'Maternity penning' offers hope for mountain caribou

While B.C’s endangered population of mountain caribou continued its precipitous decline last year, a new program of capturing pregnant cows then releasing them with their calves a few months later when they can better flee predators is providing a glimmer of hope for the species.

Chris Ritchie, a provincial fish and wildlife recovery manager, said in an interview that mountain caribou decreased by about 100 animals last year to about 1,500 individuals. “The situation for caribou is not good. The majority of the herds...continue to be in decline.”

On the positive side, the province plans to ramp up an experimental “maternity penning” project based out of the Chetwynd and Revelstoke areas.

Under the program, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, captured about 10 pregnant female caribou in each area in March. They were kept in pens, along with their newborn calves, until their release in July once their young were stronger and better able to avoid predators such as wolves, cougars, and bears, which especially target the young immediately after birth.

“They’ve got some legs under them so they are a little more adept at avoiding predators and keeping up with mom,” Ritchie said. “It’s tough to be a young caribou. They’re cute and wobbly.”

The herd from the Chetwynd area produced nine calves, four of which were lost fairly soon after their release, probably due to wolf predation, while the other five at last count appeared to be alive.

The Revelstoke herd also produced nine calves, with the first confirmed mortality only about a month ago. “It’s the shining star of the two projects,” he said.

The plan is to double the number of caribou captured in each herd to 20 this winter. The caribou are captured using net guns fired from a low-flying helicopter, and fitted with GPS radio collars. The collars on the cows can remain three to five years, while the ones on the calves fall off before year’s end to ensure they aren’t strangled. Ear tags allow biologists to identify the calves into the future.

Each project cost about $300,000, a figure that should come down in subsequent years.

In another program aimed at increasing caribou numbers in Revelstoke’s Columbia North herd, liberalized hunting regulations have reduced the number of moose to about 300 from about 1,600 seven years ago. The thinking is there’ll be fewer wolves around to hunt caribou if their main prey, moose, are in short supply. “If there’s less to eat, if your primary source of food is diminished, then it’s harder for you to make a living and your reproduction is lower,” Ritchie said. The herd has about 120 to 135 caribou and it’s hoped those numbers will increase in the coming years.

Wolf hunting and trapping seasons have also been liberalized. A wolf sterilization program in the Quesnel area was abandoned two years ago.

Mountain caribou are considered an “eco-type” of the greater population of woodland caribou (including northern and boreal types) in B.C. and are defined by their reliance in winter on lichen found in high-elevation older forests. Logging of old-growth forests has contributed to the caribou’s plight.

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