JASPER, Alta. — The woodland caribou herds in Jasper National Park are dwindling.
An update posted on the Parks Canada website suggests that the three herds managed by the federal agency in the park in Alberta have dropped to critical levels.
“We have been monitoring caribou … in Jasper for quite some time and, unfortunately, monitoring the decline of those herds,” Dave Argument, resource conservation manager, said Wednesday in an interview.
He said the Tonquin herd has about 45 caribou, while the Brazeau herd in the far south has 10 to 15 animals left — and neither has enough breeding females to grow the southern mountain population.
Argument said the Maligne herd, which only had four animals when it was last seen in 2018, is officially considered extirpated.
“We found the last surviving female dead of unknown causes,” he said. “Between March of 2018 when we located that female and the following fall survey flights, those remaining animals have disappeared from the landscape.
“We don’t know what happened to them. They’ve either wandered away to find other caribou to join up with … or otherwise met their demise.”
Officials have identified five past, current and future threats to caribou in Jasper National Park. They include altered predator-prey dynamics, predator access, human disturbance, habitat loss and small population effects.
With predator access, for example, Parks Canada said the caribou can survive in deep snow, which typically drives predators to lower elevations. Trails packed by skiers and snowshoers, however, can help wolves get into the areas to prey on the herds.
The agency noted that human disturbance means caribou in the park can be disrupted by skiers and hikers with dogs and they can be killed in vehicle collisions on roadways.
The dire situation has the Alberta Wilderness Association calling for immediate action by the federal government to try to save the herds.
“This is an iconic Canadian wildlife species. It’s on our quarter,” said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta-based environmental group.
“The federal government has a responsibility in its own backyard — the national parks — to really move on a good plan, which we feel is probably there. And we are just really perplexed and concerned why it’s moving in such slow motion when the populations are declining at speed.
“We just need to act now while we still can,” added Campbell.
She and the association have written a letter to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Alan Fehr, the superintendent of Jasper National Park.
The letter asked that Parks Canada conclude its lengthy consideration of an emergency breeding program and, if viable, proceed with urgency to stabilize and recover the Tonquin and Brazeau populations.
It suggested the agency also needs to retain winter access limits in the Maligne range.
In the national park, Argument said he and his team continue to try to rebuild the caribou population — or at least slow its decline.
“Those include things like … restricting winter access to large areas of the park,” he said. “That was a difficult measure to impose, to tell our visitors that they can no longer access these … winter ski destinations or other places to prevent human-created trails into those high elevation critical habitat areas.”
He said they restrict flights in the area, don’t handle any of the animals and manage wolves and elk differently than they had in the past to reduce predation risk for caribou.
“It’s quite a suite of things to try to slow the decline, but … the small population effects on the size of the herd at this point are a problem that the caribou are challenged to overcome.”
Argument said Parks Canada is still assessing more hands-on conservation measures, including a potential breeding program, but no funding decisions have been made.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 16, 2020
— By Colette Derworiz in Edmonton.
The Canadian Press