Story and images by Isabelle Groc, National Geographic
On a clear sunny day in March, in a snow-covered area of the South Peace River region of British Columbia, a female caribou is on the ground, struggling to get back on its feet.
Surrounded by a team of biologists, veterinarians, and First Nations community members, the sedated animal is slowly opening its eyes. Cec Heron, lands and resource manager for the West Moberly First Nations, gently strokes its back and speaks to it in a soft voice.
“I am just letting her know that she is now in a good place and will be very well looked after,” Heron says.
Along with ten other pregnant females, this one has just been captured in the Rocky Mountains, by a net fired from a low-flying helicopter, and airlifted to a valley about 35 miles east of Mackenzie. In a pen guarded day and night by First Nations shepherds, protected from wolves and bears, the caribou will give birth and raise their calves, then be returned to the wild when they are less vulnerable.
Caribou were here for us when we needed help. We have to be there for them now.
Caribou are a vital part of aboriginal culture, traditionally used for food, clothing, and tools. They’ve been on the Canadian quarter since 1936. Known as reindeer in Europe and Asia, the species, Rangifer tarandus, is not endangered worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of so-called barren-ground caribou still roam across Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
But the distinct and more southerly subspecies known as woodland caribou is another story. Some of its populations are in deep trouble.
The woodland caribou that live in and around the Rockies in southern British Columbia and Alberta are listed as threatened by the Canadian government; the committee of scientific experts that advises the government considers them endangered. In the South Peace region, the Klinse-Za herd has declined from 191 animals in 1997 to only 16 in 2013, with no calves surviving predation that year.
“Caribou were here for us when we needed help. We have to be there for them now,” says Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nations, one of two aboriginal groups behind the penning project. “We have to do everything we can to try and fix the wrong that has been done here.”
A Vanished Sea of Caribou
In the South Peace, First Nations elders say, the land was once a “sea of caribou.” Numbers started to decline after the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was built on the Peace River in the 1960s; the reservoir created by the dam disrupted a caribou migration route. Over time, logging, oil and gas exploration, and coal mining further altered the landscape, opening up the forest and pushing the caribou away from their traditional range.
Ecologist Chris Johnson of the University of Northern British Columbia studied five caribou herds in the South Peace over 22 years. In a paper published earlier this year, he reported that caribou avoid roads, seismic lines, and other disturbances created by resource operations. The five herds had experienced habitat loss as high as 66 percent, Johnson found.