Pregnant Caribou Cows Penned to Help Stabilize Herd

YUKON: Keeping calves safe for 3 weeks boosts survivability

The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / April 18, 2004

WHITEHORSE, 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 herd.

The program is attracting attention as a means of helping declining herds across Canada.

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 percent.

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.

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