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Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada - 2014 [Final]

5. Population and Distribution Objectives

5.1 Recovery Goal

The recovery goal for southern mountain caribou is to achieve self-sustaining populations in all LPUs within their current distribution.

The recovery goal reflects the best available information. Recovery for southern mountain caribou focuses on the LPU rather than the subpopulation because LPUs address the fragmented distribution of currently recognized subpopulations, and the need for connectivity between subpopulations. Though the scale for planning the recovery of southern mountain caribou is based on the LPUs, the recovery goal and objectives (below) intend to maintain each subpopulation that is currently recognized, including those subpopulations that were extirpated since the last COSEWIC assessment in 2002.

The number of caribou in most LPUs has recently declined and the potential for annual ranges within LPUs to support caribou is thought to be higher than that reflected by current population sizes. The current population estimate for southern mountain caribou is approximately 5,800 caribou. This recovery strategy sets overall population targets based on recent capacity of annual ranges to support caribou, with those targets being: 4,600 caribou for the Northern Group, 2,000 caribou for the Central Group, and 2,500 caribou for the Southern Group – a total of 9,100 caribou. This represents a more than 50% increase in numbers from the current total population estimate. Population targets may be revised upwards in the future should the evidence supports such a revision.

Achieving the recovery goal should allow for sufficiently large LPU population levels to sustain traditional Aboriginal harvesting activities, consistent with existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Feedback received from Aboriginal communities indicated strong support for the restoration of their traditional uses of caribou.

The recovery of southern mountain caribou is biologically and technically feasible, although it may be difficult in some LPUs; particularly recently extirpated subpopulations and those which have significant disturbance within their annual range.

Aboriginal groups and others have expressed to Environment Canada that recovery of southern mountain caribou must include the expansion of their current distribution into geographic areas that were historically occupied. Considering the changes to forest habitats within those areas, the predator/prey dynamics within them, and the amount of human development and activity occurring, such an expansion will be very difficult to accomplish. Future consideration will be given to pursuing the expansion into non-occupied areas in additional recovery planning, through an updated recovery strategy or through action plans; however, any opportunity to expand distribution will be dependent upon first achieving the objectives of this recovery strategy.

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5.2 Population and Distribution Objectives

To guide recovery efforts, the population and distribution objectives are, to the extent possible, to:

  • stop the decline in both size and distribution of all LPUs;
  • maintain the current distribution within each LPU; and
  • increase the size of all LPUs to self-sustaining levels and, where appropriate and attainable, to levels which can sustain a harvest with dedicated or priority access to aboriginal peoples.

LPUs are considered to be "self-sustaining” when:

  • the LPU on average demonstrates stable or positive population growth over the short term (≤20 years), and is large enough to withstand random events and persist over the long term (≥50 years), without the need for ongoing active management intervention; and,
  • there is an increase to at least 100 caribou within LPUs that currently consist of fewer than 100 caribou, and there is no reduction in the number of caribou within LPUs that currently consist of over 100 caribou.

Given that LPUs are expected to vary considerably in their potential rate of recovery, immediate effort is required to determine more specific population size targets over the above timeframes at the LPU scale, including desired sizes larger than 100 animals (e.g., > 300 animals where that may be possible).

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5.3 Timelines to Recovery

Southern mountain caribou exist in mature forest ecosystems that evolved over centuries, and that in turn take decades to recover from habitat alteration. Reversing ecological processes detrimental to southern mountain caribou (e.g., habitat degradation and loss, the increase in predator and alternate prey populations), and instituting changes to management frameworks and ongoing land use arrangements, will often require timeframes in excess of 50 to 100 years. Given these realities, while it is currently biologically and technically feasible to recover all LPUs under the best efforts of all parties, some LPUs are unlikely to return to self-sustaining status for a number of decades.

For several southern mountain caribou LPUs, immediate actions to avoid extirpation are needed such that recovery can be achieved over time. Recovery will be monitored continuously and reported every five years (see Section 8).

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5.4 Prioritizing Recovery Actions and Managing Risk

All LPUs are included in the goal for the recovery of southern mountain caribou based on their contributions to connectivity, representativeness and redundancy. Each LPUalso faces different challenges to maintain or achieve self-sustaining status. Successful recovery of southern mountain caribou will require practical considerations and implementation of recovery actions tailored for each LPU. Prioritization of recovery actions is best addressed at the action planning stage where the allocation of effort and the rate of risk reduction for individual LPUs can best be determined.

Action planning will consider a multitude of information and factors, such as regional ecological conditions, LPU size and trend, caribou movement between annual ranges and between LPUs, habitat condition between annual ranges and between LPUs, distribution of resources for restoration efforts, and others. In prioritizing recovery actions, consideration should be given to the current risk of extirpation of a LPU, the length of time to achieve self-sustaining status, ecological needs of connectivity, representativeness and redundancy, as well as population and habitat conditions. Consideration should also be given to insuring the return to a harvestable surplus of caribou to be reincorporated into the "seasonal rounds" of hunting, gathering and other resource use by First Nations and Metis people in of BC and Alberta (McNay et al. 2013).

For southern mountain caribou LPUs that are declining, stabilizing the LPU by halting its decline will require immediate action. Although certain LPUs with fewer than 100 animals may be stable and persist over the short term where adequate suitable habitat is available, the long-term persistence of caribou in those LPUs is less certain. In some instances, continued human intervention may be required to achieve the minimum target of 100 animals. For the Southern and Central groups, if a LPU becomes extirpated, recovery of the LPU will need to be achieved by increasing neighbouring LPUs such that they expand into the areas where caribou have been extirpated, or by reintroduction. Currently, none of the LPUs within those two groups is viable enough to sustain removals of animals for augmentations or re-introductions to other LPUs, but sufficient numbers may be achievable via captive breeding.

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