Jasper National Park confirmed at least 34 caribou in the Tonquin Valley but did not spot any members of the Brazeau herd during aerial surveys in the fall.
Biologists did, however, find tracks and scat of the Brazeau animals; remote wildlife cameras also captured images of caribou in the Winston Churchill Range, on the west side of the Brazeau habitat.
“However the images indicate no more than three of four animals,” a December update notes.
Every fall, biologists survey caribou by flying over caribou habitat in a helicopter and counting the number of caribou they see. Because of delays due to low snow, the aerial surveys were conducted at the end of of October in 2023.
“Caribou and their tracks are easier to see when snow is on the ground,” the report says.
During the survey, the team observed 33 caribou, including caribou c99, the oldest known caribou in Jasper National Park. Having been part of the first scat collection program in 2006, c99 is at least 17 years old, according to researchers.
“Southern mountain caribou are thought to live eight to 15 years in the wild, so she is defying the odds,” communication officers said.
To help southern mountain caribou defy the odds and survive into the future, Jasper National Park is building a caribou conservation breeding centre. Contractors have made significant progress on the $38 million project, Parks Canada says, having framed in the facility’s three main buildings—the handling barn, administration building and storage shed. Throughout the winter, forestry work will continue to remove dead standing wood and vegetation. The work is critical to protecting the facility, and the caribou which will be housed there, from the risk of wildfire.
“Smoke will be visible from the construction site as pile burning continues throughout the winter,” Parks Canada says.
Helping lift the smoke on the reasons for caribou mortalities are Parks Canada’s satellite-based GPS collars. Parks Canada’s GPS-monitoring program for caribou began in the Tonquin Valley in 2021. Since then, biologists have discovered three collared caribou which have died. Two were preyed on by cougars, and another’s cause of death is unknown (the collar and carcass were in an area deemed unsafe to walk into because of a grizzly hazard). Still, the program can contribute to mitigating caribou deaths, Parks Canada says.
“Information about caribou mortalities may help Parks Canada prevent deaths in a critically small caribou population and will be valuable for the success of the new conservation breeding program.”
When it’s operational, Parks Canada plans to bring the remaining members of the Brazeau herd to the conservation breeding centre. The Brazeau population has declined from an estimated 45 animals in the 1980s to the four which are known to comprise the herd today. Frank Roan, from Smallboys Mountain Cree, a remote community on the north shore of the Brazeau River, remembers when caribou were plentiful there. He and other Indigenous partners working with Jasper National Park have blamed their decline in large part on the construction of Alberta’s Bighorn Dam, which was built in 1972 and led to the creation of Alberta’s largest reservoir, Abraham Lake.
“Our people opposed that project, but [the government] still went ahead with it,” Stoney Nation spokesperson Barry Wesley has said. “And 10 years after the development of the dam the caribou disappeared.”
Today, Parks Canada is testing the use of a small-scale feeding site to help locate and improve their understanding of caribou populations in the Brazeau. Together with Roan, in October, Jasper National Park’s monitoring team placed pelleted feed and harvested lichen in high-altitude caribou habitat at a site where they’ve recorded caribou in the past.
Lichen is a primary food source of southern mountain caribou and Jasper is in the early stages of developing a lichen collection program with Indigenous partners. The captive caribou at the future conservation breeding centre will require lichen as part of their diet and Jasper National Park is working with the Calgary Zoo and the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation to further the agency’s goal of having a sustainable lichen supply by this spring.
The federal agency is keeping the door open to more Indigenous partners on their caribou recovery work. Indigenous partners who might have a story to share can email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more information.
With files from Parks Canada