By Laura Keil
Few in number, endangered, and always on the hunt for food, the Tonquin caribou herd roams the northern part of Jasper National Park, with occasional dips into Mt. Robson Provincial Park—but in February, motorists were surprised to see two male caribou standing right on the highway in Mt. Robson.
This brazen act is the first time these caribou have been spotted in Mt. Robson in such a visible way and at such low elevation.
“It’s not something I expected,” says Elliott Ingles, Area Supervisor for Mt. Robson Provincial Park. “If you would have told me that I’d see a caribou on Highway 16, I would have said ‘You’re crazy.’ But it’s good news.”
More of the herd was tucked in the bush along the highway. After the sighting, BC Parks worked quickly to erect signs along that stretch of highway—a roughly 10-km section between Portal Lake on the BC-AB border and Yellowhead Lake—warning motorists to slow down and watch for caribou.
“Even losing one animal from a herd … would be quite detrimental,” Ingles says.
He wants people to know that it’s not a good idea to stop, but if you do, you should pull right off the highway.
Layla Neufeld is a wildlife biologist with Parks Canada who has been studying caribou in Jasper National Park for 15 years. Her team has monitored the Tonquin herd—which has dipped to roughly 45 animals—using collars between 2001 and 2014 and again between 2020 and the present.
She hiked the Mt. Fitzwilliam area in Mt Robson last summer where one of the collars indicated the Tonquin herd had travelled.
“It looks like very good caribou habitat,” she says. “There are nice open pine stands and a lot of lichen on the ground. As opposed to many other BC caribou that focus on lichen in the trees, these ones focus on lichens on the ground.”
She says the high level of snow early this winter may have pushed them down the mountain in search of an easier food source.
“It’s less (snow) for them to paw through,” she says.
The other terrain they like is windswept ridges, high above the treeline. Parks staff hope the caribou don’t spend too much time in the direct vicinity of the highway, but it’s clear they have chosen this spot for a reason.
“Mount Robson is providing great habitat for this species,” Neufeld says. “They generally like low-disturbance, old forest. And so they’re a species that is in trouble in a lot of Western Canada. Having these protected areas for them is really important.”
Both Neufeld and Ingles say neither of them have records of the Tonquin herd crossing to the west side of the Fraser River before.
Ingles says there was a herd of caribou in that area in the 1950s, but not for a long time have caribou come this far to the west.
Both Neufeld and Ingles say it might have been salt on the road or a food source that attracted them.
“Normally this is very low for them for this time of the year,” Ingles says. “So it’s strange.”
Jasper is home to three herds of southern mountain caribou: the Tonquin, Brazeau, and À La Pêche herds.
Another herd—the Maligne herd—is considered extinct.
Ingles says he has records of the Tonquin herd in places like Snowbird pass in Mt Robson and the À La Pêche herd moves in and out of the northern parts of the B.C. park.
“But from doing some research into the archives in Mount Robson, I would say the early 90s would be the last recorded (sighting). Again, they do move in and out of the park, but for them to come this low to the road and to be in the Fitzwilliam drainage, and to use the trail as a route means we need to do some active management and ensure that we’re doing what we can to keep them protected and safe.”
Ingles says Jasper is sending out staff once a day to Mount Robson to monitor the caribou. Neufeld says Parks Canada staff haven’t had any interactions with the caribou yet, as they’ve been in the trees, but they are keeping an eye on them and would gently “haze” the caribou off the highway if they appeared to be in danger.
Neufeld says the new collars used by Parks Canada are able to transmit information in close to real-time, which is useful for tracking the herd’s location and also being able to determine cause of death before scavengers destroy a carcass. So far no deaths have occurred.
Ingles says the Ministry of Transportation was quick to approve the highway signs, and Ledcor also pitched in by allowing them to use one of their highway signs and moving some snow for them.
He says they’ll be monitoring the animals and will likely put up a wildlife camera so they can see what’s going on there.
“Who knows? They’ll either go east back to Jasper and into the Tonquin. Or perhaps we’ll notice that they want to stay in Mount Robson. It’s kind of up to them.”
Jasper National Park is currently investigating a captive breeding program to augment the Tonquin herd.
Neufeld says more information would be public in the upcoming months, but that this could be a viable way to ensure this herd’s survival. With only nine mature females remaining, the herd is unlikely to recover on its own, she says.
The program would likely use female caribou from other herds to give birth to young that would later be introduced to the Tonquin herd—as many as 10-15 per year.
“It’ll grow way more quickly this way than adding, say, the one or two more calves that you might gain if you were to put them in a maternity pen.”
She says the policies they’ve enacted over the past 15 years means a better chance of success, policies like limiting recreational opportunities in caribou habitat.
“Ecological conditions are much better for caribou recovery in the Tonquin. One of the key ones being wolf density is just naturally a lot lower as a result of changes in elk and other ungulates in the park.”
If you do see a caribou, Neufeld asks people to pass on their sightings to either Mount Robson or Jasper dispatch by calling 780-852-6155.