VIDEO: Soon-to-be-extinct caribou moved to B.C. interior

  • Jan. 23, 2019 9:08 a.m.

The lone caribou calf named Grace in the maternal pens north of Revelstoke just got three roommates.

Three caribou from soon-to-be extinct herds in the southern Selkirk and Purcell mountains have been relocated to the pens.

Two bulls from the Purcell mountains were meant to be transported as well, but had to be left behind.

“They wouldn’t move out of the trees, which meant we were out of luck,” says Leo DeGroot, a wildlife biologist for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

DeGroot says two cows and one bull caribou were captured Monday and taken to maternity pens in Revelstoke with the intention of releasing them later this year.

Moving caribou isn’t easy.

They were netted from a helicopter one at a time. A handler jumps from the machine “and wrestles them down,” says DeGroot.

The animals are then sedated and flown to a staging area. New radio collars were put on and then the caribou were placed into a trailer for the drive north.

They arrived in Revelstoke on Jan. 14, spent the night in the trailer and headed along Highway 23 north the following day to the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild maternal pens on the west side of Lake Revelstoke. The animals were taken by helicopter across the lake.

During transport, the caribou were kept inside the helicopter, says DeGroot, as it would be hard to fly fast/further distances if the animals were slinged below.

It was a helicopter company from Cranbrook that transported the animals. Roughly ten staff were involved in catching and transporting the caribou, including two veterinarians.

The Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild project, which protected pregnant cows and calves from predators until they were ready to be released technically ended in 2018. .

However, there was one lone caribou left in the maternal pens – Grace.

“Grace was pretty happy to have more company,” says DeGroot.

“She’s already following one of the cows around.”

Grace is named after a mountain where her mother came from.

Her mother died earlier this year and to help the calf escape predation she’s been kept within the pen.

DeGroot said the site will be used temporarily by the ministry

READ MORE: Caribou maternity pen project nears its end by Revelstoke

The caribou will be fed a green mix, which is more nutritious than their natural food, and should be released from the pen last this year says DeGroot.

“Most likely, Grace will leave with them.”

The transported caribou (on the left) are sedated and in the process of waking up in the maternity pens. The lone caribou calf named Grace looks on in curiosity. (Photo by B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development)

While many caribou have been released from the maternal pens before, it’s been to habitat that is familiar for the animals.

However, these three recently transported caribou are from a different region.

“It’s hard to say how they will handle unfamiliar habitat,” says DeGroot.

The animals will either be released directly from the pen or flown up into the alpine to meet the rest of the Columbia North herd.

According to the B.C. government, caribou in the province have declined from 40,000 in the early 1900s to less than 19,000 today.

The Columbia South herd, near Revelstoke, had approximately 120 in 1994 and was reduced to seven in 2011. The Columbia North herd, also near Revelstoke, was approximately 210 in 1994 and approximately 120 in 2011.

The province has invested $27 million over three years to develop and implement an extensive Provincial Caribou Recovery Program Plan. Actions include protecting remaining caribou in the province, increasing habitat protection in select locations, habitat restoration, supplemental feeding, primary prey management, predator management and enhanced research and monitoring.

READ MORE: Dwindling caribou herds in B.C., Alberta face dire threat: feds

According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development wolves are the leading cause of caribou mortality, with about 40 per cent of investigated adult caribou deaths relating to wolves.

The B.C. government also states that the forestry sector has a significant impact on caribou habitat and causes fragmentation.

DeGroot said a census last March found just three cows in the Selkirk herd, while the Purcell herd had three bulls and a cow.

All seven were collared in April, but according to DeGroot one Selkirk cow was killed by a cougar while they are unable to locate the other due to a collar malfunction.

That left just one cow — the last caribou alive that ranged in both Canada and the United States — remaining in the South Selkirks.

“It’s really sad to see them go,” said DeGroot. “For me, personally as well, my last 16 years of work has been with these animals and seeing them disappear is discouraging.”

READ MORE: Revelstoke-area petition to end wold cull submitted to province

DeGroot said the ministry has not yet decided what to do with the two remaining bulls in the Purcells. The size of the animals, he said, makes them difficult to move, and only one dominant male is needed for the breeding process.

Story written with files from Tyler Harper of the Nelson Star.