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Chelsea Coady: Caribou projects rely on data and being ready for anything

Spoiler alert: the secret to getting quality results with fish and wildlife projects is two-fold: one, good baseline data, and two, adapting to change. Basing decisions on the best data is critical because the situation can, and often does, change.
mtbickfordroad
Second de-activation of the road on Mount Bickford after the vandalism.

Spoiler alert: the secret to getting quality results with fish and wildlife projects is two-fold: one, good baseline data, and two, adapting to change. Basing decisions on the best data is critical because the situation can, and often does, change.

First, a quick reminder about the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP). We’re a partnership between BC Hydro, the Province of B.C., Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations, and Public Stakeholders. We fund projects that conserve and enhance fish and wildlife impacted by existing BC Hydro dams.

This year we’re funding eight caribou projects valued at ~$550,000. We’re funding caribou projects because their populations are fragmented, and their habitats altered due to reservoir creation, and other human activities. Plus, we recognize caribou are culturally important to First Nations, and are a priority species for our local board.

Gathering solid baseline data is key. If little information is known about a population’s status or habitat use, then implementing viable solutions can be a big gamble. And without baseline data, it’s impossible to measure the effectiveness of conservation and enhancement actions.

Even when the results are disappointing, baseline data are still valuable. An FWCP-funded project to confirm the existence of the Scott West caribou herd is a good example. This project used citizen science and encouraged back country users to report caribou sightings. Over three years, only three sightings of caribou tracks were confirmed, and very few caribou were ever sighted. The disappointing conclusion: there is a high likelihood that the local population will become locally extinct.

The FWCP is currently funding two caribou projects that highlight the need to adapt to change. Both are led by the Nîkanêse Wah tzee Stewardship Society — a collaborative non-profit initiative between West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations.

One project is a maternity pen used to increase calf survival of the Klinse-Za and Scott East caribou herds. In late winter, pregnant cows are caught and placed in a secure pen where their calves are born and kept safe from predators during the first one to two months after birth, when mortality is the highest. They are released from the pen in July when the calves are stronger and more able to escape wolves, bears, or wolverine predators.

The survival of calves born and kept in the pen is roughly double that of calves born outside the pen and the population is growing steadily as a result. This winter the Society is building a second pen, a substantial distance away, thinking this may encourage the caribou to use more of their historic range.

The second project the society is working on with FWCP funding is at Mount Bickford near Chetwynd. The society deactivated and started restoring a 2.3-kilometre stretch of forest service road that was the only road for motorized access to the sub-alpine calving area.

It’s not the vehicles that are the biggest problem, it’s the hard-packed snow and clear trails that allow predators to easily prey on calves. The society’s work involved ripping the road up, building massive trenches up to 4.3 metres deep, and equally high mounds, and then felling trees over the re-modeled landscape.

Unfortunately, within weeks of this work being completed in fall 2017, a new 1.8-kilometre road was built by someone, or a group of people, over the newly re-modeled landscape. If this new unauthorized road was left, the result could have been another year of predation on already-vulnerable caribou calves. The society responded by bringing back their heavy equipment just days after the vandalism to re-do their work and deactivate the road, again. The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is currently investigating the incident with the authority to impose a hefty fine and possible jail time.

The vandalism is a reminder for anyone delivering effective conservation and enhancement projects — be ready for anything.

Learn more about FWCP, and the caribou projects we fund at fwcp.ca/supporting-risk-caribou-herds.

Chelsea Coady is the Peace Region manager for the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. Have a question? Email her at chelsea.coady@bchydro.com.