Klinse-Za Caribou Maternal Penning Project

Text by Marcus Reynerson. Photos by Marcus Reynerson and David Moskowitz. Video production by Colin Arisman/Wild Confluence.

In mid-march, our team headed to Chetwynd, BC to visit and observe the Klinse-za Maternal Penning Project. This project is attempting to decrease caribou calf mortality rates in the Klinse-za mountain caribou herd of the South Peace River region of BC. The project was developed by the West Moberly First nations and is supported by the Saulteau First Nations. Additionally, the team consists of a coalition of biologists, provincial government officials, and forest industry representatives that are offering support. This penning project is one of two ongoing in British Columbia and, according to Scott McNay, was instigated because of the local First Nations’ strong desire to protect the specific caribou that exist in their traditional territory.

Resource extraction and human recreation are the fundamental pressures leading to the decline of mountain caribou populations. By destroying refuge habitat, encouraging increased populations of other ungulates which attracted predators into caribou habitat, and creating landscape features which are easy for predators to travel on, logging, mining, road construction and winter recreation activities have caused a significant shift in predator-prey dynamics between caribou and the native predators in these mountains. This new ecological reality is having a direct impact on calf mortality in numerous herds across mountain caribou country. Pregnant females and newborn calves have been recognized as the most vulnerable segment of mountain caribou populations due to this elevated rate of predation. This penning project is one of several emergency measures being undertaken as last-ditch efforts to give calves a higher chance of surviving predation. I wrote about another one of these measures, supplemental feeding, in a previous blog post.

_10B8098 Winter mountain caribou habitat in the Hart Range, BC. Photo by David Moskowitz.

The Klinse-za project is on the east slope of the Hart Range, the northern extension of the Rocky Mountains. The team’s goal is to capture pregnant cows, observe and feed them until they give birth, and keep the pairs enclosed until they are large enough to have a better chance of avoiding predation (Some herds of mountain caribou have been found to have no calf survival in the wild because of unnaturally high predation rates). The project is energy intensive, financially expensive, and highly invasive to the animals. While initial data are suggesting that it is having a positive impact on the herd’s numbers, it is certainly not a sustainable long-term solution. The First Nations partners aim to take steps to avert extirpation of the Klinse-Za herd and demonstrate the viability of maternal penning to help bolster other vulnerable caribou populations in the region.

The project is being lead and driven by the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations and is being coordinated by Scott McNay and Brian Pate of Wildlife Infometrics in Mackenzie, BC. West Moberly hired this team to help them oversee these efforts as they attempt to bring back the herds of caribou that have dwelled in their ancestral lands for generations. According to Harley Davis, one of the Saulteau project representatives: “The caribou are something special to our people here. People have sustained themselves off of caribou for thousands of years around here. They’ve provided us with food, clothes, and sustenance, and now that they’re in need, we feel like we’ve got to give back.”

How It Works

Of the herd of 55 animals in this region, about 18 cows are collared. The team assumes these cows could potentially be pregnant, and over the course of two days, tracks these cows in helicopters through high-elevation alpine terrain. After they find the individuals, a biologist shoots them with a net gun from the air, jumps out of the helicopter, and holds the animal until another helicopter lands with a veterinarian who delivers a nasal tranquilizer. The net is removed, the animal is hobbled at its feet for it’s protection and the vet’s. It is loaded into a helicopter and flown down below tree line. The helicopter lands at a site near an 18-acre (7 ha) pen where it is off loaded onto a snowmobile and sledded into the pen. Here the head veterinarian for the province, Helen Schwantje, leads a team in weighing the animal, drawing blood, checking teeth, taking hair and stool samples, and re-collaring the animal. They then give a reversal drug, and after about 5 minutes, the caribou gets up, finds her legs, and trots (or in some cases lopes) off into the pen. In May, the cows will give birth to calves, and the pairs will continue to live in the pen until the calves are about 6 weeks old, when they will be released. During this time, a team of “shepherds” from the Saulteau and West Moberly live in small cabins nearby, with no electricity, and tend the fence, keep predators away, and feed the cows and calves highly nutritious feed. The cows are slowly transitioned from their natural diet of lichen to specialized highly nutritious rations, which they will consume until they are transitioned back to lichen before release.

IMG_1516 A herd of caribou on a high alpine ridge. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.
_MG_9688 One of the transport helicopters lands on an alpine ridge in order to get set up for a capture. The clearing behind the ridge is a large high elevation clearcut, one of many in the area which have contributed to the need for the penning project. Photo by David Moskowitz
IMG_1092 A caribou is offloaded from a helicopter and prepared to be transported to the pen. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.
IMG_7463 Biologists Brian Pate, Line Giguere, and Doug Herd intake a pregnant cow caribou. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.
IMG_1307 A view of the 18 acre pen. On the left, a group of biologists and veterinarians work on a caribou that has just arrived. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.

This was an amazing, beautiful, and sobering experience to witness. Seeing these incredible animals captured and penned was immensely impactful. There was something about the sight of a magnificent wild being handled in this way that hit me hard. While the intentions of this process are good, and while I could understand it intellectually, to see it in person touched my heart in a very different way – in a way that begs the question – What the hell have we done to get into this situation? And what the hell are we going to do from here? Not just for caribou, but for the whole damn living world?

While it was challenging in many ways, I’m grateful for the dedicated team of people working incredibly hard to keep these animals around. Here in the third year of penning, the team has seen the herd grow from 36 individuals to 55, in no small part due to these efforts. According to Brian Pate: “All the animals released last year are still alive and the calf survival in the wild is improving.” While that does not sound like much, at this critical point it doesn’t take much to be impactful. Efforts such as this, while definitely not a long-term solution, are playing their part in making incremental progress. However, we have much bigger questions to ask. What happens after this project runs its course? As Project Supervisor, Scott McNay said, “We can’t keep projects like penning and predator control going forever. These measures eventually have diminishing returns. At some point, we’re going to need to ask ‘What’s next?’” This question was strongly reinforced by the reality that, according to two supervisors from the local lumber mill in Chetwynd who didn’t want to go on record, the entire log yard for the mill was filled with “first cut” trees from the surrounding region. As new roads and clearcuts gets punched into the landscape, we are apparently continuing to exacerbate a situation we are also working so hard to correct.

_MG_9160 Lumber mill in Chetwynd British Columbia. According to two employees of this mill, most of the logs coming into this mill are from previously uncut forests in the region. According to these employees, Lowes in the USA is the chief recipient of the high grade dimensional lumber produced here. The lower quality lumber is shipped to China. Photo by David Moskowitz.

Tough questions are coming, indeed. We Humans have used our minds and creativity to do things no other species has been able to do. It’s the use of these faculties that have got us to where we are now, for better or worse. We need to start using this creativity and ingenuity to make the changes necessary to protect and honor, not just caribou in the long-term, but to protect and honor the entire ecosystem that many species call home – including ourselves. Harley Davis’ words sent me home thinking and feeling a lot: “Without the animals, and without the trees and the forest, our culture wouldn’t survive. All animals, not only caribou, are part of our makeup. We need them as much as they need us.”

IMG_1157 A cow caribou just awoken from the process and gaining her bearings in the pen. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.

Acknowledgements

On behalf of the MCI, I’d like to thank the Klinse-Za Penning Project team for allowing us to come in and observe this very sensitive effort. We know it takes a lot to manage the logistics of this monumental effort, and having a team of photographers and videographers there is yet another layer to manage. I want to give a special thanks to Brian and Karyn Pate for their hospitality while we were there and letting us stay at their home in Chetwynd. Thanks for the gracious hospitality and all of the stories and learning.

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