Calls to extend winter closures in Jasper’s back country could hurt caribou more then it helps them

We also found no support for the hypothesis that high backcountry human use is directly related to the caribou decline. This is also important because it allows us to concentrate our efforts on management efforts that have a higher probability of recovering caribou”. 1

No one disputes the fact that Jasper’s caribou are in trouble. The Maligne herd is considered extirpated, the Brazeau herd is on the brink, and while the Tonquin herd numbers are stable, Parks Canada theorizes this is likely due to a recent uptick in calf survival rates rather than growth in the number of fertile females. (Parks Canada Caribou Report)

Parks Canada says that herds with fewer than 10 breeding females are considered functionally extirpated as there is little chance the herds will be able to rebuild naturally. They also note that the remaining three southern Jasper caribou herds all have fewer than 10 breeding females and the only chance these herds have to survive is through captive breeding. Caribou numbers have been declining since they first started counting them. Parks has, to their credit, made many changes to make caribou habitat more hospitable; however, the caribou have continued to decline even with these management changes. David Argument, resource conservation manager for Parks Canada says, “We feel conditions are good right now: the predator density, the predator numbers are low, due in part to our management activities over the last 10 or 15 years. In our view the conditions are actually very good in Jasper for the re-establishment of caribou herd.”

There just isn’t enough breeding females.

Rather than advocating for immediate funding and action towards the only feasible solution identified by Parks, environmental groups have taken aim at backcountry users by calling for continued or extended closure in areas already vacated by caribou. Parks Canada has a dual mandate to both ensure ecological integrity and ensure opportunities are available for enjoyment.

This campaign takes focus away from efforts to advance captive breeding and divides people who could be jointly pressuring the government for action. Parks has been talking about a breeding program for over two decades. I think everyone wants to know what we can do to get it up and running as soon as possible. No one wants to sit by and watch the caribou be extinguished.

In a detailed release last October, Parks Canada announced the opening of a small area (four percent of a 3200km2 area) in the Maligne Range to backcountry skiers. Parks said the change would “allow some limited opportunities for recreation while maintaining 96% of the area of the Maligne-Brazeau seasonal closure that keeps a large area of the park free from human disturbance for four months of the year.”

Parks made the change as caribou have not been seen in the area since the last known female was found dead of unknown causes in 2018. Parks stated that if caribou were to return to the area, they would reinstate the closure. Parks Canada asserts that the best hope to restore remaining caribou herds in Jasper lies in developing a captive breeding program as the number of females within the herds are too low to regenerate the herd naturally.

Jasper backcountry users were initially pleased with the announcement, noting a possible “renaissance of backcountry skiing.” The area in question is considered a prime area for backcountry skiing. It is easily accessible, achievable for skiers or snowshoers of varying degrees of fitness, retains good snow quality, and –-importantly—contains relatively few avalanche hazards. As you know, Parks Canada’s mandate is also to ensure Canadians can safely enjoy the Parks. This area has been a prime skiing location since the very early days of the park.

Barely two months after Parks Canada’s announcement on opening the area in Maligne Canyon, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and other conservation organizations partnered with the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) to issue a release calling for Parks Canada to keep Tonquin backcountry closed to human access all snow season, instead of opening it Feb.16 (the winter closure has been in place since 2009) to skiers and lodging operations. The Alberta Wilderness Society has also continued to oppose snow plowing on Maligne Road.

They say that wolves use the trails created by skiers to hunt caribou (this was confirmed and more or less quantified by Parks Canada in 2019). The groups cited two wolf pack kills on nearby packed trails as examples of how pervasive the issue is to caribou. The first example reported a wolf pack killing a bull caribou on February 14, 2010 (the day before access opened) and an occasion the following year (February 23, 2011) where a wolf pack killed a caribou near Cavell Road within two hours of it being packed. If there is evidence of more recent incidents, I could not find it in their research. Also of note, backcountry trails are not permanent or packed mechanically.

Research tells us that caribou herds do best when wolf density is less than 3/1000km2. Only since 2013 have we reached this density threshold in Jasper National Park. Today the density is lower than ever at 1.6 wolves per 1000km2. (Parks Canada Sept. 2020).

