Vanishing species: Caribou conservation plan divides community

JASPER, Alberta- A bold plan is in place to save Alberta’s dwindling caribou population. Problem is, not everyone is on board.

The species has been threatened for years, prompting Parks Canada to put together a conservation strategy in hopes of saving them. While putting the plan into action has been a difficult task, getting the support of everyone it impacts has also proven troublesome.

“It’s hard to get people onside, when actions are going to impact things that they do or love,” explains Shelly Bird from Parks Canada.

One of the people impacted is Kable Kongsrud, who makes his living in Jasper’s backcountry.

“I’ve been hiking in there, camping since I was 12, so I have a pretty good idea on the caribou. They don’t seem to be on the decline,” he says, adding his outfitting pack and ski business is being compromised due to delayed winter access.

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“I’m devastated. It’s been my blood sweat and tears since I was 20 years old, and then ‘bang,’ it could be gone and that’s what I’m afraid of.”

He worries that his retirement plan could be in jeopardy if Parks Canada doesn’t see positive results with the caribou population.

“These caribou could shut me down.”

The backcountry is more than prime caribou habitat—it’s also a prime spot for backcountry skiers who may be paving the way for the very thing threatening the species: wolves.

“Untracked snow acts as a buffer to keep the predators out of here,” Bird explains. “We do have remote camera images of wolves following ski trails.”

That means winter skiers won’t be able to access 13 trails until mid-February, a decision that has polarized the community.

“You can’t just delay skiing until February 15th, because we are a winter park,” complains skier Loni Klettl. “If you want to promote skiing and winter activities you’ve got to kind of do it all winter. There needs to be alternatives.

“If I couldn’t ski there until February 1st, I don’t know what I’d do.”

As a compromise, Parks Canada is working to open other trails in the area where caribou don’t roam. However, they also want to delay access along the Maligne Lake Road, which is home of one of the smallest herds of caribou.

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“That’s definitely a recommendation,” says Bird. “The Maligne herd we’ll need to add animals to it if it’s to survive.”

Parks Canada will begin discussions with all stakeholders about the area in a few weeks. Researchers are also working on a captive breeding program with the Calgary Zoo, in hopes of introducing new animals into the shrinking herds.

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