10/11/2012 03:32 EDT | Updated 12/11/2012 05:12 EST

Transplanted Purcell Mountain caribou fail to survive

An expensive plan to relocate mountain caribou from northern B.C. to the Kootenays, has failed after 15 of the 19 transplanted caribou died from accidents, predators or undetermined causes.

In March, a team from B.C.’s Ministry of Forests and Lands tried to transfer 20 caribou from a healthy herd in the Dease Lake area, about 250 kilometres south of the B.C.-Yukon border, to the endangered southern Purcell herd in the East Kootenay.

The move cost about $10,000 per animal.

One of the caribou died during the move, likely from stress, and weather prevented the team from dropping the other 19 animals in a single area. Ten were put near the existing herd, but the other nine had to be dropped in a different valley.

Failed to unite with herd

The hope was that the 19 survivors would meet up and join the resident Purcell herd, which was down to 14 animals. But instead, just the opposite happened. The northern caribou fanned out, apparently looking for something.

“Several went into Montana, one recently went into Washington,” said project leader, Steve Gordon.

“Whenever you are embarking on a transplant like this, it's a risky endeavour. It's kind of a critical intervention to try and restore this herd. We didn't anticipate this level of mortality though,” said Gordon.

While government biologists might not have anticipated this outcome, opponents did. Moving northern caribou south has been tried before, according to Carmen Purdy, president of the Kootenay Wildlife Heritage Fund.

“They don't make it. The last three transplants haven't worked. Why do we keep trying the same thing over and over again?”

Government biologists were going to transplant another group of caribou next spring, but with so many dead caribou, that plan is now in jeopardy.