Caribou pairing is a real thing. Here’s how a proposed breeding program in Alberta could work

A kind of careful matchmaking will guide a last-ditch effort to restore Jasper National Park’s endangered woodland caribou herds.

With the park’s remaining herds considered too small to survive, Parks Canada plans to capture females — along with a small roster of bulls — and breed them in captivity.

The hope is that with each rutting season, nature will take its course inside the facility’s breeding enclosures, albeit with some human intervention.

Animal husbandry would be essential to ensure the health of the expanding herd, said David Argument, resource conservation officer at Jasper National Park.

With so few caribou left, how the animals are bred from the wild — and mated in captivity — would need to be carefully managed.

“We will keep what is called a studbook. Who is paired with whom? Who were the parents of each offspring?” Argument said. “So we can track that genetic diversity and make sure we don’t get into an inbreeding situation.”

The $25 million project would permanently lock up to 40 women and five men in a one square kilometer facility surrounded by an electric fence.

Public consultations on the facility are in progress until September. A final decision is expected this fall.

If Parks Canada approves the plan, construction of the facility near Athabasca Falls, about 30 kilometers south of Jasper, will begin this winter. The first calves would be born in the spring of 2025 and released into the Tonquin herd the following year.

Yearling males would also be released, but the success of the program would depend on females, which can give birth to a calf each year, Argument said.

Some females born in captivity would remain at the facility to expand the breeding stock.

“The number of men is not as large,” he said. “A male caribou can have a herd of cows.”

It is hoped that the captive breeding program could produce around 20 calves a year, enough to bring herds to sustainable levels within a decade.

The first priority would be to save the Tonquin herd, building it from the brink of extinction to a self-sustaining population of 200 individuals.

Breeding stock for the conservation program would come from various southern mountain caribou herds across the Rockies, Argument said.

Only a select few could be sampled from the source herds. Even the region’s healthiest populations are dangerously small, and their depopulation could endanger the herds.

We have to make sure that we include caribou in this program that match the Jasper environment.– David’s Argument

There are also challenges related to sourcing the necessary breeding stock. Captured caribou should have behavioral and genetic traits similar to local herd animals.

This would ensure that captive-bred young will bond easily with their wild counterparts and have the right instincts to survive, Argument said.

“We have to make sure that we bring caribou into this program that matches the environment of Jasper so that we don’t end up with caribou just trying to do the wrong thing,” he said.

The southern mountain caribou present in the park have distinct migration patterns, moving between old-growth forests and high alpine regions.

“The last thing we want is caribou going down to the valley floor in winter, for example, which some caribou populations do,” Argument said.

“If a survival strategy works elsewhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work here.”

Calves born under the program would be released into the wild when they are one year old. (Wildlife Infometry)

Two of the five caribou herds documented in Banff and Jasper national parks have already disappeared.

The last five members of the Banff herd died in an avalanche in April 2009. With no sightings since 2018, the Maligne herd is now considered extinct.

The Tonquin herd is estimated at around 45 caribou and the Brazeau herd is estimated at less than 15 caribou. With about nine breeding females remaining at Tonquin and three at Brazeau, none are expected to grow.

If the conservation breeding facility is approved, all remaining members of the Brazeau herd would be brought into captivity.

The À la Pêche herd at the northern edge of Jasper National Park, with 160 caribou, would likely serve as the source herd for the breeding program.

Parks Canada is also in talks to harvest caribou from wild herds in British Columbia, Argument said.

“Tragic but necessary”

The proposal is an extreme intervention, said Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. But she said desperate measures are needed.

Parks Canada has taken steps to help caribou populations, including restricting public access to winter pastures. These changes came too late, Campbell said.

Breeding alone is not enough, she says. Parks Canada must ensure that yearlings released from captivity – and those born in the wild – are adequately protected.

Protecting the remaining habitat in the park is essential, she said.

“This is a tragic but necessary interim measure to keep the caribou where they belong,” Campbell said.

The argument stated that Jasper National Park must take swift and decisive action to protect the species.

It may be the last chance to keep the iconic species on the landscape, he said.

“I think it’s incredibly critical. The caribou is an integral part of Jasper’s very identity,” he said.

“And the numbers are so low at this point that we don’t have much time to waste.”