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Caribou recovery involves conflicting perspectives

Game farming may be the only answer. When Canadians think about caribou at all, they envision the vast herds of countless thousands that...

Game farming may be the only answer

When Canadians think about caribou at all they envision the vast herds of countless thousands that roam tundra areas mostly in the far northern parts of the country. Well much smaller caribou herds also exist in some of the boreal forested areas in many provinces. They are called Woodland Caribou, with Alberta having an additional subspecies called Mountain Caribou that roam in the Jasper Park area. These unique caribou herds were never large to begin with, but have been in serious decline for the past 50 years, mostly due to habitat loss from industrial activity and forest fires. Both actions have seen increased access by predatory wolves into traditional caribou habitat – that increased predation has devastated caribou numbers.

Woodland and mountain caribou have been able to survive for millennia due to a unique habitat niche. They live mainly on lichen that grows in dense old growth forests that have high snowfalls. Such living conditions have protected them from significant predation and competition from other ungulates that won't eat lichen. However, for many years their habitat has been penetrated by forestry and oilfield roads, snowmobile trails and seismic rights of way. All of that have made virtual highways for wolf packs to penetrate deep into caribou habitat with disastrous predation particularly on caribou calves. However that scenario does not explain the decline of the caribou herds located in the National Parks which are not subjected to loss of habitat from industrial activity.

Ten years ago the Alberta PC government created the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan to stop the decline in caribou numbers. It was a detailed strategy that highlighted the obvious – that being critical caribou habitat had to protected and restored for the caribou to survive. From that perspective the plan was a dismal failure – as the government of the day continued to honour forestry activity and sold land leases for oil and gas exploration right in vital caribou habitat. To be fair, caribou continued to decline even in areas that had no industrial activity. For instance the Banff North mountain caribou herd was wiped out by an avalanche in 2009. The Recovery Plan's Plan B was to increase predator control by initiating a wolf cull in some of the caribou areas. That action proved to be effective in that it stabilized caribou herd numbers where it was carried out. But in the curious world of environmental self-righteousness, green lobby groups admitted wolf control was beneficial to the caribou, but that they were fundamentally opposed to the actual killing of wolves. They claimed it was just a short term benefit – that's true but live scarce caribou are always better than dead scarce caribou short or long term.

It would seem that until woodland caribou habitat is rigidly protected, they are a doomed species. What isn't being considered is selective preservation – that being deciding which areas can realistically be set aside for intensive protection for the caribou. Perhaps fencing in caribou and fencing out predators, reforesting open areas and terminating industrial activities is a real strategy. Contrary to popular belief wolves can be eliminated from specific areas by intensive professional trapping – it was done in many areas of the west in past years. What doesn't work as well is aerial shooting of wolves by conservation officers– their heart isn't in such activities. What also needs to be done is to raise woodland caribou on game farms that can later be released into selected wild areas. An infusion of 100 mature juveniles into an existing caribou habitat would give the species a fighting chance. Alberta game ranchers have shown they can raise elk, deer and reindeer – if given the financial incentive they could raise hundreds of woodland caribou in a few years. The point is in the wild, caribou numbers are so few that real recovery may be impossible without a significant infusion of outside animals. Only game farm-raised caribou could produce those numbers. But therein lies the quandary – as logical as that may seem to help speed up caribou recovery – most green groups are opposed to game farming.

One expects the new Alberta NDP government will be setting aside big chunks of land to protect woodland caribou habitat – that's the logical long-term solution. But that alone may be too late – caribou numbers need to be drastically increased – so let game ranchers do that critical job. In the meantime give professional trappers the incentive to control wolves in caribou habitats. But then this all may be too much common sense.