Yukon Territory -- Pregnant caribou cows have been captured, and Yukon and
Alaska scientists say the calves will be held in protective pens until they
are strong enough to outrun predators.
It's the second year wildlife management officials from the United States and
Canada have worked together to prevent the disappearance of the trans-boundary
The program is attracting attention as a means of helping declining herds across
Captive breeding programs are common, but never before has it involved pregnant
cows being kept in temporary pens on their natural range, for as short a period
as possible. It takes about two to three weeks for the calves to grow strong
enough to outrun wolves and bears.
Yukon government biologist Michelle Oakley, the scientist who developed the program,
said the rate at which the calves become strong and agile is amazing.
Right after birth, they're like a wobbly spider on new legs, she said, waving
her arms like a disoriented daddy longlegs.
"Within a week, they are in four-wheel drive," she said.
Before being sent to the wild, the calves will be tagged with temporary radio-collars
that fall off as they grow.
The Alaska team will be collaring calves in the wild so various scientific comparisons
can be made.
The Chisana caribou herd, which lives in the territory's southwestern corner,
was estimated at 1,800 in 1989. It now numbers between 600 and 700.
Its age composition is a primary concern, caribou biologist Rick Farnell said.
Back-to-back years of crippling weather conditions could kill off essential breeders
and devastate the herd's ability to rebound even at the current number without
enough young to fill in the gaps, Farnell said.
"So even by injecting this number of calves, you are giving the herd a lot of
help," he said.
Last year, for instance, of the 20 cows captured, 17 were pregnant and all had
calves. Of the 17 calves released with their mothers last June, officials have
confirmed that 12 are still alive, possibly 13 -- a survival rate of nearly 75
From the 16 radio-collared cows that were designated the control group and had
their calves in the wild, two calves survived -- a survival rate of 13 percent.
The average survival rate over the last 15 years has been 6 percent, Oakley said.
Canada's government has put up $300,000 to help save the cows, and $100,000 U.S.
was contributed by Alaska.
Scientists were in the field in late March building camp and erecting the pens
south of Beaver Creek on the shore of Big Boundary Lake.
Yukon students have pitched in for the second year in a row, helping collect
lichen essential to the caribou diet. Bags upon bags were collected last fall
and shipped to the site last month.