What will happen to caribou if Parks Canada does not take more action in Jasper?

    The Tonquin and Brazeau herds will eventually disappear without our help. Although habitat and current conditions in Jasper National Park can support larger caribou populations, there are not enough reproductive females to be able to grow the herds.

    Small herds and individual caribou can survive for many years. Some caribou live more than 15 years, but unless animals are added to the population they will become locally extinct.

    Why does Parks Canada think that conservation breeding is the best option to help caribou in Jasper? What other options have been considered?

    A national park is a unique, protected space, where caribou herds may have the best chance of recovery and long-term survival. Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists have worked with experts from government, Indigenous partner communities, academia, and conservation organizations around the world to understand how to best recover caribou in Jasper National Park.

    Based on this research and collaboration, Parks Canada is confident that, for small caribou herds in Jasper, a conservation breeding and release program has the highest chance of success in Jasper. Other options have been explored in detail, including taking no further action, wolf management, maternity penning, and moving animals from one wild herd directly to another. These strategies are unlikely to increase caribou populations in Jasper. 

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    What is the difference between conservation breeding and maternity penning? Why not use maternity penning to rebuild caribou populations in Jasper?

    Both maternity penning and conservation breeding are tools used to help species at risk. 

    The goal of maternity penning is to help more calves survive. Pregnant females are captured from the wild in late winter and brought into a temporary pen for four to eight weeks. During this time, their calves are born and experience their first weeks of life protected from predators. Both the cows and calves are then released back into the wild in spring when the calves are 1-2 months old.

    In Jasper, calf survival is relatively high - there are just not many of them. Maternity penning would be difficult to do because of the small number of females in the Tonquin and Brazeau herds. It could be risky to repeatedly capture all the pregnant females each year, and may only result in 1 or 2 more calves surviving each year. It would also be impossible for enough calves to be born to reintroduce them to areas where caribou have disappeared. In this case, the risks outweigh the benefits.

    The goal of conservation breeding, on the other hand, is to quickly add animals to a population. Several males and females are captured from the wild and brought into captivity to form a captive breeding herd. Each year, calves born to this breeding herd are released to join a wild herd. This happens repeatedly until the population reaches a size that can sustain itself. 

    In a conservation breeding program, animals would be captured from a variety of sources, which has the benefit of increasing genetic diversity. Few, if any, females would be captured from the Tonquin herd. Using population models, Parks Canada estimates that 11 to 15 young females could be released into the wild each year.

    Are there examples of caribou breeding programs elsewhere?

    Conservation breeding programs to recover species at risk have been proven successful around the world. Within Parks Canada, conservation breeding projects have been implemented in Fundy, Grasslands, Wood Buffalo, Prince Albert, and Banff national parks for animals including Atlantic salmon, black-footed ferrets, whooping cranes, Canadian swift fox, and plains bison.

    The techniques used in this proposed caribou conservation program have been researched, documented, and implemented in different institutions across North America and Europe. However, this program will be the first of its kind for caribou in Canada.

    There are examples of both challenges and successes in capturing, breeding and raising caribou, moving caribou from one place to another, and introducing animals from one herd to another. For example, caribou have been raised at the Calgary Zoo/Wilder Institute in Alberta, Zoo de St-Félicien and Charlevoix in Quebec, and R.G. White Large Animal Research Station in Alaska. There are examples of maternity penning projects such as Klinse-Za Caribou Maternity Pen, Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild, Arrow Lakes Maternity Pen Project in British Columbia and Chisana maternity penning project in Yukon. There are examples of enclosures or large fenced areas for caribou in Grands-Jardins National Park in Quebec and Baxter State Park in Maine. There are also examples of translocations or rescues involving the Sustut, Telkwa, South Selkirk, Purcell South, and North Columbia herds in British Columbia.

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    When could the construction of a caribou breeding centre begin?

    There are many steps required before construction can begin, including the detailed design of the facilities, the environmental impact assessment process, and consultation. Should the program proceed, construction could begin as early as 2023.

