Revelstoke mountain caribou penning project nears end

Five-year maternal penning project north of Revelstoke saw successes and challenges

Wildlife veternarian and biologist Brian Macbeth takes a blood sample while former RCRW executive director Kelsey Furk helps stabilize the caribou. Photo: Rob Buchanan

The caribou maternity pen north of Revelstoke sits almost empty, except for one lonely resident – a months-old calf that fled to the pen after being chased by several different animals. When the monitors captured her on camera several times, they realized she was fleeing to a safe spot, so they opened the gate for her.

She’s the last resident (for now) of Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild’s (RCRW) maternity pen, which is nearing the end of a five-year pilot project. The last group of captured animals were released in the spring and biologists are currently monitoring them and compiling data for a final report that is expected to be released next September.

For Kevin Bollefer, who’s been a director of RCRW for its history, the project is a success. “It was a really good project to get a better feel of what’s going on out there,” he told me.

Kevin Bollefer of the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild project displays software used to track the mountain caribou that have been released from the pen. Photo: Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

I spoke to Bollefer at his Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation office, where he works as the operations forester. While there, he showed me the program they use to track the caribou through the mountains. Their migrations across their range north of Revelstoke were shown on Google Earth, giving a glimpse journeys that took one animal almost all the way across the Monashees to Blue River.

“From watching what these animals have done after release, some of them go back to where they were captured, but a lot of them don’t,” he noted. “They stay around the area and intermix with the animals there.”

Southern mountain caribou are considered threatened under the Species at Risk Act and numerous measures have been undertaken or are being considered to protect them. Most herds have seen their numbers decline drastically and the Columbia North herd is no exception. According to RCRW, its population fell to 150 in 2011 from 210 in 1994, though it’s considered to have stabilized in 2003 after a steep decline in the late ‘90s. Comparatively, the Columbia South herd, which ranges around Revelstoke, saw its population drop to just seven animals from 120 in the same time frame.

The maternity pen project was launched in 2012 and eventually saw involvement and donations from more than 50 local and regional partners, including all levels of government, First Nations, businesses, and non-profits. The goal was to provide a safe place for caribou calves to grow up for the first few months of their life, when they’re easy prey for predators.

“The biggest part was everybody coming together to get this thing done. When we needed help, everyone stepped up,” said Bollefer.

It’s one of several options being considered to help save the caribou; others are predator control, moose reduction, and, most significantly, habitat protection, which could lead to large areas being closed off to industry and recreation. A comprehensive strategy for caribou recovery is being developed.

The 6.4-hectare maternity pen was built north of Revelstoke in 2013 at a site chosen for its ease of access and the availability of power and lodging at a neighbouring hunting lodge. The first two years of the pen saw mixed results. In 2014, only two of nine calves born in the pen survived to 10 months of age, which RCRW said may have been a result of an unusually warm winter. The survival rate was comparable to that of calves born in the wild (22 per cent).

Bobbi Doebert cradles a mother caribou as they wait to release it into the protective RCRW maternity pen. Photo: Rob Buchanan

In 2015, mortality inside the pen was the bigger issue, with four dying pre-release due to injury, infection, and abandonment, but only two after. Nine of 15 calves lived to 10 months of age – triple the survival rate in the wild.

After 2015, RCRW reviewed its program and undertook a number of changes. The pen was expanded to 9.3 hectares, a new water system was installed, a number of policies around care and capture were revised, and a veterinarian was hired to work at the site during calving period. Despite that, four of 11 calves died in the pen in 2016, while four or five were still alive the following March. In 2017, 11 pregnant females were captured, nine calves were released, and four survived until March.

Before the project began, it was calculated that to actually increase the herd’s population, 20 caribou would have to be penned. In 2018, that’s what RCRW did, penning 20 cows, 17 of which were pregnant. Then, after an unusually hot May, the caribou were released two months early. Three cows died in the pen and two calves were euthanized after being injured. Only 11 calves were alive when the caribou were released. As of October 1, two cows and one calf had died due to predation since release. Another survey is planned for March to see how many survived the winter.

Bill Beard, the executive director of RCRW, said they don’t know yet why so many calves died in the pen. “At the moment we’re looking at the necropsy reports and trying to sort that out, but we’ll certainly be publishing that in our final report when we do that next September,” he said. “We don’t really have any certainty around that. More information needs to be gathered before we release anything publicly.”

One issue raised is the location of the pen at valley bottom, which is lower and hotter than where caribou normally give birth. Another maternity pen operated by First Nations near Quesnel was moved to a higher elevation because of similar issues.

Bollefer said they piled snow in the pen to make it cooler this year. “My personal thought is if we had a smaller number and we did the snow piling, I don’t think it would be as bad a site as some people might think.”

He said there were significant logistical challenges to building a pen higher up. “The biggest issue with going up high is dealing with five metres of snow. How do you build a fence that will keep animals in?”

The maternity pen was built with two objectives in mind. The first was to see if the survival rate of calves could be improved. The second was to stabilize and then increase the population of the Columbia North herd. It appears the first objective was met, with the survival rate of calves born in the pen double that of calves born in the wild over the first four years of the pilot project. Whether or not the second objective was met awaits a complete herd survey, which is planned for March.

“My sense is we definitely haven’t done any harm,” Bollefer said. “I think we’ve increased slightly, but we also learnt a lot too.”

Bollefer notes they were able to monitor the caribou giving birth and get a better idea of how calves died. They were able to look at adult survivorship and see if penning was even feasible for caribou. It is also a model for community cooperation that others are looking at.

Meanwhile, the pen will still be used – this time to transplant two nearly extirpated herds in southern B.C.

The South Selkirk herd is down to only two females, from a high of 46 animals in 2009, while the South Purcell herd dropped to only four animals this year from 16 last year. “The plan is to capture all six and move them to the Revelstoke maternal pen,” said Leo DeGroot, the south area caribou lead for the Ministry of the Environment.

Several options are being considered for the animals once they’re in the pen, said DeGroot. One is to conduct a captive rearing program, in which calves would be raised in the pen for three years. The other is to simply hold the animals in the pen, possibly with several animals from the Columbia North herd, then release them and hope they integrate and become part of the larger herd.

“Hopefully they would stick together after release and the new ones would learn how to use the new habitat from the veterans,” said DeGroot.

Regardless of which option the ministry goes with, the transplant won’t happen until at least 2020. They also plan on moving the pen to a new, higher site beforehand.

“The issue with pen is low elevation and it’s too warm in summer,” said DeGrooot. “Normally caribou would be at 1,700 metres elevation, not at 700 metres where the pen is.”

RCRW has no plans to continue the maternity penning project. The five-year pilot program is nearing its end, with only a final survey left to conduct. A final report is expected next September.

“This had been talked about for so long that it was time to do it, or stop talking about it,” said Bollefer. “I’m really glad we did it. We learnt a ton and I do think it was a total success.”