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Alberta Say hello to Frankie Thunder, Jasper’s four-legged star

Frankie Thunder hangs out up a small ridge from his namesake run, the Thunderbowl, at Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park, Alberta. (Photos by Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Most people in Jasper are more interested in trail reports than celebrity gossip. But if you mention Frankie Thunder, everyone has a story to share.

This star has four legs and is covered in short brown and cream fur.

For most Canadians, the picture on the quarter is the closest they will get to seeing a live caribou.

Caribou usually hang out at higher elevations, away from predators, and their picture on the Canadian quarter is the closest most people will get to seeing one. But Frankie, an older bull, has become pretty comfy as a full-time resident at Marmot Basin ski and snowboard hill, one of the busiest winter spots in Jasper National Park. Part of his name comes from one of his favourite hangouts at the top of the Thunderbowl run.

Though it is unusual to find him so close to people, Shelley Bird, with the Mountain National Parks Caribou Conservation Program, says he isn’t sick or injured, and has stumbled into a fairly ideal habitat for his specialized adaptations. There is a very low risk of predators because of all of the human activity, and a healthy supply of his winter diet of lichen is easily accessible on the windswept peaks of the mountain.

Whatever the reason he’s come to visit, Ms. Bird says Frankie “is an amazing spokes-caribou,” helping to raise the profile of the species.

Jasper's Southern Mountain Population caribou total approximately 150, and all are struggling. The problems they face include predator imbalance (too many elk leads to too many wolves), unnatural predator access on human packed trails, habitat loss, traffic fatalities, human disturbance and the small herd effect (once populations shrink to a critical point, it is unlikely the slow reproducing animals will be able to recover). The last five remaining members of the Banff herd are believed to have been wiped out in an avalanche in 2009.

The Tonquin herd Frankie belongs to is slightly healthier at 40 animals and, after lots of conservation work, is now considered stable. Some herds are still declining and others are so small, with less than 10, they will not recover without intervention.

“There is definitely still a lot of work to do,” says Ms. Bird. Although a captive breeding program is still in the planning stages, Parks Canada has a number of initiatives in place to protect woodland caribou, including balancing wolf and elk populations, delaying human back-country access to prevent packed trail access for predators and creating slow zones on highways that cross caribou habitat.

Even if everything goes according to plan, it will take 20 years before conservationists will know for sure if they’ve been successful. If they fail, they will know much sooner, as the caribou population continues to disappear.

“I don’t know if it will be enough or not, but we will do the very best we can,” says Ms. Bird.

Shelley Bird of the Mountain National Parks Caribou Conservation Program.

In the meantime, Parks Canada is keeping a close eye on Frankie. Even though he doesn’t seem especially bothered by his many admirers, he is still very much a wild animal. So no autographs, please.

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