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.
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.