A caribou’s death in Wilmore Wilderness Provincial Park has scientists with the Hinton-based Foothills Research Institute (FRI) puzzled.
On January 23, researchers were alerted to a stationary GPS collar from one of the members of the Red Rock/Prairie Creek caribou herd, a group of approximately 127 animals which make their home in the mountains northwest of Grande Cache. Flying over the location point in a helicopter, the team spotted the deceased caribou.
“We saw a caribou at the base of a cliff,” said Laura Finnegan, project lead for FRI’s caribou program. “As far as we can conclude right now, it probably fell, although we can’t say for definite.”
The cliff, which was approximately 2,500 m high, is above a huge cirque. The female caribou appears to have plunged 700m to the base of the cliff before sliding down the steep snow and coming to rest. Researchers could see a trail of blood where the animal slid down the snow, Finnegan said.
“It was something out of CSI caribou,” Finnegan said, referencing the popular television series, Crime Scene Investigation.
Unfortunately, a high avalanche hazard and strong winds meant the helicopter couldn’t land, nor could the team fly above the cliff to ascertain if there were predators in the area. As the GPS collar triggers an alert eight hours after being stationary, Finnegan and her colleagues believe the caribou had only been dead for 28 hours when they arrived in the helicopter.
“We think she died in the morning between 8 and 10 a.m.,” Finnegan said.
FRI’s caribou program began one year ago.
Funded through partnerships with industry, other Foothills Research Institute programs, as well as federal and international research grants, the program aides the government in determining how caribou use the forest, what constitutes the animals’ habitat and why they are declining in numbers. The collars that the biologists are monitoring are funded by a collaboration between Alberta Sustainable Resource Development and Weyerhaeuser, a international forestry company.
“We’re figuring out where they calve, what areas have enough food, whether human use on the landscape affects their movement and [we are researching] their survival,” Finnegan said.
On February 3, Finnegan was again alerted to a motionless collar. This time, all that remained was a hide and the chewed collar, indicating a possible wolf kill.
In both mortality incidents, the scientists won’t call it case closed until they have more time to analyze the data. In the matter of the caribou that fell from the cliff, Finnegan said the team hopes to revisit the location in the spring.
“It’s a to-be-continued case,” she said.
A cliffhanger, perhaps?