BCHF News Southern Mountain Caribou Recovery in the Central Kootenay

Southern Mountain Caribou Recovery in the Central Kootenay

An excerpt from the Fall 2023 edition of British Columbia History.

Calf 6 and other cows and calves in the Central Selkirk Caribou Maternity Pen, 2023. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

By Skye Cunningham and Hugh Watt

The Central Selkirk herd of southern mountain woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) is the last herd south of Highway 1, and it is the southernmost herd remaining in Canada. The herd has seen a decrease of 87 percent since the 1990s, from over 200 animals down to 28 animals remaining in 2021. Woodland caribou are a species at risk under federal legislation. Due to a complicated myriad of factors including predation, habitat changes and fragmentation, climate change, and backcountry recreation activities, caribou populations have struggled throughout BC and particularly in southern BC.

In 2009, a Government Action Regulation order created approximately 320,000 hectares of protected range for caribou, which was 95 percent of the core winter habitat of the Central Selkirk herd. Fast forward to 2019, when a series of well-attended public forums hosted a total of 300 community members to discuss local caribou recovery efforts that were not having the desired effect of stopping the decline of caribou.

To provide a local voice in recovery efforts, Arrow Lakes Caribou Society (ALCS) was formed in early 2019. ALCS is made up of interested individuals across a wide spectrum including backcountry recreation groups, the forestry and mining industry, the community forest, trails groups, and local government. ALCS is governed by a volunteer board of directors that includes foresters, biologists, and loggers, as well as a wildlife photographer and a local trapper, and it is advised by regional, provincial, and US biologists and veterinarians. From early on, ALCS has had a close relationship with the regional biologists who oversee the caribou herd on behalf of the government.

Volunteers helped to transport the caribou in a snowmobile skimmer from the helicopter landing zone to the maternity pen during capture in March 2022. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

ALCS’s mandate is to help facilitate recovery actions, particularly with the Central Selkirk caribou herd. To date, ALCS has created a communication platform between local and regional groups and governments. One such example was work done to build and strengthen relationships with local winter recreation groups to decrease disturbance to caribou in their natural habitat.

ALCS helped the process by working with the province of BC and local snowmobile groups to facilitate a stewardship management agreement covering the herd area. A spatial app developed by government geomatics specialists provides “moving closure” areas based on actual caribou locations at any given time. The tool is informed by GPS data from the collars of groups of caribou within the herd area. This spatial tool has been key in minimizing disturbance to the caribou herd.

After a long push to gain support for the concept, construction of the Central Selkirk Caribou Maternity Pen was initiated in 2019. After studying the methods and results of similar projects north of Revelstoke (see Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild Society, cmu.abmi.ca/testing-recovery-options/revelstoke-caribou-rearing-in-the-wild/) and in the Moberly Lake area (see Klinse-Za Caribou Maternity Pen, hctf.ca/hands-on-conservation-at-the-klinse-za-caribou-maternity-pen/), the pen construction process began. The project was initially “boot-strapped” by local donations and labour until the BC government came on board with some timely employment funding in 2019–2020 and, subsequently, Caribou Recovery Program personnel and funds.

The maternity pen blind is a great viewing spot into the pen for shepherds and visitors. The storage container underneath holds feed and tools. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society
The electric fence surrounds the outside of the maternity pen to manage predators. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

The caribou maternity pen is a large enclosure that keeps pregnant females and calves safe from predators during calving and up to six weeks after calving. After six weeks, the calves are more easily able to escape predators and grow to help support the caribou population. The maternity pen will help to alleviate environmental pressures on pregnant caribou and calves and to improve body condition and fecundity due to a good diet and fewer environmental stress compared to natural conditions.

The pen, a black geotextile fence that stands 4 metres tall and encloses 6.6 hectares of old growth and second growth forest, is situated on provincial crown land and on municipal land (Village of Nakusp) near the Nakusp Hot Springs. Fence posts are made of mostly living trees, which gives the pen structure a natural look. The supporting cables, guys, and hardware for the fence were pieced together based on knowledge from logging and powerline industries. There is a separate electric fence on the outside of the pen structure to keep predators like wolves, bears, cougars, and wolverines at bay.

A caribou shepherd headquarters (the “bou shack”), which houses an office and affords a great view into the feeding area of the pen, was constructed from local wood provided by the community forest and placed on top of a shipping container by a crane. Within the container are maintenance supplies and dry storage for feed. Wireless internet services were set up that offer a very good ability to work and communicate with the outside world. There are ten wireless trail cameras inside and outside the fence as well as tree stands and natural lookout points to help shepherds monitor the animals.

The group of 14 caribou in the Central Selkirk caribou maternity pen are comfortable with their shepherd while he fills their feeding trough, 2023. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

Fresh, clean water comes from a gravity water system built on a nearby stream. After the initial caribou capture, they are fed their normal diet of lichen and then transitioned to high-nutrition pellets. Twice daily, shepherds use feeding troughs to feed the caribou the high-nutrition diet. There is an additional feeding trough beside a set of scales, which captures periodic weights and allows weight gains to be tracked.

