By: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh
It is a long road toward caribou recovery in Jasper National Park.
Similarly, it is a long road toward the site where the caribou conservation breeding facility is located: a long and very much muddy, potholed path off Geraldine Road.
As of early October, the project was sitting at approximately 30 per cent completion, said Joshua Kummerfield, senior project manager with Parks Canada.
“We’ve gotten some of the really critical underground infrastructure in,” Kummerfield said.
“Foundations for the buildings have been poured. All the underground utilities, so primarily, water, septic and power have been installed in this area. That’s what took place this summer. What they’re continuing to work on now is water distribution.”
That has been in process since about April this year. That came after about 60 per cent of the forestry work that was undertaken over last winter.
“They’ll carry on again with that this coming winter, and then over the winter, they’ll continue to work on the buildings,” Kummerfield said.
The 65-acre construction site is located off Highway 93A near Athabasca Falls, with 55 acres of it being left forested for the caribou pens. Many dead pine trees were taken out of these areas. Doing so is critical to protecting caribou from injury within the pens and from the risk of wildfire.
The remaining 10 acres were totally cleared for the access paths in between the pens and for access to the three buildings: the main administration building, a handling barn and a garage for equipment storage.
The buildings should be done next year as well as the utilities. After that, it is nothing but fences to be installed. A lot of fences, gates and handling systems, Kummerfield said.
Those handling systems are designed with cushions to minimize the stress on the caribou. In fact, everything about the program from the capture to the care to the eventual release keeps the welfare of the animals top of mind.
“Our main concern is the health and care of any caribou, whether we captured them from the wild or within the facility,” said Jean-François Bisaillon, program manager for the Jasper Caribou Recovery Program in Jasper National Park.
“This is our main objective: to make sure they’re healthy and they’re well taken care of.”
When the facility is ready, the first pregnant females will be captured when each one is in its second trimester sometime between January and March.
This follows strict animal care protocols. It follows suit from the processes utilized at other caribou recovery centres across Canada and in the United States as well.
“All care is provided to the caribou and the impact on these caribou is minimal, although the ‘risk zero’ doesn’t exist with that type of operation,” Bisaillon said. “The success rate is usually pretty high.”
Integral to the entire project is the involvement of the Indigenous partners in Jasper National Park.
“It’s a significant thing for us as a nation for Parks to have that openness and that willingness to work with First Nations in the development of this facility. It’s an amazing thing,” said Frank Roan of the Smallboy Camp Mountain Cree.
“I think it is great to have involvement because right now, with that inclusion and having First Nations involvement, it’s really a collaboration: having Indigenous inherent knowledge, along with the scientific knowledge that we were brought forth with,” said Shelley Calliou of Kelly Lake Cree Nation.
Roan said that it was important for Indigenous partners to be involved for the benefit of future generations.
“There’s a lot of traditional inherent knowledge that needs to be passed down. This is an opportunity for us to continue in that direction. Any way that we can help, we’re more than willing to participate. With Jasper allowing us this opportunity to collaborate with them, that’s a step in the right direction, I believe. There should be more initiatives like this for First Nations to be involved.”
The project is expected to be completed as early as 2025. Kummerfield confirmed that it is on time and on budget so far.
The Government of Canada has invested $38.2 million to build this caribou conservation breeding centre in Jasper National Park, said Janelle Verbruggen, Parks Canada Communications Officer with the Jasper Field Unit.
“Costs may increase given the rapid increase in material cost, inflation, labour shortages and supply-chain challenges,” she said.
Evidence suggests that caribou have roamed through this region for at least 1,300 years. In the last half century, however, their populations have dwindled. Between 2000 and 2015, their numbers dropped by more than half. The Maligne herd was deemed to have been extirpated by 2018.
The Brazeau herd is on the brink, but its numbers are somewhat stable with fewer than 10 members while the Tonquin herd verges on approximately 50 members.