    Would the caribou breeding centre be open to the public?

    The caribou breeding centre would not be open to the public. Parks Canada’s priority is the health and welfare of animals in our care. Access to the centre would be limited to staff and occasionally specialists, researchers, or Indigenous partners.

    How many caribou would be in captivity and for how long?

    Parks Canada could, at the earliest, bring wild caribou into a conservation breeding centre in Jasper National Park in early 2025. Parks Canada would capture caribou to bring into the centre over several years, eventually having a breeding herd of 30 to 40 breeding females and a total of 100 to 120 males, females, and calves at peak capacity. 

    Some of the animals would remain in captivity for the lifespan of the program, while others would be released depending on what is best for the individual animal. Most male calves born in captivity each year would be released into the Tonquin herd at about 10 months old. Most of the female calves born in captivity each year would be released into the Tonquin herd at about 15 months old, and a few would be kept as part of the breeding herd. It is possible that 10 to 20 female calves will be born in captivity each year.

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    What is the main goal of this program? What would success look like?

    The initial goal of the program is to rebuild the Tonquin herd to 200 caribou within 5-10 years after the first caribou are released. A successful program would ensure the health and welfare of animals in the program and lead to a growing and eventually sustainable Tonquin herd.

    Based on the experience and results with the Tonquin herd, Parks Canada would explore releasing animals back into the Brazeau and Maligne ranges to reach populations of 300-400 caribou in Jasper National Park.

    If the caribou breeding program goes ahead, will there be any closures to hikes, campgrounds, or areas due to this program?

    No new long-term closures related to this proposed conservation breeding program are planned. There may be temporary, short-term closures. For example, there could be delays or brief closures during construction at the breeding centre for safety reasons, or temporary closures at locations where young caribou are released. 

    Seasonal closures in winter caribou habitat will remain in place whether or not the proposed conservation breeding program moves forward. In Jasper National Park, caribou and their habitat are protected under Canada’s National Parks Act and Species at Risk Act.

    Is there an endpoint for the program?

    The program is intended to be long-term but not permanent. The breeding centre would be built with a plan for eventually decommissioning and restoring the site to its natural state. It is too early to determine exactly when that endpoint will be. 

    If the technique is successful, there are several options for the end of the program. If the health and welfare of animals in the program were jeopardized or the technique was not successful in growing the Tonquin herd, the program would be ended.

    The program will be assessed periodically against key milestones. For example, after the first few releases of caribou into the wild herd, once the Tonquin reaches 200 caribou, or the Brazeau or Maligne reaches a sustainable population. 

    What are the potential costs of a program like this?

    The current estimated cost is $34 million over the first 10 years (annual cost is expected to decrease after year 10 until the project conclusion). Cost estimates will be refined for each phase of the program as planning progresses. Cost is anticipated to increase given the rapid increase in material cost, inflation, labour shortages, and supply-chain challenges.

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    How does climate change affect caribou recovery?

    The effects of climate change are high on the list of threats for many of the species at risk in Jasper National Park. While scientists are trying to predict the effects of climate change, we can’t anticipate every detail of how species will adapt to these changes, nor how those changes will ripple throughout ecosystems. In collaboration with Indigenous peoples and academics, Parks Canada is conducting important research within protected areas that will contribute to our understanding of current and future climate change impacts.

    While protected areas tend to be more resilient to climate change, it has the potential to affect caribou and their habitat. Caribou have evolved to live in cooler climates and are adapted to cold, snowy winters. Changes to seasonal cycles, growing seasons, and snowfall patterns could affect food availability and habitat. Climate change could reduce alpine habitats and increase avalanche activity. More frequent forest fires and forest insect outbreaks could cause habitat loss for caribou or habitat changes that lead to higher deer, elk, moose, and wolf populations. Warming temperatures could also result in more favourable conditions for diseases and parasites that affect caribou. Parks Canada is actively researching and monitoring wildlife and habitat in Jasper to better understand the potential impacts of climate change on caribou and to help us adapt our recovery efforts over time.