Anne Murray: B.C. wolf kill a misguided effort to save mountain caribou

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      My first sighting of a Canadian wolf in the wild was unforgettable. Our family was enjoying a winter barbecue in Jasper National Park. As our dinner sizzled on the fire, the wolf loped into view, travelling steadily towards us, but keeping to the forest edge. As it came closer, it paused, sniffing the barbecue aromas, and gave us a long stare. My two small children quietly froze—instinctively sensing that time had stood still. A Canadian timber wolf: we were awed and thrilled. All too soon, the wolf moved on along the forest edge and into the trees.

      The thought of killing such a beautiful wild animal, by shooting at it from a helicopter, fills me with revulsion. Many of us feel the same way, judging by the tourism businesses, conservation groups, and individuals that have signed onto Pacific Wild’s open letter to Premier Christy Clark opposing the wolf cull now taking place in B.C. The cull is a provincial government plan to protect endangered mountain caribou by systematically exterminating more than 180 wolves. The wolves have been targeted as the culprits in the caribou’s demise, despite long-standing evidence that changes to the landscape and climate warming are the underlying problems. Is killing wolves the right way to save mountain caribou?

      Caribou are beautiful animals too, and, like the wolf, are emblematic of the north, occurring in mountains and forests across Canada as the woodland caribou subspecies. In B.C. and Alberta, woodland caribou are subdivided into three “ecotypes”: northern, boreal, and mountain caribou. This classification is not genetic, but is based on a herd’s behavior and habitat. In northern British Columbia, south to the Itcha Ilgatchuz range, northern caribou are still quite numerous. However, populations of mountain caribou, particularly those in the South Peace River area and the Selkirks, are declining rapidly and sub-populations are small and fragmented. In the Selkirk region, one herd has declined from 46 animals to 18 in the last five years.

      Mountain caribou are distinguished from other ecotypes by their adaptation to life in the old-growth forests of the interior mountain ranges where snowpack is high in winter and slow-growing arboreal lichen grows thickly on the trees. Living in such remote areas has always been challenging and tenuous for the caribou. They were safe-guarded from many predators by the remoteness of their habitat and the challenging winter conditions.

      In the last hundred years or so, mountain caribou habitats have been opened up to forestry operations, oil and gas developments, snowmobiling, skiing, and other activities. A checkerboard of roads and cut-blocks emerged in place of old-growth forests. Climate warming shrank snow packs and glaciers. When forests were logged, second-growth vegetation flourished. These shrubs provided browse for moose and deer, which were soon followed by wolves, bears, and cougars. Female mountain caribou use high elevation habitats when giving birth and these mountain tops were now accessible to predators. Through many years of change, mountain caribou gradually lost ground. Biologists, naturalists, and outdoor recreationalists observed the declines, yet were unable to influence the societal forces that were driving habitat loss.

      Young woodland caribou (northern ecotype) in the Itcha Ilgatchuz range.
      Anne Murray

      Initiatives to prevent the decline of caribou included surveys and studies, wolf sterilizations, and caribou transplanting programs, taking animals from larger herds and placing them in small ones. A group of conservation organizations formed a mountain caribou conservation program to address the problem and to lobby for habitat protection in the Kootenays. (The 55,000-hectare Darkwoods purchase in the South Selkirks by the Nature Conservancy of Canada was one outcome.) Despite these efforts, habitat disruption continued and the mountain caribou kept dying. Attention turned to grey wolves, which were following the moose into previously inaccessible areas, and increasingly going after female caribou and attacking calves.

      The decision was made for a wolf cull, with the goal of killing every wolf in the affected caribou herd areas. One-hundred-and-twenty to 160 wolves are due to be killed in the South Peace district and 24 in the South Selkirk. The wolf kill is due to be repeated each winter for five years, for a total budget of $2.1 million. According to assistant deputy minister Tom Ethier speaking on the CBC News, an analysis will be done at the end of five years to see “whether this effort was worth it”. This statement is extraordinary. Among others, Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild writes that no existing research shows that killing wolves saves caribou. He points out that caribou protection has been a problem for 40 years, so this is not a sudden emergency but a long failure to do the research, stop the habitat destruction, and obtain proper public input.

      Culling wolves for caribou protection was previously attempted in Alberta and failed to achieve any improvement in female or calf survival, according to a 2014 report in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. From 2006 onwards, nearly 1,000 wolves were killed by shooting from helicopters and by strychnine poisoning. Hundreds of other animals, such as moose and deer, were killed to act as bait to attract the wolves. The deaths were slow and painful. In a highly unpleasant aspect of the killing, both in Alberta and now in B.C., so-called “Judas” wolves are used. These are pack leaders that are radio-collared, tracked, and then left alive after the rest of the pack is killed, so that they will lead the hunters to a new pack.

