A careful kind of matchmaking will guide a last-resort effort to restore Jasper National Park's vanishing herds of woodland caribou.
With the park's remaining herds considered too small to survive, Parks Canada plans to capture females — along with a small roster of bulls — and breed them in captivity.
The hope is that each rutting season, nature will take its course inside the facility's breeding pens— albeit with some human intervention.
Animal husbandry would be critical to ensuring the health of the expanding herd, said David Argument, a resource conservation officer with Jasper National Park.
With so few caribou left, how the animals are sourced from the wild — and mated in captivity — would need to be carefully managed.
"We will be keeping what's known as a stud book. Who's paired with who? Who were the parents of each offspring?" Argument said. "So we can keep track of that genetic diversity and make sure we're not getting into an inbreeding situation."
The $25-million project would permanently pen up to 40 females and five males in a one-square kilometre facility surrounded by an electric fence.
Public consultations on the facility are ongoing until September. A final decision is expected this fall.
If Parks Canada approves the plan, construction on the facility near Athabasca Falls, about 30 kilometres south of Jasper, would begin this winter. The first calves would be born in the spring of 2025 and released into the Tonquin herd the following year.
Male yearlings would be released as well but the program's success would hinge on the females, which can give birth to one calf each year, Argument said.
Some females born in captivity would stay at the facility to expand the breeding stock.
"The number of males is not as important," he said. "One male caribou can have a harem of cows."
It's hoped the captive breeding program could produce around 20 calves a year — enough to bring the herds to sustainable levels within a decade.
The first priority would be saving the Tonquin herd, building it from the edge of extinction to self-sustaining population of 200.
Breeding stock for the conservation program would be sourced from various herds of southern mountain caribou across the Rockies, Argument said.
Only a select few could be taken from the source herds. Even the healthiest populations within the region are perilously small and depopulating them could endanger the herds.
We need to make sure we're bringing caribou into this program that match the environment in Jasper. - David Argument
There are also challenges around sourcing the breeding stock needed. Captured caribou would need to have similar behavioural and genetic traits to animals in local herds.
That would ensure the captive-bred young will easily bond with their wild counterparts and have the right instincts to survive, Argument said.
"We need to make sure we're bringing caribou into this program that match the environment in Jasper so that we don't wind up with caribou simply trying to do the wrong thing," he said.
The southern mountain caribou found in the park have distinct migration patterns, moving between old-growth forests and high alpine areas.
"The last thing we want is caribou that might come down into the valley bottoms in the winter, for example, which some populations of caribou do," Argument said.
"If a survival strategy works somewhere else, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work here."
Two of the five documented caribou herds in Banff and Jasper national parks have already died out.
The last five members of the Banff herd died in an avalanche in April 2009. With no sightings since 2018, the Maligne herd is now considered extinct.
The Tonquin herd is estimated to number about 45, and the Brazeau herd is estimated at fewer than 15 caribou. With an estimated nine breeding females remaining in Tonquin and three in Brazeau, neither is expected to grow.
If the conservation breeding facility is approved, all remaining members of the Brazeau herd would be brought into captivity.
The À la Pêche herd on Jasper National Park's northern boundary, with 160 caribou, would likley serve as a source herd for the breeding program.
Parks Canada is also in talks to take caribou from wild herds in B.C., Argument said.
'Tragic but necessary'
The proposal is an extreme intervention, said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. But she said desperate measures are needed.
Parks Canada has taken steps to help caribou populations, such as restricting public access to winter grazing grounds. Those changes came too late, Campbell said.
Breeding alone is not enough, she said. Parks Canada needs to ensure the yearlings released from captivity — and those born in the wild — are adequately protected.
Protecting remaining habitat within the park is critical, she said.
"This a tragic but necessary interim measure to keep the caribou where they belong," Campbell said.
Argument said Jasper National Park needs to take swift and decisive action to protect the species.
It may be the last chance to keep the iconic species on the landscape, he said.
"I think it's incredibly critical. Caribou are an intrinsic part of the very identity of Jasper," he said.
"And the numbers are so low at this point that we don't have a lot of time to spare."