JASPER, ALTA. -- A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds.

The captive breeding program would be a first, said Dave Argument, conservation manager for Jasper National Park.

“This idea of bringing in wild caribou (and) raising them in captivity to augment a wild herd is certainly a novel approach.”

No one doubts Jasper's caribou are in trouble. One of the park's three herds has already disappeared and the others are down to a handful of animals.

Parks Canada has proposed a $25-million project that would permanently pen up to 40 females and five males in a highly managed and monitored area of about one square kilometre surrounded by an electrified fence. The agency suggests the captive breeding could produce up to 20 calves a year - enough to bring Jasper's herds to sustainable levels in a decade.

The plan received a big boost last week when an independent scientific review panel concluded that it would likely work.

The panel, an international group of conservation experts, agreed that without dramatic measures Jasper's caribou will disappear. Strategies such as predator control or penning and protecting pregnant cows won't work in a national park, it concluded.

“We are confident that the case has been made for the proposed breeding program,” the panel's report says.

It does warn that careful monitoring would be required to assess the survival rate of young caribou released into the wild. The effects of climate change on habitat would have to be watched and wolves might occasionally have to be culled, it adds.

“Predators will need to be monitored and managed.”

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat to rebuilding herds, the report says.

Justina Ray, a caribou biologist and head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the program would also have to consider conditions outside the parks, where energy activity, forestry and road-building continue to degrade habitat.

“Conversion of caribou habitat for all these mountain caribou in southern Alberta and (British Columbia) is ongoing, and these conditions outside the park are very relevant to anything that happens within it,” she wrote in an email.

Access to caribou habitat within the park would also have to be managed, she said.

“Access management (roads) ... will need to be stronger than it has been to date if animals are to be released into a safe space.”

Parks Canada has met resistance when it has closed parts of Jasper park for part of the year to protect caribou.

Argument welcomed the panel's conclusion. But issues remain before a final decision is made, he said. Budgets need to be approved and consultations conducted.

“There's still an element of public support required,” said Argument. “We're not going to proceed without the support of our Indigenous partners.”

A preliminary site has been chosen. It's remote from the Jasper townsite and wouldn't be open to public visits.

“It's not going to be a zoo,” Argument said.

The caribou have to remain as wild as possible if they are to make it outside the fence, he said.

“Releasing naive animals from a captive breeding facility into the wild comes with certain risks.”

If all goes well, Argument said, the fenced pen could be built next year and accept its first animals as early as 2023.

Caribou herds are in trouble across the country. Argument said captive breeding wouldn't help much in places where habitat loss is the problem, such as in areas heavily affected by industry, but it could work in other situations.

“Different circumstances call for different solutions,” he said.

“There are other situations across the country where this tool might be very useful. We're at the cutting edge in potentially applying it here.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2021