Caribou in Canada play an important role in both economic and ecological value. Not only do they have a role in the northern tourist industry, attracting naturalists, photographers, and recreational hunters, but they are also a staple food for many northern carnivores such as the wolf (Fobert, 2015). Without caribou, wolves would have to find another major food source to prey upon. As well, the caribou is important in terms of being a source of natural pride – they are historically and spiritually significant to Canada (Fobert, 2015), and losing them would be tragic.
The sad truth is that caribou, especially the prominent woodland caribou, are experiencing a rapid population decline throughout Canada. There are a couple main factors that are to blame here. Climate change is a big one, changing the landscape and affecting their migration patterns, as well as making food sources more difficult to reach through the tougher conditions (warming has caused an increase in precipitation, adding a thicker blanket of snow that the animals need to dig through to reach food) (Woods, 2015). Another factor is, of course, human influence. With expanding infrastructure and the construction of roads, caribou are experiencing immense habitat loss through deforestation, and fragmentation is limiting their movement (Woods, 2015).
Banff National Park in Alberta once had a population of woodland caribou; in 2009, however, an avalanche occurred, killing the last five individuals that remained in that herd (Parks Canada). Thus, the woodland caribou were extirpated from the national park.
As tragic as this is, there are conservation efforts being heavily considered. Translocation (the capture, transport, and release of species from one location to another) to Banff and other neighboring parks are being examined. In a study done by Decesare and colleagues, they assessed the relative need and benefits from the translocation of individuals among caribou populations. By using population viability analysis, they measured stochastic growth rates and the probability of extinction of four woodland caribou populations with and without translocation (Decesare et al, 2010). They looked at two things: mean adult survival and mean number of calves per breeding-age female. Through simulated re-introductions of caribou into Banff, they found that it resulted in a 53-98% probability of more than 8 females remaining after 20 years; this suggests that translocation may in fact be an effective recovery tool for the caribou populations in Banff National Park (Decesare et al, 2010).
The most significant cause of decline leading to the extirpation of caribou in Banff is the increased number of predators in response to the increased elk population (Parks Canada). If translocation was to happen, ongoing conservation efforts would need to be put in place to ensure the caribou’s success. Monitoring of elk and wolf populations and movements would increase the probability of success in bringing caribou back to the wilderness of Banff National Park.