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Excerpt: Extinction Triage


By Ryan Stuart

Caribou numbers are dwindling in the mountain parks, despite millions of dollars being allocated to save them. Should we be giving up on one species for the sake of another?

For Banff National Park’s last caribou herd, a slow decline came to an abrupt end.

In the 1980s, more than 30 mountain caribou in two herds grazed in the remote alpine and old-growth-forest areas north of Lake Louise on the east side of the Icefields Parkway. By the winter of 2009, Parks Canada staff estimated only one herd remained, and it was down to five animals – a population most scientists say is unsustainable.

Biologists were tracking two members of the dwindling herd with radio collars. When the herd stopped moving in March 2009, the prognosis wasn’t good. As it turned out, an avalanche in Molar Creek had wiped out the entire herd, extirpating mountain caribou from Banff. Maybe forever.

Now, almost ten years after that catastrophic event, Parks Canada staff are still trying to save the mountain caribou in the remaining herds in Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks. Outside the parks, the mountain caribou fare even worse. All of the southern mountain caribou herds spread across eastern B.C. and the Alberta Rockies are in decline; the population has fallen from 2,500 in the late 1990s to about 1,300 today. Reversing or even stopping that decline is a daunting challenge.

Mountain caribou are the only large herbivores routinely found in the alpine in the mountain parks. Beyond their appeal to national park visitors hoping to see large animals in the wild, they are an important prey species, says Dave Argument, a Parks Canada resource conservation manager based in Jasper. While it’s too early to tell what will happen to the Banff ecosystem without caribou, Argument likens the animals to rivets in an airplane that isn’t being properly maintained.

“If one rivet falls out, the airplane can still fly, but when more and more rivets fall out, the whole operation begins to fall apart,” he says. “Caribou are part of the structure and foundation of the mountain ecosystem.” […]

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Full-time freelance writer Ryan Stuart, a former Rockies resident now living on Vancouver Island, still considers the Bow Valley home. He returns as often as he can to mountain bike, hike, climb and ski.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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