Loni Klettl, a Jasper-based Olympian, recreational user, and a longtime supporter of the Alpine Club of Canada, was quoted in The Jasper Local saying she was “disappointed to learn that the ACC was asking its members to stay out of the Tonquin backcountry—a sign that she says, indicates the club doesn’t respect the history of conservation research and consultation put in by Jasper National Park scientists.”

Parks Canada has done its research.

For its part, Parks Canada says they are confident in their research. In addition to constantly assessing the outcomes of conservation measures, Parks Canada spends a great deal of effort surveying caribou, monitoring where they live, and keeping track of the herd sizes. Parks Canada says its research and monitoring program provides them with the data they need to make evidence-based decisions.

Parks Canada conducts regular flyovers, tracks footprints, and augments this information with the skat DNA method. This is where skat is collected and sent to a genetics lab to make it possible to keep track of how many individuals are in that herd over the year. Skat is tied to the sex ratio – male or female, an increase or decrease in the herd, age distribution.

Caribou have been declining for decades despite conservation efforts.

Jasper’s caribou are in trouble. And they have been for decades. The reason behind the decline, however, is not entirely apparent. Many factors have contributed to the current state of caribou today. Industrial development is considered by most to be the major contributor to caribou decline. However, within the Parks, human development has been modest comparatively, indicating other factors are at play.

A paper written by Parks Canada staff Bradley and Neufelt (2012) looked at three general hypotheses of caribou decline: disturbance by humans, climate, and wildlife management.  

The paper concluded, amongst other things, that “the history of human use of Jasper’s wilderness areas does not support the idea that disturbance by humans has caused caribou decline. Since 1970, human use of Jasper wilderness areas has declined concurrently with the decline in caribou abundance – i.e., if disturbance were important, we would have expected an increase in human use as caribou declined.”

Climate change also did not appear to be solely responsible for the historical decline in caribou abundance as the long-term trend in caribou quantity did not correlate with climate variables.  

They found that “past wildlife management practices in Jasper had heavily influenced the relationship between predators and their prey, therefore mitigating human influences and returning the ecosystem to a self-regulating condition with minimal human subsidies has a good chance of positively affecting caribou persistence”. 

Wolf populations declined after 2006 when Parks Canada stopped feeding the wolves by burying carcasses (from roadkill) and not eliminating access to this meat by wolves. This practice increased the wolf population drastically.

In recent years, in its caribou monitoring progress reports, Parks Canada repeatedly cites wolf density as the single most crucial factor behind caribou decline in the JPL. Parks suggests that a density of <3 wolves per 1000km² is the maximum number of wolves required to ensure caribou herds can be sustainable.  In 2019, the wolf population density in JPL was 1.6 wolves per 1000km2.  

Caribou have been declining for decades in large part due to previous management practices. While wolves have been known to pose the greatest threat to Jasper’s caribou, wolf populations are now well below the threshold considered sustainable for caribou. Parks thinks the caribou habitat within JNP is healthy enough to sustain larger herds of caribou. Despite decreasing recreational activity and area closures, caribou have continued to decline. Parks Canada, citing extensive and increasingly more robust data collection methods, has stated that they believe the only hope for caribou is through captive breeding as the remaining number of breeding females within the herds are too low for the herds to recover naturally. Parks Canada has been talking about developing a captive breeding program and say a plan is under development. Groups such as the Caribou Conservation Breeding Foundation (CCBF) agree. The CCCF says, “Traditional caribou recovery measures (predator management, alternate prey management, habitat protection and restoration efforts, recreation restrictions) can improve habitat conditions and support caribou recovery in the long-term but will not prevent the extirpation of non-viable herds in the short-term. Without immediate intervention, those herds will disappear.”

Some within the general public and scientific community question the idea of placing wild caribou into captivity. Opposition to the program to date indicates that implementing a potentially costly program will require a substantial amount of political will. Groups who are campaigning for increased area closures not only undermine Parks Canada’s research but could also harm the caribou’s last chance for viability. Rather than distracting Parks Canada from its dual mandate of ensuring BOTH ecological integrity and enjoyment of the Parks these groups could try to bring people together to advocate for measures that will have the most significant impact on caribou.

  1. Bradley, M., & Neufeld, L. (2012). Climate and management interact to explain the decline of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Jasper National Park Rangifer, 32(2), 183-191.