CHETWYND, B.C. - Nestled in a hard-to-reach, secret location, high in the alpine of British Columbia's South Peace River region is what’s being called a last-ditch effort to save the local caribou herd because after decades of steep declines, they are on the brink of local extinction.
Local industries like forestry and mining have taken their toll on the landscape and the caribou. Where there was once a continuous and lush forest there is now a carved up mishmash of clear cut patches, all joined together by a highway system of back-country access roads.
The widespread changes to the land have meant that slow moving animals are no longer able to seek shelter up in the mountains from their main predator - the wolf. And so their populations have been decimated.
"The future of the caribou in its current state is pretty dismal. If we don't take some pretty aggressive management action we're looking at the extirpation of many of the herds around this area" says wildlife biologist Scott McNay, who is with Wildlife Infometrics in B.C.
In 2013 the local caribou herd called the Klinse-za dwindled to just 16 animals. Despite that, local and provincial governments were dragging their feet on a conservation strategy. Feeling there was no time to waste two local First Nations and McNay took matters into their own hands. They built a massive 37-acre maternity pen to protect caribou mothers and their calves from predators.
From the outside, it looks like an impenetrable fortress: high black canvas fencing surrounds the area along with electric wires, all meant to keeps wolves and bears out. Inside the pen are open meadows, thick forest and a constant supply of food.
Around the clock, caretakers from the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations stand guard, keeping watch over the vulnerable animals. They live year round, in a small cabin next to the pen.
Chief Ken Cameron of the Saulteau First Nations said, "I think we need to act like humans and help save them. You know, it's our duty".
The mothers and the calves will remain safe and secure in the pen until the young are strong enough and fast enough to escape and survive on their own in the wild. Just the help they need to bolster a new beginning.
“Yeah we've had some success here at that. It’s a short term success. It’s temporary, it’s not the be all and end all.” says McNay.
This year alone, 13 calves were born and got their start in the pen before being released into the wild in July. Everyone involved knows that this is just a start.
McNay feels there is a long way to go. He said, "In a small way it's working.” It's like they started from a herd of 16 and now this year there's about close to a hundred.
But McNay remains pessimistic of the caribou’s long-term chances. He says unless the animals’ habitat is protected and there is some type of moratorium on industry in the area, the animals won’t survive for long.
“The thing that we don’t know is how far we have to go with protection and restoration of caribou habitat to make a herd become self-sustaining.”
Earlier this year, a proposed recovery plan to save the caribou was announced, a draft partnership agreement that was struck between the Province of British Columbia and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations. It would have seen the caribou’s habitat protected by limiting industrial development of the area.
But when details of the draft partnership agreement were announced, public outcry from people whose livelihoods depend on the forestry and mining industries was immense. Facing massive backlash, the B.C. government hired Blair Lekstrom, a former B.C. Liberal and current Dawson Creek city councillor, to come up with a new plan to save jobs and the caribou.
“What I don’t want to see go extinct is the resource worker in our country and their families. I mean that’s the balance you try and find,” says Lekstrom.
It’s a compromise that Justina Ray, president of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada says won’t work.
“There will have to be a concerted decision by society that, that the jobs are more important than caribou because balancing them and with half measures at this point will not be, will not, will not allow caribou to recover.”
But like in most Canadian provinces where the caribou populations are quickly dwindling, waiting to figure out a balance between industry and nature means more animals will die.
The fear is eventually, the only place you’ll be able to find a caribou is on the back of a quarter.
Watch “On the Brink” on Saturday’s season premiere of CTV’s W5 at 7 p.m.