      When I read this, I barely found it credible. What a horrible way to treat any animal, let alone an intelligent, fascinating, social animal like the wolf. What does this do to Canada’s fast-fading tourism image as a country of nature, wildlife, and the great outdoors? It is truly shocking to contemplate this wholesale slaughter of hundreds of wild animals, particularly ones as charismatic and iconic as the wolf, when there is absolutely no guarantee that their demise would be at all beneficial to the mountain caribou’s survival.

      Even if this course of action were successful in saving some caribou lives, their populations will take many decades to recover to sustainable numbers, particularly in areas where habitat is still being disturbed and degraded. Consequently, the culling program would likely continue for many more years.

      With such small herds of these specific branches of the caribou family, it may now only be possible to protect them in enclosed sanctuaries until their numbers can increase and suitable habitats be restored. This is likely to take many years, but has been somewhat successful with other species, elsewhere in the world. One thing is certain: the iconic Canadian wolf should not be slaughtered for the sake of our human errors and inaction.

      Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist and the author of two guidebooks to viewing nature and ecological heritage in the Lower Mainland—A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay. She blogs at www.natureguidesbc.wordpress.com. For more information about her books and nature in the Lower Mainland, check out www.natureguidesbc.com.

      Comments

      27 Comments

      Rafe Mair

      Mar 2, 2015 at 4:24pm

      In 1979, on my first day as Environment Minister, I banned the then wolf kill which was to protect cattle. It was a load of laughs as ranchers had a huge rally against me in Smithers and wouldn't permit me to speak. My constituency, Kamloops, a large ranching area was up in arms.

      The wolves survived and, amazingly enough, so did the cattle. I survived too.

      If the government would target the right areas, hunters and habitat, and left wolves and all ungulates to sort out their balance as they have done for centuries, both would see populations rise and fall but they would survive.

      As always, we are the enemy

      Anonymous

      Mar 3, 2015 at 11:27am

      Thank you for your enlightening article which shows without a doubt that killing these wolves is a brutal, cruel, misguided, entirely unfounded act of savagery. I have signed the petition so many times, it hurts. And to read these unbelievably entrenched views from those ordering and carrying out the kills makes me physically ill. I sincerely hope that rational science will win the day soon for the the lives of these beautiful wild creatures.

      zaryah

      Mar 3, 2015 at 12:12pm

      Stop blaming the wolves what did they do to you their amazing animals their not harming you

      Toni F Chandler

      Mar 3, 2015 at 12:31pm

      It kept running through my mind as I read this report and how gross man can be to animals. But then I thought, how about taking a couple of these people and put them in the wild with NO survival tools except their brain. Dress to the weather but no extra gear. That would be great but I somehow fear it would never be acceptable because it would be so one sided. Let's try it!?

      Sharon H.

      Mar 3, 2015 at 4:02pm

      I can't believe our government hasn't learned from history. Take a look at other countries that have done this and then had to pay neighbouring countries to re-populate because their supposed answer to one dilemma upset the scales of nature and wreaked havoc in another area. tsk tsk.

      Karin Tomosky

      Mar 5, 2015 at 8:07am

      This is the most sickening political endeavor. Politicians have a need to control life as they want it to be, not as it is naturally. Maybe the populations should take a vote on shooting the politicians who make up legislations without consulting the population. Canada is more of a dictatorship than a democracy and has no regard for the environment or natural habitat of animals. Stupid, ignorant politicians who delight in cruelty and torture. Canada is not a civilized country at all, it is full of barbaric people who kill and destroy what is left of Canada's wonderful nature.

      Johanna Duffek-Kowal

      Mar 8, 2015 at 6:40am

      Killing hundreds of wolves - maybe even thousands, over an indefinite number of years - will not save even ONE declining caribou herd. To really SAVE this subspecies facing impending extinction, Canada would have to reign in destructive industries, STOP all further habitat fragmentation and destruction and restore already devastaded old growth forests, which would take a couple of decades. We ALL know how likely this course of action, not only being long-term, expensive and moreover negatively affecting everybody's PROFITS, really is.
      Let's face it: No matter how many wolves they kill, upsetting the ecological balance, doing more damage than good and benefitting mostly elk and white tailed deer, the Woodland and Mountain Caribou are HISTORY.
      They will have been extincted by human greed, irresponsibility and ruthlessness.

      Arrow54

      Mar 8, 2015 at 7:39am

      The wolf cull and the so called attempt to save caribou is a cloak to cover the fact that Alberta is leasing out caribou habitat for developers. So folks the government is lying about caring to save the caribou when in actual fact they are trying to get rid of the wild life so the developer can get in there. The government has destroyed the habitat by developing and they are using the culling thing on wolves to make it look like they are doing good by bandaid fixing the issue, when in actuallity they want the wolves and the caribou gone. The government is lying to the public. All the government wants is Money and they will sell their soul to the devil to get it. The caribou are starving and so are the wolves. The government will tell you only what they want you to know.

      su neuhauser

      Mar 8, 2015 at 8:21am

      They are culling mountain lions here in Southern AZ to protect a herd of transplanted big horn sheep that the International hunting cabal wants for their trophy walls.
      Rise up people or there will be no predator species surviving the hunting lobbies.