The provinces’ caribou maternity pens are one of the few projects where humans intentionally intervene with wildlife.
There is a high-level of human involvement, something that doesn’t happen very often according to Helen Schwantje, wildlife veterinarian with the Ministry of Forests and one of the professionals working on the project.
“Although it is very cool to be close to the animals and be that intimate with them, it is also something we don’t really want to do,” she said. “It’s intensive management. It is hard on the animals.”
Schwantje has been involved in the caribou maternity pen project since the beginning. Though she wasn’t the veterinarian on site during calving season, she was a part of the yearly capture of the caribou.
“I’m responsible for the animal’s health when it comes into the pen,” she said. “I’m not alone. In Revelstoke they often catch two animals at a time so I have a colleague that I trust and has been present on most of the captures. He and I have two teams and we work on both animals at the same time, or if one animal comes in at a time we will both work on one animal just to reduce the amount of time that animal is sedated.”
Schwantje has been the ministry’s wildlife veterinarian since 1992. She is the only one with that title in the province but said she is grateful for her “family” of colleagues, including community volunteers, conservation officers, regional biologists as well as those in academia and other agencies.
“There wasn’t a job like this before I came along,” she said.
Schwantje didn’t want to be a veterinarian in the beginning, but she wanted to work with wildlife.
“As my life progressed, it just seemed a good fit,” she said.
However, there weren’t many opportunities for her to learn about exotic or wild animal medicine at university. Schwantje had to go out and find it for herself.
She worked at zoos for awhile and tried deer farming in New Zealand before returning to Canada to study pathology and work with big horned sheep.
Through those projects, she started consulting and eventually got a contract with the government. It expanded to part-time and eventually it built her current position.
“It’s hard to figure out how it happened,” she said with a chuckle. “But it did.”
The caribou maternity pens are just one project Schwantje has been involved in over the years. A few weeks ago, she was in Golden putting radio collars on Big Horned Sheep and on the day she spoke with the Review, she had a call about a raccoon with a broken leg at a daycare centre.
“Most of them I can’t deal with,” she said. “I’m not a veterinarian that makes this better and lets it go, that’s not my role to play. My role is to be involved in herd health medicine.”
At the Revelstoke maternity pens Schwantje is also looking at how the recurring capture and release of the caribou could be affecting them.
“We know by holding them for a couple of months on a richer food than they normally would be on probably puts weight on them (and) probably does help them out by supplementally feeding them,” she said. “But are there any other issues going on? Are they stressed in the pen?”
In order to find out, the team is trying to develop a method of measuring stress in animals. They are testing things like cortisol levels in hair and feces, but Schwantje said those tests haven’t been validated with caribou.
“We feel very obligated. This is a special animal. We are in a special situation,” she said. “We need to learn as much as we can.”
Luckily, they have a large number of samples archived so if someone discovers a test that can be verified, the data can be looked over once again.
Schwantje said she was consulted during creation of the caribou management plan but it was “down in the weeds, not so much up in the atmosphere.”
“I’m kind of at a lower level than the policy end of things,” she said.