University of Calgary

Marco Musiani explains challenges of re-introducing a caribou population in Banff National Park

Submitted by jwalla on Wed, 2012/06/20 - 11:18am.

Musiani's Landscape Ecological Research Group has found a significant presence of tundra-type mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in woodland caribou of the southern Canadian Rockies (one thousand kilometres south of tundra distribution), also including caribou that lived in Banff National Park until 2009. GPS movement data also demonstrated migratory behaviour in the southern Canadian Rockies, and surprisingly suggested that the probability of being migratory may be higher in individual caribou carrying a tundra mtDNA haplotype. The implications of these findings relate to the adaptation and conservation of this unique type of caribou. Areas occupied by the Rockies' caribou also have mixed characteristics, including both tundra-like alpine and boreal forest areas.

In a landscape that is changing due to climatic and human-mediated factors, an understanding of these dynamics for caribou is essential for the maintenance of the distinctive traits of populations, like Banff’s, through appropriate conservation measures. However, the isolating of populations in the southern Canadian Rockies might preclude gene flow or a rescue effect for locally extirpated populations as predicted in meta-population theory. This alarming effect is most clearly illustrated with the Banff herd of the Canadian Rockies, their persistent bottleneck over the past several decades (and demonstrated low genetic variability) and their eventual extirpation in an avalanche in 2009.

Clearly, conservation and management strategies should emphasize fostering connectivity among caribou populations and maintaining demographically viable population sizes. Due to its commitment to Ecological Integrity (i.e. characteristics that are natural and likely to persist), Parks Canada is therefore evaluating whether conditions that led to the isolation of its now extinct Banff population are persisting. In addition, re-introduction of caribou is being planned. This study is helping realize which donor population has the appropriate genetic, behavioural characteristics, and number of individuals; and the real challenge is proving to be that the neighbouring populations are also diminishing or at very low numbers.

Marco Musiani is an Associate Professor of Environmental Design, specializing in ecological systems design. He teaches courses on wildlife management and landscape ecology. Through his lab, the Landscape Ecological Research Group, Musiani supervises graduate students interested in these subjects on a variety of related themes.

Click here to view Musiani's profile or to view more Faculty Research.