Learn more: Jasper National Park’s Caribou Breeding Program

August 26, 2022
By: admin

Learn more: Jasper National Park's Caribou Breeding Program

Published [post_published]
CPAWS Northern Alberta

Jasper National Park is seeking feedback on a proposed caribou conservation breeding program to recover caribou populations within the park. Unfortunately, caribou populations within the park are too small to recover on their own. Past poor management decisions, some of which put other interests ahead of nature, have caused this steep decline in caribou within the park. CPAWS believes that this drastic intervention can be successful in restoring the populations to the park in combination with long-term habitat management.  

CPAWS Northern Alberta is encouraging the public to share their thoughts with Jasper National Park to ensure that this program will move forward successfully.  

A breeding program of any kind is a serious consideration. The topic is nuanced, and there is a lot to consider. We have summarized some information below. Jasper National Park also has their own information about the program here.

  • Caribou herds in Jasper National Park are now so small that they cannot naturally increase in size. They will not survive without dramatic intervention, such as a conservation breeding program. A breeding program is a last resort option. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly. 

    Parks Canada has a responsibility to recover species at risk in our National parks. As stated in the National Park Act and the Parks Canada Agency Act, National Parks have a duty to conserve Ecological Integrity as their first priority – the recovery of a species at risk, especially one as iconic as woodland caribou, is a prime example of ecological integrity. Of all places, a national park is the most important place to take every measure necessary to prevent the loss of a species. 

    It is critical, if this invasive and expensive intervention for caribou recovery is to go forward, that management and habitat issues that are the root cause of Jasper National Park Caribou decline are addressed.  

    National Parks do not face the same type of industrial disturbance and habitat loss as provincial public land, where habitat within caribou ranges has been lost and fragmented with roads, coal mining, oil and gas development and forestry. It is likely the habitat protections in the national parks have, in fact, sustained these caribou herds in the mountains. However, there are still human impacts from recreational activities. Jasper must focus on access management and ensure that when the caribou are released, the habitat is safe for them to use, and it will continue to be safe as the herd grows bigger.

Want to go a step further? Complete the Parks Canada public feedback. 

Jasper National Park has an additional form of participating in their public consultation through an online forum. This form of consultation requires you create a Parks Canada “login”.  

If you are passionate about caribou recovery in the Rocky Mountain National Parks, we encourage you to add your own personal thoughts and ideas to the discussion. Need a helpful starting point? We’ve shared what we’d say below.  

Access the forum here: https://www.letstalkmountainparks.ca/caribou  

Ideas

Under the “Ideas” tab (https://www.letstalkmountainparks.ca/caribou/brainstormers/vision) the forum asks for feedback on two questions. Here is how we would answer:  

“What does caribou recovery in Jasper National Park look like to you?”  

CPAWS Answer: Self-sustaining caribou herds exist throughout their historic range within Jasper National Park, and they are no longer facing imminent threats to their survival. This includes the recovery of Tonquin, Brazeau, and Maligne herds. Strong partnerships with adjacent provinces ensure that transboundary caribou herds are self-sustaining across the National Park boundary. 

“What do you think the future could look like for caribou in Jasper National Park?” 

CPAWS Answer: The ideal future for caribou in Jasper National Park is one where their wildlife needs are prioritized over tourism, recreation and other associated development, and Parks Canada learns from past management mistakes to ensure that their survival is never at risk again. In order to ensure this, no new development or habitat disturbance should be approved within caribou range such as expansions to Marmot Basin Ski hill, overnight accommodation, or new road infrastructure. Use of, and access to, winter caribou range should be restricted and managed to prevent predators from entering their range. This includes seasonal backcountry recreational access restrictions and changing regular maintenance and tourism activities such as the plowing of Maligne road. By learning from the past, the future for caribou in Jasper National Park is hopeful. Parks Canada continues a long-term monitoring program within the context of adaptive management where ecological, social, and cultural data are integrated to inform best management practices to keep herds healthy and strong. 

Forum

  1. Building a conservation breeding centre 

Do you have any comments or concerns about the proposed location of the breeding centre? 

