Earlier this year, wildlife cameras captured footage of bears chasing a lone baby caribou.
The calf’s name is Grace, after a mountain where her mother came from. Her mother died earlier this year. To help Grace escape predation the gates to a caribou maternity pen were reopened and the calf sought refuge inside.
“She’s now doing well and fattening up,” says Darcy Peel, acting director of the Caribou Recovery Program at the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
All of this is part of the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild project.
The project uses maternity pens, which are located on the west side of Revelstoke Lake to increase caribou calf survival in the North Columbia Mountains. While pregnancy rates for mountain caribou are high, the number of calves surviving to 10 months has declined. Current wild calf numbers in the herds are too low to sustain populations. Grace was born in the pen earlier this year and was released back in the wild last summer, but to help the calf survive she’s been re-admitted to the enclosure.
Projects like this are important says Peel as “it adds knowledge to aid caribou recovery on the landscape.”
According to the B.C. government, caribou in the province has 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.
“Caribou recovery is complicated,” says Peel. The project is just one of the many efforts in place trying to help caribou recovery.
Pregnant caribou are placed in maternal pens and future caribou are born without predation, and gain strength and agility until they are released back into the wild. The program is in its fifth season of a five-year pilot, ending in March 2019. The project is currently analyzing data from the final year. Grace is the only caribou currently in the pen
The program hoped to increase calf survival rates to double or triple current rates in the wild where survival rates vary between 20 and 31 per cent. However, calves raised in the pen and then released have a 41 per cent survival rate.
“We haven’t seen the level of increase that we hoped for,” says Peel.
However, Peel says the project has not been a failure as six additional calves have been introduced to the wild that wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
To feed the penned caribou for the last five years, volunteers have picked lichen.
Lichen is a symbiotic partnership of three organisms: algae, fungi and yeast.
There are roughly 20,000 known species of lichen in the world and it’s estimated that six per cent of Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. They are among the first living things to grow on rocks after a landslide and can be very old. There’s an Arctic species that’s 8,600 years old, which is one of the oldest living organisms in the world. Lichen is also the main food source for caribou in Canada.
|There are roughly 20,000 known species of lichen in the world and it’s estimated that six per cent of Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The caribou are fed 3 kg of lichen per day in the pens and during their stay they are slowly transitioned from lichen to pellets.
“We could never collect enough lichen to solely feed them lichen,” says Cat Mather, one of the volunteer lichen pickers. Mather has collected lichen for years as part of the project.
“I’m known as the lichen lady these days,” says Mather. As she talks there’s flecks of yellow lichen on her hair and clothes. It’s everywhere.
Since the pilot project is ending, the lichen picked two weeks ago south of Revelstoke is for another project.
Two B.C. caribou herds are teetering on the brink of extinction: South Purcell and South Selkirk.
In the Purcell South herd, there are three males and one female remaining and only two females in the South Selkirk.
Peel says it’s essential for the government to act.
“They will die out. It’s only a matter of time.”
Cory Legebokow, an ecosystem specialist with the B.C. government says a new project will attempt to save both herds.
The provincial government will take the herds and will either use them for a captive breeding program or reintroduce them into other herds.
“We’re not giving up. We’re recognizing that if we don’t do anything, they’ll die,” says Legebokow.
Both herds will be collected this winter, when conditions are right and placed in pens until a decision is reached.
In the case of a captive breeding program, a new facility would be constructed says Legebokow and while the adults would remain in captivity, future calves would be integrated into other herds.