A mountain caribou presumed dead south of the border has recovered from tick paralysis and is assumed to have joined a resident herd west of Kimberley.
The female was one of 20 brought from the Dease Lake in March to supplement the dwindling local population of endangered mountain caribou. There are just 1,700 mountain caribou left in the world, and only around 15 in the Purcell herds.
The transplant was the first of a two-year government project, necessary under the federal Species at Risk Act and expected to cost $750,000.
One caribou died en route from Dease Lake. In the Purcells back country west of Kimberley, 10 were dropped near a resident herd; the other nine had to be dropped near a resident herd but in a different draw due to poor weather conditions.
"There were very high winds that went on for three or four days so we had to release the other ones in a different location," said wildlife biologist Leo DeGroot with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
All of the caribou began to wander away almost immediately, splitting into smaller groups.
The infamous Montana cow and six companions wandered down Redding Creek to the St. Mary's Lake area. She and two friends split from the rest of that group and headed south to the Lamb Creek area west of Moyie.
"About two weeks ago, the two of them made a big movement across Highway 3 in a southeast direction to the Tobacco Plains area, north of Roosville. They swam (Koocanusa) reservoir once to get there, then she swam across two more times in a southerly direction to end up south of Eureka," said DeGroot.
She left her buddy in the Grasmere area, where it remains and seems to have joined up with a herd of elk.
Meanwhile, the Montana cow picked up several ticks along the way to Eureka, which progressed to tick paralysis, and soon her GPS tracking collar emitted a mortality signal. DeGroot said the collar sends him an email when a caribou has been inactive for more than six hours.
He called his Montana counterparts, who took the GPS coordinates and located the caribou - surprisingly alive, as reported in Tuesday's Townsman. A veterinarian in Eureka treated the cow and she was brought back to Cranbrook.
DeGroot said the caribou was taken to a colleague's property outside Cranbrook on Thursday, where she was fed tree lichens brought down from Dease Lake during the transfer, and she quickly recovered.
"By Friday morning it was standing again. By Saturday morning it seemed to be continually improving and the decision was to put her back with the larger group of resident caribou. So they got in a helicopter and it was a short helicopter ride back to where the larger group of resident caribou are," said DeGroot.
She didn't need to be sedated because she wasn't at full strength; instead her eyes were covered and her legs tied together.
The Montana cow was released within 100 metres of the resident herd, and as the biologists took flight again, she was heading in their direction.
"She was walking towards them into some trees so they couldn't actually see if she rubbed noses with them. But she was pretty close," said DeGroot.
Of the 19 caribou dropped in the Purcell wilderness in March, 14 have survived till now. Four were killed by cougars - not wolves, as feared prior to the transplant - and one had an unfortunate accident.
"This one was doing all the right things," said DeGroot. "It just was unlucky and fell through about a two-metre snow pack. It made its own hole in the (frozen) creek as it fell, and wasn't able to climb out. That was really sad."
DeGroot said that most of the caribou are fine, though, and behaving as they should be.
"The majority of the caribou are still up high doing what they are supposed to be doing. The ones that have been down low are the ones that have been getting the attention, and they're the ones the cougars have been finding."
Three who walked to Skookumchuck then south to Fort Steele last month, even being sighted on the City of Cranbrook's wastewater irrigation fields in Mayook, have now found their way back to higher elevations.
Two of those caribou are in mountains just north of Kimberley at an elevation of about 1,200 metres.
"They moved up about 400 metres and 35 kilometres in the right direction," said DeGroot.
The third caribou is south of Cranbrook at an elevation of about 1,600 metres.
"They should be around 2,000 metres. I'm happy if they're above 1,700," said DeGroot.
The remaining transplanted caribou are hanging out near the existing herds in the Purcell mountains west of Kimberley. Biologists have been frustrated time and again to see the transplanted animals come within a kilometre of the existing herd, but not notice them.
"Seven of the caribou in their travels have been within a kilometre of that group of 10 residents, but on the wrong side of the ridge. If they were within a kilometre and on the same side of the ridge, they would probably smell them or there would be a better chance they would have found each other."
He still believes that in time the caribou will find each other.
"Our expectation is that after a full year, we'll have increased the population by 10 by transplanting 20 and having new calves born."
Because caribou's pregnancy rate is about 80-90 per cent, it's assumed that most of the 16 females were pregnant when they were transplanted, and they should give birth next month.
Two of the caribou taken by cougars were pregnant at the time, DeGroot went on.
"The other two, we're not sure because often the foetus is one of the first things the cougar eats."
After the remaining caribou have given birth, the biologists plan to fly over their locations to check how many calves are living.
"Even with the resident caribou, calf mortality in the first two weeks is high. The first couple of weeks of the calf's life are the most dangerous. They can't run that fast yet," said DeGroot.
The amount of ground the caribou have covered since being dropped off in March isn't all that surprising, he added.
"It is (normal) for transplanted animals. Over a full year, we only expect half of them to live. A transplant is very high risk and very high stress on them. They have to learn where to feed, how to avoid predators in their new habitat. It would be like dropping one of us off in downtown New York," said DeGroot.