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Alberta's caribou maternity ward plan attacked in science journal

Caribou maternity ward plan attacked in paper

EDMONTON — Alberta's plan to restore a dwindling caribou herd by penning off a large tract of forest for pregnant cows would only produce "naive" calves that wouldn't survive outside the fence, says a scientific paper.

The paper, published recently in the journal Animals, also says the government has overstated how much protected land the Little Smoky herd — nearly wiped out by the effects of industry — will need to survive.

"If we start with habitat conservation and restoration, the caribou will take care of themselves," said study author Gilbert Proulx.

The attack is the latest on a plan that has already been criticized by environmental groups and biologists.

Government biologists and supporters of the maternity pen say Proulx's paper is full of errors. They say the landscape is so scarred from decades of energy and forestry activity that the herd needs major help. 

The idea is to remove predators from up to 100 square kilometres of forest. Within that area, caribou cows could safely rear calves, who would be moved outside the fence after they were old enough.

While the proposal — part of a package that includes protected areas, landscape rehabilitation and wolf culling — is still just that, provincial biologist Dave Hervieux said it has support.

"It's fair to say it's being viewed favourably," he said Thursday.

About 95 per cent of the herd's range has been affected. It'll take years to restore, said Hervieux, and the pen is needed as an interim measure.

Proulx believes the Little Smoky herd really only needs areas of muskeg deep within the forest. That muskeg already meets federal guidelines stipulating that 65 per cent of a herd's range needs to be untouched.

"A disturbance in an aspen forest means nothing to a caribou because they don't live there."

The government should focus on rebuilding and creating ways to link the muskeg, Proulx said. Forestry and oil and gas activity, within limits, could continue elsewhere.  

As well, he said, calves from the pen wouldn't learn how to stay safe from predators. Small-scale experience with pen-reared caribou suggests they had an even lower survival rate than average.

"Those caribou that you raise in pen areas are naive," said Proulx. "They do not know what's going on around them. They are just like cows."

Hervieux acknowledged that is a risk.

"It's an area that would need to be considered."

But he said the latest wildlife management research indicates it's not enough to manage pockets of good habitat. Animals such as caribou only thrive if considered as part of a wider whole.

"Caribou are a landscape-driven species," Hervieux said. "Managing it at the scale of smaller habitat types is inadequate.

"It is old thinking."

University of Alberta biologist Stan Boutin, who supports the pen proposal, acknowledges the small number of caribou that are left are healthy and live in good habitat.

The problem, he said, is that industry has changed the landscape such that more deer and moose are attracted to it. That draws wolves, who then eat caribou calves.

"The reason the populations are going down is the high predation rate," said Boutin. "Until someone manages that predation rate in some way, you're not going to reverse the pattern."

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press