ON THE YUKON-ALASKA BORDER (AP) Twenty caribou cows and 17 newborn calves left captivity Friday afternoon as part of a unique wildlife management experiment meant to help the troubled Chisana woodland herd.
The pregnant cows were captured in late March and placed in a 25-acre pen along the shore of Tchawsahmon Lake southeast of Beaver Creek, about three miles from the Yukon-Alaska border, in the Chisana's natural range. For the last 2 1/2 months, Department of Environment staff and representatives of the White River First Nation have been watching over the animals.
They hope that protecting the calves from bears and wolves in their most vulnerable first few weeks after birth, then releasing them back into the wild once they have the strength and agility to evade predators, will ultimately inject new life into the herd and stop its decline.
Since the late 1980s, the Chisana numbers have fallen from an estimated 1,800 to somewhere around 300, with an annual calf-mortality rate far in excess of what's needed to sustain a herd. There has been a hunting ban on the Chisana caribou since the early 1990s.
It was a year ago that regional biologist Michelle Oakley of Environment's Haines Junction office called Yukon caribou biologist Rick Farnell.
''I said 'Hear me out, this is going to sound a little crazy,''' Oakley recalled in an interview Friday, less than an hour before the release.
Captured cow caribou and the calves they gave birth to while in captivity near the Yukon-Alaska border feed before their release back into the wilderness Friday, June 13, 2003 in Yukon Canada.
AP Photo/Whitehorse Star, Chuck Tobin
Farnell bought in, as did several other wildlife professionals, government departments on both sides of the border and the White River First Nation, whose traditional territory is occupied by the herd. The Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board provided funding support, and students across the Yukon began collecting lichen last fall to ensure the caribou cows and calves would have a natural food supplement during their captivity this spring.
The plan was to capture 20 pregnant caribou and keep them in captivity in their traditional range. Of the 20 captured, three turned out not to be pregnant.
The enclosure was made of heavy, non-transparent geo-cloth used as a subsurface blanket in road construction, surrounded by an electric fence.
Only twice that wildlife staff know of did a grizzly bear come calling, though unsuccessfully.
The first calf was born May 13, the last just 10 days ago.
On the day of the release, as the geo-cloth fence was dropped at one end of meadow, Bob White, a wildlife professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was recruited as the project's technical adviser, stood at the other, bagpipes in hand. He piped a tune not to mark the day so much as to put the caribou a little more on edge, so they would instinctually bunch together and be easier to account for as they exited the pen.
''It's a very good thing,'' said Dwayne Broeren of the White River First Nation, who's been with the project since it began. ''I will do it again if we get the funding next year.''
Expanding the program for the next two years would stabilize the age structure and produce the future breeders required for what is thought to be Alaska's only woodland herd, he said.
Oakley said Friday she expected the cows and calves would link up within a couple of days with the main body of the herd, which was some 20 miles away on the Alaskan side of the border.
On the Net:
Chisana project site produced by St. Elias Community School in Haines Junction, Yukon: www.yesnet.yk.ca/schools/stelias/caribou.
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