Wanted: researchers willing to save B.C.'s caribou

The Province
November 03, 2014
By The Province
Nov. 3, 2014, Vancouver - It’s a tricky operation involving helicopters, net guns, thrashing moose and hungry wolves, but the ministry charged with protecting B.C.’s forests hopes some brave researchers can help find out what’s killing B.C.’s boreal caribou.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has posted two invitations to quote, with a request for a team to pilot a helicopter into the frigid northeast of B.C. to capture and radio-collar 60 female moose, and a team to conduct a followup investigation into moose mortality.

Both projects run Jan. 1 to Mar. 31 next year, subject to funding.

The ministry hopes to find out how a dwindling caribou population in the area might be related to a rise in its wolf population by looking at the abundance and distibution of moose, a species similar to caribou which is the primary food for wolves.

Boreal caribou are threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act and are priority-one red-listed provincially, meaning they are considered threatened to endangered.

“At its root, caribou are dying because of predation,” said Chris Ritchie, the ministry’s manager of fish and wildlife recovery implementation.

“We think that most of that predation is because of wolves. We want to manage the habitat and manage the caribou and manage the other wildlife that’s influencing the caribou.”

A document for the moose collar deployment says the ministry requires the team to provide a helicopter, a net gun and a radio-telemetry receiver, while the ministry provides GPS radio-collars and ear tags.

A document for the moose mortality investigation says the investigation team will look into the deaths of radio-collared moose and retrieve the radio-collars, which will be monitored by a third party that notifies the ministry about any signs of death.

The research team must obtain blood, hair and fecal matter from each moose, inject an anti-inflammatory drug into the animals and complete a “moose capture form.”

Data from the research will help the ministry determine how to manage caribou survival as part of its Boreal Caribou Implementation Plan.

Ritchie said that the project will be challenging because it is highly technical and involves many safety considerations.

“You need to consider that there’s a person strapped into a helicopter, hanging out of the helicopter by a tether and shooting a net over a moose,” Ritchie said.

“And that might not even be the most dangerous part because then you have a moose with a net on it that probably is not happy.”

Ritchie said the ministry’s wildlife veterinarian is providing animal handling protocols, but the ideal team should have enough experience with animal capturing and tagging that safety considerations will come naturally.

“There’s a worker safety issue there but we also want to make sure that the animals are treated safely. The worst thing we want to do is to damage an animal while we’re trying to learn from that animal.”

The ministry is heavily encouraging First Nations participation and consultation, which Ritchies said brings “different knowledge” to the project.

The research project is a collaboration between the University of Northern B.C. and a Research and Effectiveness Monitoring Board established by the provincial government,

UNBC will analyze the data to explore how moose distribution and abundance is related to human-caused habitat change and wolf use of caribou habitat.

The university will also look at how predator and prey abundance and behaviour might interact to put caribou at risk.

Ritchie said death from hunting is not considered a factor because there is no season on caribou in B.C. and vehicle collision mortality was likely a pretty low influence.

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