CPAWS Answer:  CPAWS understands that the facility location was selected as the best option for caribou breeding success due to site conditions, habitat, and distance from Chronic Wasting Disease infected regions and other ungulates. We do have concerns about this intensive development in designated Zone II Wilderness. We recognize the exceptional circumstances that require such a facility, however, more details about the facility construction, and decommissioning are needed to ease our concerns.  
 

Do you have recommendations for avoiding or mitigating these concerns? 

CPAWS Answer:  It is imperative that this facility is removed, completely decommissioned, and habitat restored once it has served its intended purpose and the program ends. All possible efforts must be made to minimize damage to the natural site during construction and program use. Additionally, a plan for decommissioning and reclamation of the site post-program is needed. More information is also required about the number of staff that will be working and living on-site. A more thorough description of human use and presence on site and how that relates to potential habituation of caribou and adjacent habitat impacts is needed. In addition, Parks Canada needs to describe what measures will be taken (e.g., fencing, signage) to ensure the public does not access the facility. 

2. Capturing source animals 

Do you have any comments or concerns about removing caribou from southern mountain caribou herds in Alberta and British Columbia? For example, the Brazeau, Tonquin, À la Pêche, or Columbia North caribou herds. 

CPAWS Answer:  CPAWS has many concerns regarding the source for additional breeding female caribou to bring into the program. Not only should genetic and evolutionary similarities of caribou be considered, but the stability of the source herds should be considered. Currently, the Province of Alberta is responsible for the management and recovery of the A La Peche caribou herd. The A La Peche caribou herd is only stable because of extremely aggressive wolf culls. Due to historic and ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation, combined with provincial inaction the herd does not have suitable habitat and cannot survive without the wolf cull. The A La Peche caribou may not be stable enough to handle the loss of dozens of females. Modeling should be completed to show how the removal of a dozen females will impact the current growth rate of the A la Peche herd. Additionally, plans should be made to address caribou habitat needs before augmenting this herd through the Parks Canada conservation breeding program.  We hold the same concerns regarding the stability of the North Columbia herds.  

We have some concerns about the complete depopulation of the Brazeau caribou herd and thus causing this herd to lose the knowledge of the Brazeau landscape. Has simultaneous repopulation of the Brazeau herd been explored? Research shows that learning and cultural transmission are the primary mechanisms by which ungulate migrations evolve. It can take decades for translocated ungulates to track and follow plants as they become available across the landscape over the seasons (Jesmer et al., 2018). We remain concerned that removing all remaining wild caribou from this herd will not set a future Brazeau herd up for success. 

Do you have any comments or concerns about the process of capturing wild caribou and moving them into captivity? 

CPAWS Answer:  Translocating wild animals into captivity comes with an array of risks, most of which are addressed in the Detailed Impact Assessment and through standard wildlife handling protocols. Some individual caribou will not adjust to life in captivity well and some may even die. More information about how caribou will be assessed during their transition from wild to captive is required, both regarding physiological and emotional health. Indigenous partners may have some insight into assessing the health of caribou and the potential impacts on their breeding potential. In addition, Parks Canada should define a list of criteria that will be used to assess how individuals adapt to captivity. Individual caribou who do not adapt should be re-released to their wild herd. There is also no information in the proposal or the DIA about how removal of individuals from a wild herd will impact the wild herd’s social dynamics. Every effort should be taken to reduce the impact on the wild herd from a social perspective (e.g., changes in dominance hierarchies among males, removal of experienced females with high success of raising calves). There is more to moving caribou from the wild to a captive herd than the physical removal of individuals from the wild. These additional aspects need to be addressed. 

Do you have recommendations for avoiding or mitigating these concerns? 

CPAWS Answer:  Working with Indigenous groups to conduct ceremony prior to caribou being captured and upon their introduction to captivity will be important. Indigenous people and animal behavioural ecologists may bring insight into what the experience is like for the caribou that may help identify measures that will reduce the stress of translocation. A comprehensive partnership with the jurisdiction responsible for the source herd should include robust monitoring of the wild herd to quantify and qualify the impact of the loss of reproducing females and males on the wild herd social dynamics and population stability/growth. 

