The troubled mountain caribou herd west of Cranbrook and Kimberley may see new life – but area wolves would have to be killed to ensure their safety.
In March, the Ministry of Environment hopes to transplant 20 mountain caribou from Dease Lake in northwestern B.C. into the dwindling Purcell South herd. Another 20 caribou would be moved in March 2013.
The local herd, which lives in old-growth forest in the Purcell mountains, has dropped to just 15 animals, mostly due to loss of habitat from industrial forestry.
“It has gotten very small and the concern is that it will not survive unless it’s augmented,” said Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett.
The species has dropped to just 1,700, making it one of the most endangered mammals in North America.
Under the Species At Risk Act, the provincial government must act to recover the population.
A specially formed scientific team within the Ministry of Environment has been allocated $750,000 to transplant 40 caribou from the Tahltan First Nation to the Purcell South herd.
The first translocation in March would be of 17 females and three males, and the same ratio would be used in March 2013. Many of the females would be pregnant during the move.
It’s a last-ditch effort to save the dwindling herd.
“I am convinced that if we don’t do this, we can basically write off that herd. This has to be done,” said Bennett.
But the success of the move is dependent on one controversial issue: a wolf cull.
“I support (the translocation) on one condition: predators have to be managed appropriately here at this end. You can’t dump out a bunch of caribou from the north without also managing the predators,” said Bennett.
“I do not support the transplantation unless that component is included.”
And the only effective way to manage the area’s burgeoning wolf population is through aerial control.
“It’s very controversial but it is the only way we can ensure the survival of these caribou,” said Bennett.
The wolves would only be shot if the pack kills a caribou, Bennett added. Before the caribou are placed in the Purcells, they will be fitted with radio collars.
“So they will know within an hour if a caribou is killed,” said Bennett. “They will go in with a helicopter, they will figure out what killed the caribou, and if it was a wolf, they will do this aerial cull.
“They are not proposing an indiscriminate cull; only in response to an animal being taken by a wolf pack would they go in and do that.”
Almost every group that is working to recover the mountain caribou population supports predator control. The ministry’s scientific team supports it, Bennett said.
“The Tahltan First Nation doesn’t want to let their caribou be brought down here unless we have that aerial wolf control,” he said.
The ministry is talking to the Ktunaxa about their own concerns.
A collaboration of North American environmental groups has long worked to conserve the mountain caribou and their habitat. Members of the Mountain Caribou Project include Wildsight, the Federation of BC Naturalists, and the Sierra Club of Canada’s B.C. chapter.
According to its website at www.mountaincaribou.ca, the project does support predator management where immediate threat to the caribou is determined.
Cranbrook Snowmobile Club is also onboard with the translocation and has voluntarily withdrawn from caribou habitat.
“We have been working with the Ministry of Environment for quite a while on mountain caribou,” said club president Doug Hogg.
“We have some voluntary area closures: boundaries for where we can snowmobile and where we can’t snowmobile in order to protect caribou habitat.”
Some areas are closed to all snowmobile traffic, some areas limit snowmobiles to roads and cutblocks, and other areas are completely open.
“Everyone in our club is at heart an environmentalist. Even though we like to play in the mountains, we are concerned about the wildlife and the area around us. If we can do our part to enhance the herd, we’ll do what we can,” said Hogg.
The club supports managing the wolf population in the habitat area.
“If there is no predator control, transplanting 20 caribou could be providing a free lunch for the cougars and the wolves so obviously they have got to do something,” said Hogg.