CHETWYND, B.C. — The Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations guardians of the Klinse-Za caribou herd in northern B.C. have helped to increase the herd’s numbers through the maternity pen initiative.
The initiative relies on several funding sources, including BC Hydro’s Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP). The FWCP has provided the maternity pen program with $750,000 over the past five years.
The herd now boasts about 132 caribou, up from its estimated 36 in 2013. Decades ago, the herd had over 200 caribou.
The elders of both First Nations noticed how much the caribou herd had shrunk in the 1970s due to habitat destruction, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that official surveys backed up the decline, according to BC Hydro.
Other components of the herd’s recovery program include rehabilitating the habitat as well, such as deactivating and reforesting part of a forest service road.
BC Hydro says the maternity pen on Mount Bickford, about 60 kilometres west of Chetwynd, is the most essential component of the program.
The pen helps to make sure caribou calves become strong and fast enough to avoid predators before they’re released back into the wild.
The program uses snowmobiles and helicopters to capture female caribou and uses helicopters to carry them in a specially designed bag to the maternity pen, BC Hydro said.
First, the mothers-to-be are fed their favourite food, lichen, gathered by program staff and can wander the 10-hectare pen to forage for food on their own. Eventually, they’re fed pellets designed to strengthen them for birth.
The pen itself is protected by two outer electrified fences and a third internal fence built of landscaping fabric tall enough to stop leaping predators and aimed at preventing predators from even seeing the caribou, said BC Hydro.
Sets of two guardians live in a cabin at the pen for seven days on, seven days off.
Starr Gauthier and Draydon Field of the Saulteau First Nation exchange with Corbin Brown and Kendall Davis from West Moberly First Nation from March to July or early August.
While on the mountain, guardians feed the caribou, patrol for predators and mend fences.
The guardians also ensure the caribou remain wild animals, so they don’t interact directly with them.
“We still really, really try our best to treat them as wild animals,” said Gauthier.
“We don’t get very close, of course, and we never touch them, except when we first capture the calves and collar them. If they get close to us when we’re feeding them, we kind of shoo them away.”
Gauthier says she felt conflicted while working in the past on conservation initiatives for oil, gas and mining companies, but she said the role of Indigenous steward for the caribou is rewarding.
“I’m drawn to the mountains,” she said. “So when this opportunity came up, it was like one in a million. I’m extremely grateful and still in awe of this project.”
The caribou aren’t released from the pen until the youngest calf is at least seven weeks old and the surrounding area is clear of predators. All of the caribou are fitted with collars for tracking them via GPS.
According to BC Hydro, Blake Spencer, the program’s habitat restoration lead, is asking for more funding to ensure the ongoing survival of the Klinse-Za herd.
To read more on the Indigenous guardians, click here.