Caribou are very temperature dependent. Prior to the annual caribou capture, large snow piles are put in a gully and covered by cedar mulch to offer the caribou a cool refuge when the temperature rises. In addition, water-misting stations were installed, all designed to keep the temperature in the pen as cool as possible during the warming months after calving and before caribou release in July.

A large community-building task that involves many groups and individuals is lichen collection for use as feed during the pen operation. Elementary, high school, and college school groups, ski clubs, environmental stewardship societies, and individuals collected approximately 250 air-dried kilograms of Alectoria spp. and Bryoria spp. tree lichen that is needed to transition the caribou to pellet feed. Lichen is mostly water by weight, so it takes a very large effort to collect, dry, bag, and store.

The first year
The Central Selkirk maternity pen is located in the Kuskanax Creek drainage near the Nakusp Hot Springs, approximately ten kilometres northeast of the Village of Nakusp. The Nakusp Hot Springs pen site was identified by ALCS using a coarse set of criteria, local knowledge and advice from regional and provincial caribou experts. Pen construction was fully completed in the winter of 2022, just in time for the first caribou capture in March 2022, of eight caribou (seven adult females and one yearling female).

All seven cows were pregnant, and six calves were born between late May and early June 2022; one cow had a still-born calf. Cows and calves were fed, cared for, and monitored by caribou shepherds until the calves were six to eight weeks old. Six caribou calves were released into their natural habitat in late July—five survived the summer and next winter, one being lost to predation. This compares quite favourably to the typical scenario in the past years where zero to perhaps one calf would survive.

Cow and calf No. 1 stand together in the maternity pen feeding area, 2022. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

This year’s capture
In March 2023, 14 caribou were captured (10 adults and 4 calves from last year’s surviving calves), including the last remaining cow from the adjoining South Columbia herd near Revelstoke. The cow will be released from the pen with the Central Selkirk herd in July 2023, and should have a better chance of survival being with a herd rather than alone, as well as a much larger chance of future pregnancy. To learn more about the South Columbia herd, visit the Parks Canada website Caribou, Mount Revelstoke National Park: parks.canada.ca/pn-np/bc/revelstoke/nature/faune-flore-fauna-flora/caribou.

Our caribou team
Capturing caribou is a very time-sensitive and delicate job to reduce stress on the animals. Thirty-seven people helped to capture the caribou using helicopters and wildlife capture experts, and then the caribou were transported the final distance to the maternity pen with three snowmobiles pulling skimmers. Wildlife veterinarians, BC provincial biologists, local volunteers, wildlife capture experts, and ALCS members helped to make the operation run smoothly. Capture planning and operations is weather dependent with respect to visibility, snow conditions, and avalanche hazard.

Moving forward, the ALCS hopes to continue the Central Selkirk Caribou Maternity Pen project to grow this southern mountain caribou population. A five-year trial period will determine if this recovery action is effectively contributing to the population. If successful, it is likely that the ALCS will continue recovery actions until the population reaches a sustainable number. A self-sustaining population is thought to be 150 to 200 animals.

The volunteers, contractors, wildlife capture experts, veterinarians and biologists gathered in March 2023 after capturing 14 caribou for the Central Selkirk caribou maternity pen. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

In conjunction with the maternity pen operations, the ALCS has been building partnerships with First Nations in BC and the United States. Some significant support from First Nations includes shepherding at the Central Selkirk Caribou Maternity Pen with the Ɂaq’am community, blessing ceremonies with the Ktunaxa Nation, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, and the Shuswap Band, and building a relationship with the Colville Confederated Tribes (headquartered in Washington state) via their Sinixt (Lakes People) Nation members. A very early and consistent supporter of the project has been the Kalispel Tribe of Indians from Washington state. These partnerships have been integral to the success of the ALCS, and support has increased via funding streams, in-kind support, volunteerism, and public outreach.

Nakusp and Area Community Forest (NACFOR) has played a key role in ALCS from the beginning by supplying management expertise and seed funding to get the society and maternity pen project off the ground. Part of NACFOR’s operating area was included in the Government Action Regulation order in 2009—approximately 10 percent of its total land base was given over for caribou habitat protection. The community forest mandate is to return economic, social, and environmental benefits from forest operations back to the local area.

Looking forward, the ALCS works to build relationships and to increase community involvement, education, and outreach by sharing caribou maternity penning operational information, photos, and updates on our social media and on the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society website: arrowlakescaribousociety.com. ALCS also regularly participates in public speaker series and presentations and has an annual open house.

The pen fence was constructed by many volunteers and ALCS contractors working in 2020/21. The fence stands 4 metres tall and encloses 6.6 ha of land. Photo: Arrow Lakes Caribou Society

Based in Nakusp, Skye Cunningham is the communications specialist for the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society where she does the social media updating, website management, community events, and outreach for the society. Skye loves to help the ALCS gain audience and support, create educational resources, and see the cute baby caribou born in the Central Selkirk Caribou Maternity Pen. Hugh Watt is a consulting forester and community forest and woodlot manager. Since 1991 he has lived in Nakusp where, with his wife Sandra, he has raised a family. Along with local and regional groups, he helped found the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society in 2019 to protect the future of the Central Selkirk Caribou herd.