A group working to save an endangered herd of caribou are busy these days collecting wispy pieces of lichen off trees in the Arrow Lakes area.
“We need quite a bit of lichen, hopefully around 200 kilograms, to feed the caribou right when they arrive,” says Erin McLeod, the project coordinator and lead shepherd last year for the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society. “We’re at about 100 kilograms collected… we’re still going to have some volunteer opportunities for lichen collection.”
All that lichen will be (literally) fodder for about seven pregnant females, and about a half-dozen yearlings, from the Arrow Lakes caribou herd. With less than 30 members, the herd (part of the Central Selkirk sub-population) is critically endangered, prompting provincial officials to approve plans for a maternity pen program last year.
“They are all quite happy with how it went, and we got really good feedback from everybody that’s visited the pen,” says McLeod. “And I think there is a lot of interest going forward to see what will continue, and how the population will hopefully grow.”
Now the society is preparing budgets, schedules and work plans, and collecting all that lichen to be ready for he animals’ arrival. They’ve also been monitoring the animals’ well-being.
“Right now they are in their winter range, and they’re all doing well,” says McLeod. “We’re mostly just monitoring their location right now.”
Six calves were released into the forest above the Nakusp Hot Springs with their mothers last summer, healthy and strong after about four months of nutritious food and predator-free living.
The results have been positive for the herd’s chances of survival. All but one of the calves survived release, McLeod says… though another did give them a scare.
“We had one of the calf collars fall off, and it sent a mortality signal. The government went out to check,” she says. “Turned out the calf is fine, it just dropped its collar. It’s still with its mother and looked healthy, so they are all doing well still.”
It’s yet to be settled how many females will be captured this year, and when the operation will take place. Not only will pregnant females be collected, but many of last year’s calves will also be brought along to the maternity pen. Officials hope giving the yearlings a second helping of nutritious food and medical care will make them even stronger – preparing them for healthier pregnancies of their own in the next year or two.
Only a few other tweaks to the pen are planned – moving around water troughs, and piling more snow around the site. The mothers, it seemed, really enjoyed the cool of the snow as temperatures climbed last summer. The society also plans a more robust communication campaign on social media, keeping supporters up to date on how the animals are doing with photos and video.
A new partner in the program this year is the ?aq’am community of the Ktunaxa Nation. They’ll be supplying the shepherds for the project – the primary daily caregivers of the animals.
Around the last week in March, teams in helicopters head to the caribou’s wintering grounds a few miles from the maternity station. In the course of a day, the animals will be collected and carefully transported to the 16-acre pen. After being checked by a vet, they’ll settle into their new home, protected by an electric fence and fed the best caribou food daily.
In the meantime, the society needs more lichen. Nakusp area residents who’d like to volunteer are asked to join the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society Facebook page for information on the next harvest outing.