Scott McNay has seen wolves devour newly born caribou calves in minutes, but that grisly scene is not one he expects to witness this spring in northern B.C., where an unusual maternity ward has been set up in the forest.
"It takes no time for a wolf to devour a calf. It's pretty discouraging," said Dr. McNay, a wildlife biologist who is part of a team trying to save the endangered Klinse-Za caribou herd, near Mackenzie. The goal is to protect calves during the first weeks of life, when they are most vulnerable to predators.
Under a new program funded by government and industry, pregnant caribou are being captured and held in maternity pens until about a month after they have calved. The cows and their calves, which at five weeks of age should be able to outrun most predators, will then be released back into the wild.
The approach has been used before in Yukon and Alberta, but is being tried for the first time this year in B.C. both near Mackenzie, north of Prince George, and in southeast B.C., near Revelstoke.
Dr. McNay, project manager with Wildlife Infometrics Inc., said the northern project he's working on was called for by the Moberly and Saulteau First Nations because of fears caribou were headed for extinction in the area.
Native hunters stopped shooting caribou in the region about 20 years ago because several herds were declining. But Dr. McNay said that did not slow the trend, with caribou populations dropping by about 80 per cent in recent years. "This one [the Klinse-Za herd] was in need of imminent action because it was down to just 16 animals," he said. The nearby Burnt Pine herd was in even worse shape – down to one male.
Dr. McNay said the big problem facing caribou in the Mackenzie region, and throughout B.C., is that industrial development has opened up the forests, with resource roads crossing what were once remote caribou calving grounds. He said caribou historically calved in isolated areas with heavy snow packs. The deep, soft snow in spring limited the mobility of predators. But wolves, bears and wolverines soon learned they could travel easily along roads and cut-lines, penetrating areas that before had effectively been caribou calving sanctuaries.
The result: heavy predation on freshly born calves.
"Our world today is not the same as it used to be," Dr. McNay said. "In the past caribou would not have had to defend themselves against wolves as they do now."
In an attempt to reduce predation, First Nation hunters have been shooting wolves, but many packs still remain. And wolverines and bears have also been preying heavily on caribou calves.
This spring Dr. McNay's team set out to get to the pregnant cows before the predators did. They captured 10 females, trapping them by using net guns fired from a helicopter. The caribou were mildly sedated, wrapped in a "body bag" to stop them from thrashing about, and airlifted to a pen enclosing several hectares of forest.
"It's been really calm and interesting the way they accept the pen," Dr. McNay said of the caribou. "They are happy there."
Part of the reason the animals are content is that last fall work crews collected hundreds of bags of lichens, the caribou's natural diet, which is being fed to them now along with pellets loaded with nutrients. Dr. McNay said the caribou are treated for worms and any other problems they might have, and he expects when they are released they will be healthier than they would have been had they stayed in the wild. The first calves are expected to be born in May.