Boreal woodland caribou populations are declining and listed as "threatened" federally under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) and provincially in many jurisdictions, including Alberta. They are wide-ranging animals, whose annual home ranges cross many stakeholder leases and land-use types.
In January 2016, a three-day multi-stakeholder workshop brought together experts and stakeholders from provincial and federal governments, environmental non-government organizations, academia, indigenous communities, zoo and animal care organizations, and the energy sector to review various caribou population management tools. Workshop participants discussed the range of techniques available to grow caribou populations in western Canada.
The session was facilitated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global organization that supports scientific research and develops cross-sectoral partnerships to foster nature conservation and species recovery. The session was chaired by a group of IUCN experts, including Drs. Mark Stanley-Price, Axel Moehrenschlager and John Ewen, international experts in species reintroduction with a global record of implementing successful programs. Workshop participants concluded that “At least one conservation translocation technique (fencing, wild-to-wild translocation, captive breeding, maternal penning), or combination thereof, will be worthwhile pursuing to reduce the likelihood of extinction of at least one boreal caribou herd in Western Canada.”
Starting with a thorough, structured review of the various caribou conservation and population management programs carried out over the years, the workshop followed established IUCN methods and protocols that have proved successful in other parts of the world. Participants shared their own views on objectives and values as well as experiences in caribou conservation breeding techniques and tools. They also assessed and evaluated the merits of a range of conservation breeding and translocation techniques and explored potential caribou ranges that could benefit from conservation breeding and/or translocation actions.
Four categories of population management tools were discussed:
- Maternal penning: a captive-rearing technique that relocates pregnant caribou to a small predator-proof pen in their herd’s native range for a relatively short period of time to give birth and raise their young.
- Captive breeding and release: a method that breeds select caribou in captivity over a relatively long period of time and releases produced animals back into the wild.
- Wild-to-wild translocation: a conservation procedure that moves animals from one wild population to another, or to another location in the herd’s range.
- Predator exclosure fencing: a technique that builds a permanent fence around a large area of a target caribou population’s range to protect them from predators, and annually releases a subset of animals from within the fence to unfenced parts of their range.
Each category was used as a basis to develop alternative management strategies, which were then reviewed and ranked by each participant according to 10 boreal caribou conservation objectives. As a result of the workshop, there was consensus by all participants that intensive population management tools do play a distinct role in caribou recovery, alongside other habitat-based measures, including restoration, and that some of these tools more effectively meet specific objectives and values than others.
A full report detailed the workshop and its findings, An Exploration of Conservation Breeding and Translocation Tools to Improve the Conservation Status of Boreal Caribou Populations in Western Canada, was released in May 2016.
At the close of the workshop, a consensus was reached that conservation breeding tools have a role to play in stabilizing caribou populations in the short term, and are worth pursuing alongside other habitat-based initiatives. Of all the population management tools assessed during the workshop, a predator exclosure fencing option emerged as the strategy with the highest score when considering participant identified values and objectives.
“We are stronger together,” says Amit Saxena, senior technical leader, Wildlife, Biodiversity & Land Stewardship, Devon Canada and the industry lead on this project. “The workshop was successful because of the range of stakeholders at the table. With representatives from the provincial and federal governments, various ENGOs, Indigenous groups, industry and others, we heard voices and opinions from many areas discussing population management levers that could contribute to recovering caribou populations in Alberta. In particular, this broad and varied group of stakeholders even identified a single strategy—predator exclosure fencing—that they thought best met their range of values. That’s important because it gives decision-makers a strong argument when proposing population augmentation tools as part of a broader caribou recovery plan.”
The workshop was made possible with contributions from COSIA member companies including Canadian Natural, Cenovus, Devon Canada, Imperial, Nexen, Suncor and Statoil. Husky Energy, MEG Energy and the BC Oil and Gas Research and Innovation Society also helped fund the event, which was held at the Calgary Zoo.