3. Breeding caribou 

Do you have any comments or concerns about breeding caribou in a facility? 

CPAWS Answer:  Caribou will not recover in Jasper National Park without these drastic interventions, and as such, CPAWS understands the need to accept the risk associated with capturing wild caribou and moving them into captivity. This drastic measure is only appropriate given the dire circumstance. CPAWS has concerns regarding the number of animals in the facility, and the potential impact that this concentration will have on over-grazing native vegetation in the facility, ground trampling, and disease risks. We are concerned that the caribou in the facility may lose their “wildness”, making their transition to reintroduced habitats difficult. More information is required about how the caribou will be kept as wild as possible, how they will be “trained” in predator avoidance behaviours, and what will happen to the long-term residents of the facility when the program is over. In addition, it is unclear if caribou in the release pens will have pellets to supplement their feed, for how long, if supplemental feed will be gradually decreased to encourage caribou to switch to an entirely native forage diet, and if the supplemental feed will impact wild caribou in the soft release pen. 

Do you have recommendations for avoiding or mitigating these concerns? 

CPAWS Answer:  We expect Jasper National Park to follow the best available scientific and traditional knowledge on caribou breeding, and animal husbandry in order to have the best outcomes for caribou, and this recovery program. All caribou in the facility should have minimal interaction with all people; caribou should only be handled when necessary.  

4. Releasing caribou into wild herds 

Do you have any comments or concerns about releasing caribou? 

CPAWS Answer:  It is essential that everything possible is done to prevent caribou from becoming habituated to humans, and human-provided food sources to ensure that they retain their “wildness”. CPAWS is particularly concerned with the breeding females, as they will be handled the most. What criteria will be used to decide to remove the release pen after 2-3 weeks? There also needs to be contingency plans in place if the released juvenile caribou do not bond to the individuals from the wild herd.  
 
Do you have recommendations for avoiding or mitigating these concerns? 

CPAWS Answer:  All caribou within the facility should be handled as minimally as possible and fed locally harvested food when available. Lichen harvesting in other caribou conservation programs have also served as an opportunity for public or Indigenous involvement, and Indigenous leadership opportunities. Monitoring – all aspects of this project need to be monitored.  

5. Detailed impact assessment 

Do you have any comments or concerns about the draft Detailed Impact Assessment?

CPAWS Answer:  The DIA needs to include improved human use monitoring, including defined thresholds for the number of people that impact caribou habitat use, and plans to measure those impacts as the herd grows. This is a gap in monitoring and potentially influential information for other caribou management programs. Habitat security is referred to in the BIA, without quantification to inform the amount of secure habitat needed. The DIA suggests that a “reasonable effort” be made to limit the total number of human events around the breeding facility to not exceed 100/month. The 100/month threshold comes from grizzly bear habitat security and may not apply to caribou, hence the need to define a threshold more pertinent to caribou. In addition, a “reasonable effort” is not strong enough; all effort should be taken.    

There is no social science being done with the program. Parks Canada should undertake surveys with the public and stakeholders to measure their willingness to prioritize caribou recovery over their own recreational goals, visitor motivation to recreate and/or recover caribou, and visitor expectations regarding caribou management and recreation management in caribou habitat. The information from this work can be used to amend educational materials, communications, and perhaps inform management decisions.  

The Detailed Impact Assessment is missing a section that assesses how the project will be strengthened through weaving Indigenous Knowledge with western science. Parks Canada has a real opportunity with this project to demonstrate how multiple sources of knowledge and practice can be used to holistically recover a cultural important species and heal the land holistically. 

6. What else should we know?  

CPAWS Answer:  Parks Canada demonstrates that they will regularly consult with First Nations, but a program like this should go further than consultation. First Nations have a depth of knowledge on caribou on the landscape that cannot be described by Western Science. This is an opportunity for Parks Canada to work with First Nations in a co-management context to holistically examine the impact of bringing caribou back to the landscape.  Parks Canada should work with First Nations to include cultural monitoring in a project like this. The Indigenous Advisory Committee is listed as potential in the project proposal. This should be described as a mandatory committee; co-management of the caribou facility and herd should be strongly considered as an option. 

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