Government of Canada invests in reversing biodiversity loss through conservation breeding program for caribou in Jasper National Park

Backgrounder

©Parks Canada. A map of southern mountain caribou ranges in Jasper National Park.

Caribou and Parks Canada

Caribou may often be out of sight, but they are never out of mind. Parks Canada collaborates with many groups to protect and recover caribou across the country. Caribou recovery in Canada requires diverse actions that will vary according to the habitat condition and status of local populations.

Southern mountain caribou populations in Alberta and British Columbia have gotten smaller in number over the last fifty years and some herds have disappeared. Mountain caribou ranges include areas of Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

Mountain caribou depend on vast and undisturbed habitats. Protected areas like national parks are key for their survival. The network of protected areas in Canada plays an important role in helping to address the impacts of climate change by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk. Without intervention, the Brazeau and Tonquin caribou will disappear.

For a summary of the reasons caribou have declined in the national park, steps Parks Canada has taken to reduce threats to caribou, and Parks Canada’s conservation breeding strategy to rebuild small caribou herds in Jasper National Park, visit https://parks.canada.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/nature/conservation/retablissement-caribou-recovery/elevage-caribou-breeding/retour-caribou-comeback

Conservation Breeding Program

Through the caribou conservation breeding and release program, Parks Canada plans to build a breeding centre in Jasper National Park, capture wild caribou from local herds and move them into the breeding centre, and release young animals born in the centre each year into the Tonquin herd of wild caribou.

For more information on the proposed plan: https://parks.canada.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/nature/conservation/retablissement-caribou-recovery/elevage-caribou-breeding/proposal#program

Parks Canada plans to begin building the conservation breeding centre in 2023. The centre will be located in Jasper National Park, about 30 kilometres south of the Jasper townsite. The site is along Geraldine Fire Road, which is accessed from Highway 93A and is used by people visiting the Geraldine Lakes area and Fryatt Valley. Athabasca Falls is located a few kilometres south of the Geraldine Fire Road.

During the two to three years the breeding centre is being constructed, Parks Canada will be working together with Indigenous partners, the governments of Alberta and British Columbia, Environment and Climate Change Canada and experts around the world to find the best ways to bring caribou into the program, ensure their health and well-being while in care, give them the best chance of survival after they are released into the wild, and support shared conservation and species at risk recovery goals.

The next steps of the program will be the construction of a breeding centre in Jasper National Park, the development of a collaborative governance structure and technical committee and an implementation plan for Indigenous engagement in the program.

History of caribou conservation in Jasper National Park

Mountain caribou have historically inhabited areas in the Tonquin Valley, the Maligne Valley, the Brazeau mountain ranges near the Icefields Parkway and on either side of Jasper National Park’s northern boundary.

  • From the mid-1970s to about 2010, an overabundance of both elk and wolves created by park management practices in the early 1900s led to caribou increasingly falling prey to a high wolf population.
  • Since 2003, caribou in the mountain national parks belong to the southern mountain population of woodland caribou listed as Threatened on Schedule 1 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
  • In response, Parks Canada has focused on carefully monitoring caribou, protecting caribou habitat, and managing wildlife to maintain more balanced wolf and elk populations.
  • Starting in 2009, Parks Canada added to year-round conservation measures and habitat protection by implementing seasonal closures in the Tonquin, and eventually the Maligne, Brazeau and À la Pêche caribou ranges of Jasper National Park. Almost 3000 km2 of winter habitat is protected for caribou.
  • In 2014, the Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population was published.
  • In 2017, the Multi-Species Action Plan for Jasper National Park was published.
  • In 2018, after nearly 15 years with fewer than ten animals, Parks Canada found no signs of the last 3 animals in the Maligne population.
  • In 2021, Parks Canada organized a comprehensive, independent review of a proposed conservation breeding program by a group of specialists in caribou ecology and conservation breeding.
  • Also in 2021, the Government of Canada invested $2.3 billion for the Enhanced Nature Legacy Program, with over $24 million available for caribou conservation in Jasper National Park.
  • In 2022, Parks Canada consulted with Indigenous and government partners, stakeholders and the public on the proposed conservation breeding program and completed a detailed impact assessment.

 

What is caribou recovery?

The Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada (2014) guides recovery actions for the species across its range including the mountain national parks. Parks Canada, along with the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, worked with Environment and Climate Change Canada to help provide the best available information, technical advice and perspectives for the preparation of the recovery strategy.

The objectives outlined in the Recovery Strategy define recovery as self-sustaining populations of caribou within their current distribution. The populations must be large enough to withstand natural processes and random events and show stable or increasing growth over the long term. Critical habitat for caribou must also be protected and threats to the animals or their habitat mitigated so that ecological conditions can support self-sustaining populations.

For Jasper, this looks like a stable or increasing minimum population of 200 in the Tonquin subpopulation and approximately 300 to 400 caribou in the Jasper-Banff Local Population Unit (Banff, Brazeau, Maligne and Tonquin) over 20 to 50 years.

 

Why can’t caribou recover on their own?

Caribou populations grow slowly and can decline quickly. This is highly influenced by their late reproduction age, calf survival and female mortality. Female caribou typically have their first calf around age three, it is very rare for a caribou to have more than one calf. In Jasper caribou populations, we see a relatively high calf survival of about 50%. A calf that has grown into a yearling then has about a 65% chance of surviving to sub-adulthood. Once a sub-adult, a caribou has an 85% chance of surviving into adulthood. All this means that it takes approximately 8 or more years to replace an adult female in a herd.

The number of reproductive female caribou– an estimated 9 to11 in the Tonquin and less than 3 in the Brazeau – is now so small that these herds will not produce enough calves each year to grow the population. More animals must be introduced into the population in order to recover.

 

Why is caribou recovery important?

Southern mountain caribou is one of six species identified by the Government of Canada as a priority for conservation action. This priority status is based on their ecological, social and cultural value to Canadians, and because their recovery can significantly support other species at risk and overall biodiversity within the ecosystems they inhabit.

Parks Canada supports southern mountain caribou conservation for the following reasons:

  • Ecological Restoration: Southern mountain caribou are an important part of the alpine and forest ecosystem, which is home to a wide range of plants and animals. Maintaining the habitat required for healthy populations of southern mountain caribou on the landscape can also help to conserve other species including grizzly bears, wolverines and migratory birds. Southern mountain caribou and their habitat are valued by many Canadians.
  • Cultural Reconnection: Many Indigenous communities also have long histories with caribou. Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have revered caribou, searching them out for sustenance and nutrition. Caribou are a cornerstone of their cultures and histories.
  • Inspiring Discovery: Healthy and sustainable populations of caribou, once restored, will create opportunities for visitors to Jasper National Park to learn about and experience the ecological and cultural importance of caribou.
  • Alignment with Parks Canada Mandate: Parks Canada manages an extensive system of protected natural and cultural heritage areas. In managing national parks, Parks Canada maintains or restores ecological integrity and provides Canadians with opportunities to discover and enjoy them. Protecting the wildlife, lands and waters that make up the national park system helps to ensure these places are here for present and future generations to appreciate and experience.

For more information

Visit parks.canada.ca/caribou-jasper

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