A fence (shown) is under construction in B.C.’s West Kootenay that Indigenous groups in Canada and the United States hope will help the survival of a rare species of woodland caribou. The eight-hectare pen will protect about six cows and their calves from predators during the early states of the calves lives. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pen project aims to protect tiny, endangered herd of south Selkirk caribou

VICTORIA — Indigenous groups on both sides of the Canadian and U.S. border are working with the British Columbia government and others to save a critically endangered species of woodland caribou.

The Kalispel Tribe in Washington state is among those leading a project building a caribou maternal pen on land owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada in the mountains of B.C.’s West Kootenay.

Tribe spokesman Mike Lithgow says the eight-hectare pen is being built where it’s expected about six south Selkirk mountain caribou will give birth later this year.

The pen is 4.57 metres high, has electric fencing on its exterior and is covered with a fabric that acts as a visual barrier for predators.

Lithgow says the cows will be caught using a net gun from a helicopter and then relocated to the pen to protect them from predators that have killed as many as three-quarters of the offspring in the past.

The tiny herd of caribou, listed as among the most endangered mammals in North America, primarily roam high-mountain, old-growth forests in northeastern Washington state and northern Idaho.

Lithgow says they will have two shepherds with the animals during their three-month stay in the pen. They’ll also be supplying the caribou with the lichen they usually eat, and will transition them to reindeer pellets because there isn’t enough food inside the pen.

“It’s a drastic measure. Ideally we wouldn’t be doing this of course, but with such few number it was really the only thing that could be agreed upon by the professionals.”

Lithgow says the Kalispel traditionally hunted the caribou and the animals are culturally significant to them. The tribe has been working for the last few decades to help the recovery of the herd, he says.

Lithgow says the annual cost for the three-year project is US$156,000.

The B.C. government says the pen represents one part of the recovery effort and collard caribou will be tracked throughout the year to assess their survival rates. Cows and possibly new yearlings will again be captured and relocated to the pen for the next calving season the following March and April, it says in a news release.

This is latest caribou maternal pen in B.C. and builds on the success of a similar project near Revelstoke that has protected the Columbia north herd since 2014, stabilizing a once-declining population to about 150 animals. The province says penning in caribou has also increased the size of a herd in the south Peace region.

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