A Kootenay environmental group is calling for an independent review of the Revelstoke caribou maternity pen after five animals died earlier this summer, but the organization that runs the pen says a review has already begun.
One adult cow and four calves died in the pen being operated by Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild this year, prompting the Valhalla Wilderness Society to issue a press release Tuesday morning calling for the review. They also asked for a review of the pen near Chetwynd.
“The Valhalla Wilderness Society believes another review by academic scientists, not connected with the government or the projects in any way, should consider these questions: Why did the caribou die in the pens?Are the risks of maternity penning too high? Were conditions in the pens appropriate?” the society wrote.
However, Kelsey Furk, the executive director of RCRW, says a review is already underway.
“We will be reviewing our husbandry protocols and taking all the measures required to learn from what happened this summer,” she said. “We’re continuing trying to improve.”
The Valhalla Wilderness Society release says the maternity pens add to the stress the caribou are already experiencing in the wild as the result of habitat destruction, snowmobiling and heli-skiing. This stress can affect the birth and survival of calves.
“With this knowledge, why are the B.C. government and caribou biologists increasing stress on caribou by chasing them with helicopters and netting them in the late stage of pregnancy?” said Anne Sherrod, a VWS spokesperson, in the news release.
The society criticizes RCRW for building the pen in the valley bottom, and not higher on the mountain where caribou normally give birth. The pen was over-crowded, causing the animals to be frequently spooked, resulting in injury and one calve being trampled to death.
Furk said RCRW brought in Brian Macbeth, a wildlife biologist and veteranarian to review conditions in the pen. They have also engaged Stan Boutin and Evelyn Merrill, two scientists from the University of Alberta, to lead a review of the project and other caribou conservation measures.
RCRW also had each dead animal brought in for a necropsy.
An adult and calf died first. “It wasn’t totally clear what the cause was,” said Furk. “The calf starved to death because the mother was in poor condition. Basically she just didn’t have any fat reserves, but the pathologist couldn’t figure out why she died.”
Another calf died of infection, while a third was stepped on. The fourth calf died when it was abandoned by it’s mother, who had a wound on its back that became infected.
“Calf mortality in an operation like this isn’t unexpected,” said Furk. “The number that we had are higher than I would like, most certainly, but we immediately recognized we needed to have somebody come in and look at how we’re doing.”
Furk said they will be looking at ways to reduce stress on the caribou in the pen, whether that be by capturing fewer animals, or by increasing the size of the pen. Building a new pen higher up the mountain isn’t financially feasible, she added.
The review will also look at environmental factors that might have caused the animals to be weaker at the time of capture.
“Anytime you handle wild animals there is an expectation there is some risk involved,” said Furk. “We’ve spent lots of time trying to access the best information we have in order to decrease those risks. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll look at all the options that are available to us.”
The Valhalla Wilderness Society said the pen is a way of avoiding the real problem, which is dealing with habitat loss, noting that partners in the project include forestry, heli-skiing and snowmobiling operations.
“How can the public be sure that decisions are being made in the interest of the caribou, and not on behalf of economic interests wanting to avoid further habitat protection?” said Craig Pettitt, the executive director of the VWS. “We believe a truly independent panel of academic caribou biologists is needed.”
The maternity pen project started in 2014 when 10 female caribou and two 10-month old calves were captured. Nine more calves were born in the pen, but only two survived the winter.
This year, 18 female caribou and one calf were captured. In July, 17 adults and 11 calves were released from the pen.
Edit: This story was updated Wednesday morning with more information on the review being conducted by RCRW.