Vanishing species: Caribou fight for their lives

JASPER, Alberta- They are shy and almost secretive, yet they hold many answers about the state of Alberta’s forests. Unfortunately, the Woodland Caribou’s dwindling numbers paint a bleak picture, for the species’ future.

Once a fixture in Jasper National Park, the caribou were so iconic a picture of them graces the Canadian quarter. But they’re now in a fight for their lives—and Parks Canada is making it their mission to save them. A few times a month, biologists hike over rambling rivers and up rocky slopes, to try and spot the creatures in the backcountry.

“They have learned to live where no other ungulate, no other large mammal can survive and they do it with class,” says Dr. John Wilmshurst. “They’re a pretty cool animal to study.”

Getting data is not easy, as researchers rely on cameras to track the caribou, a yearly overhead count from a helicopter and their trekking skills. Researchers will sometimes hike 40 kilometers in a day.

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There are now only four herds in the park, totaling about 170 animals. The smallest herd only has six—about the same number of a remaining herd in Banff that were killed in an avalanche a few years ago.

“About five years ago there were about 90 caribou in the Tonquin herd—the area we’ve been scouring—now, there are only about 50 of them,” explains Wilmshurst. “It’s pretty dire. All the populations of caribou in Jasper National park are declining, and some are small.”

Southern Mountain Caribou live in the same harsh environment as marmots and mountain goats, surviving off lichen. Scientists have identified five threats, including small population sizes and habitat loss due to fire. Exploding elk and deer populations are also leading to larger packs of wolves.

Despite the odds stacked against them, researchers trek on, hoping that they can make a difference.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t optimistic we could do it, we wouldn’t throw taxpayers dollars out the window for a desire.”

In part two of this special report, we look at what is being done to preserve the Woodland Caribou.

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