Translocation: Recovering a Species at Risk
Woodland caribou have inhabited the mountains in and around Banff National Park since the last ice age. They are an integral part of the park’s ecosystem and the southernmost herd in Alberta. They are also part of the threatened Southern Mountain Population of Woodland caribou. The nearest Southern Mountain herds are located in Jasper National Park and Alberta’s White Goat Wilderness Area.
Until late in the last century, Banff had an estimated 25-40 caribou. The population declined to 5-10 animals by the mid-1990s. Then, in 2009, an avalanche on Mt. Hector killed the park's last remaining caribou.
Is recovery possible?
While a few caribou may remain in Banff National Park, the population would be too small to be self-sustaining and unlikely to persist. Park wildlife specialists are assessing the possibility of moving, or translocating, woodland caribou from a source herd and releasing them into Banff’s historic caribou range. The goal is to increase Banff National Park’s caribou population to a self- sustaining number of animals.
Banff National Park and the adjacent Siffleur Wilderness Area have conditions favourable for translocation success: high quality habitat, a decline in predator numbers, low densities of elk, no industrial activity, and relatively low levels of human activity.
Approximately 67% of caribou translocations in North America have been successful.
How would translocation take place?
One option is to work with other agencies to secure 40-60 woodland caribou from a large, established herd and release them in an area of high quality habitat in Banff National Park.
The translocations would likely take place over two or three years, with approximately 20 animals added each year. This phased approach would allow us to adapt translocation procedures to changing ecological conditions and lessons learned from earlier translocations.
A second option is to establish a captive-rearing program, where 20 caribou from one or several source herds would be held in secure enclosures. Adult females could supply yearlings for translocation for several years or they could be released into the park along with calves and yearlings in family groups.
In either scenario, caribou responses to translocation would be routinely monitored. Animal care specialists and wildlife veterinarians would be involved to ensure only healthy caribou were translocated and that the animals received the highest standard of care.
Elk, wolves and caribou
Banff’s caribou tell a story of ecosystem connections in which elk and wolves have key roles. Wolves tend to focus on the park’s more plentiful prey, such as deer or elk, but hunt caribou when the opportunity arises. High elk numbers support high wolf numbers, which affects caribou in two ways. First, larger wolf packs consume more prey, including the caribou they occasionally encounter as they travel throughout their territory. Second, when plentiful prey such as elk summer in caribou range, wolves follow and linger longer, increasing the number of opportunities for wolves to encounter caribou.
In the 1980s, several decades of hunting and trapping pressure on trans-boundary wolves led to unnaturally high elk numbers in Banff National Park. A few wolves travelled through the park, but no cohesive wolf packs formed until the late 1980s. By the mid-1990s, wolf populations had rebounded and packs frequently travelled into caribou range while hunting for elk. Predation on caribou increased and the Banff herd shrunk to 5-10 animals—which proved to be unsustainable.
Over the past decade, park managers have implemented a variety of measures to restore ecosystem processes. Conditions for caribou persistence have improved following a 75% decline in elk and a similar decline in wolves. Parks Canada is evaluating how current wolf use of caribou range could affect translocation success.
Risks for caribou
Caribou are highly adaptable, but translocated animals can take up to three years to learn how to live in their new surroundings. Higher than normal mortality rates are likely during this “learning period”.
However, doing nothing also has risks. Without intervention, caribou will become locally extinct – lost forever from Banff National Park’s ecosystem. Woodland caribou range, which once extended far into Montana, will continue to shrink northward.
The following steps are necessary before a decision can be made on caribou translocation:
- further investigate how current wolf use of caribou range could affect translocation success
- work with other government agencies and First Nations to identify suitable and available source populations of caribou
- identify and address concerns of interested groups and individuals near potential source populations and caribou range in Banff
We’d like your input
To help inform our decisions, we’d like to hear your thoughts on a potential caribou reintroduction in Banff National Park.
If you have any questions or comments, or would like more information, contact
Wildlife Biologist, Jesse Whittington:
P.O. Box 213
Lake Louise, Alberta T0L 1E0