ski patrol, more regular avalanche control, maintained egress routes, fencing, and overall increases in human activity levels in what is very likely caribou critical habitat. All these activities could be assessed as functional destruction of critical habitat.
Species at Risk Act and Critical Habitat
The federal government and its agencies are legally obligated to ensure that “no person shall destroy any part of the critical habitat of any listed … threatened species … if the critical habitat is on federal land” under the Species at Risk Act. Destruction occurs when there is a temporary or permanent loss of a function of critical habitat.
Both the Southern Mountain Caribou Recovery Strategy and Parks Canada’s conservation strategy have identified recreational activities as specific examples of human activities occurring within or outside of the boundaries of critical habitat that are likely to result in the destruction of critical habitat features or attributes, thereby resulting in the loss of the habitat’s function and the species’ ability to perform its life-cycle processes. For instance, new ski developments can displace caribou from portions of their range because caribou avoidance is related to activity levels (Bradshaw et al., 1997).
The federal recovery strategy defines critical habitat as high elevation caribou habitat. Given that the caribou ranges within the park are almost all high elevation habitat, we are concerned that Tres Hombres is likely in critical habitat and could contravene the Species at Risk Act.
Conservation Breeding Program
The conservation breeding program is proposed to address the fifth risk to caribou in Jasper national park – small population size. If the program moves forward, we emphasize that access impacts that contributed to their decline in the first place must be addressed before animals are reintroduced into the range(s) where they have been extirpated. Success of reintroduction will be bolstered by the presence of animals in the recipient herd, which means everything must be done to ensure that Tonquin and Brazeau caribou persist until additional individuals can be added.
- Immediately extend winter access closures until at least the end of the snow season.
- Commission an independent scientific assessment of the areas and dates of access restrictions in all caribou ranges, considering the risk from facilitated predator access and year-round risk of human disturbance.
- Reassess the 2017 opening of the Tres Hombre area of Marmot Basin ski resort, based on the likelihood that the area is in critical habitat, and considering the evidence that this could further contribute to the decline of the Tonquin caribou herd.
- Ensure the results of the above assessments, as well as the upcoming expert review of the proposed conservation breeding program, be shared with stakeholders and the public in a timely manner.
Bradshaw, C.J.A., S. Boutin, and D.M. Hebert. 1997. Effects of petroleum exploration on woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Management 61:1127‐1133.
Freeman, N.L. 2008. Motorized backcountry recreation and stress response in mountain
caribou (Rangifer tarandus). M.Sc. Thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Parks Canada Agency. 2014. Caribou Conservation Program, 2009-2013 Progress Report. Jasper National Park of Canada, Parks Canada Agency. 55pp.
Parks Canada Agency. 2017. Caribou Conservation Program, 2014-2016 Progress Report. Jasper National Park of Canada, Parks Canada Agency. 50pp.
Parks Canada Agency. 2018. Caribou Conservation Program, 2017-2018 Monitoring Report. Unpublished technical report. Jasper National Park of Canada, Parks Canada Agency. 12pp.
Schmiegelow, Fiona & Sophie Czetwertynski. 2014. Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment Final Report. University of Alberta, Northern ENCS Program. 159pp.
Seip, D.R., C.J. Johnson, and G.S. Watts. 2007. Displacement of mountain caribou from winter habitat by snowmobiles. Journal of Wildlife Management 71:1539‐1544.
Simpson, K. 1987. The effects of snowmobiling on winter range use by mountain caribou. Ministry of Environment and Parks Wildlife Branch, Nelson B.C. Wildlife Working Report WR‐25.
Simpson, K., and E. Terry. 2000. Impacts of backcountry recreation activities on mountain caribou. Wildlife Working Report WR‐99. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Victoria, BC.
Species at Risk Act, SC 2002, c 29.SC 2002 c 29, 2002.
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.
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