Despite the evidence, critics say B.C. continues to undertake a wolf-kill program that is inhumane — and provides no long-term boost to caribou populations.
Shooters have been targeting wolves in what is called aerial gunning in an ongoing, taxpayer-funded Grey Wolf Management Plan to protect caribou from what the government cites as "wolf predation." Yet experts agree that the province's caribou population has suffered not due to wolves, but because of the direct result of human activity, industry and resource development.
"Wolves are often the symptom of a root cause of humans," said Rachel Plotkin, a science projects manager at the David Suzuki Foundation who has worked on wildlife protection in Canada for 15 years. "There doesn't seem to be much public outcry. Wolves are scapegoated, whereas the primary problem is the disturbance caused by industrial development of caribou habitat."
In 2015, 163 wolves were killed in both the south Selkirks and south Peace regions, according to Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations stats. It is, critics say, unethical, barbaric and inhumane. And in Alberta, on average since 2005, 100 wolves routinely are killed each year. The B.C. government in a statement cited wolves as the "major cause of the decline in caribou populations."
"Wolves have the same rights as a rat," said Sadie Parr, Executive Director of the Golden-based Wolf Awareness organization, which marked Wolf Awareness Week earlier this month. "The sad thing is this really isn't new. We've been killing wolves for more than 10 years. Our wildlife management isn't keeping up with contemporary science."
Critics argue the aerial gunning method is cruel: the wolves are chased to the point of exhaustion, are riddled with bullets as one clean shot to the brain, heart or lungs is highly unlikely, and that lone wolves may be targeted for tranquilization to be fitted with a radio collar, which then leads shooters to the rest of the pack when the wolf returns there. This is what critics call the use of Judas wolves because the collared wolves betray their entire pack. The B.C. government has said that no Judas wolves are used.
A March 1, 2016 meeting of the Peace River Regional District was attended by Chris Addison, Director of Resource Management of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations B.C., who provided an update of the wolf cull in the south Peace region: "In the end, 73 wolves were culled. They were hoping for more. They will continue this winter. They have collars on the wolf packs; they kill all non-collared wolves within the pack. In 5 years they hope to kill about 700 wolves. They are also employing a maternal penning program for caribou, to protect them from bears and wolves."
B.C.'s Wildlife Defence League said the report to the regional district certainly points to the use of a Judas wolf.
Local researcher Michael Allen said he's been studying local wolves since he started seeing them on footage from infrared cameras that he placed strategically throughout the valley in order to study bears.
"I've identified about 18 (wolves) over a 70-kilometre river valley corridor where they're moving up and down from the Cheekye River to the Elaho River. They move over a huge area — they're always on the go."
Allen said he's become fascinated at how wolves differ from bears.
"They are wonderful, socially dynamic animals that stay together... but I guess they're easy to blame."
Allen said the method of management for dwindling ungulate herds is typical, and flawed.
"Whenever the larger, high-profile animals like moose and caribou are having a tough time, who do we blame? We go after the predators," he said.
"In some areas, it is a fast effect: You wipe out the concentration of predators and suddenly that caribou population looks a little better. But it's certainly not a very good scientific way to go about it."
Allen said wildlife managers have learned only enough about wolves to point to them as the cause for the caribou's decline, and they view the knowledge through a lens solely to the benefit of the wolves' prey.
"I think maybe the B.C. wildlife managers just look at numbers — black bears, wolves and cougars, there's always been a lot of them, you can kind of abuse them a bit and their numbers will still be there. But you can't do that to grizzlies, you can't do that to moose — and caribou are very sensitive to the changes in the landscape."
The analogy can be made between Whistler's black bear population and the province's wolf-kill. In Whistler, the black bear population is estimated at about 60, and Allen said that 263 bears have been killed in the past 20 years.
"We've wiped out the equivalent of the local bear population four times in 20 years," he said. "That and the wolf kill I consider the two greatest wildlife abuses in this province because of how many black bears we kill and they just keep bouncing back. But does that mean we should do it? You'd think British Columbians would raise their eyebrows," he said.
LOOK TO YELLOWSTONE
One of the greatest ecological success stories in history occurred in Yellowstone National Park, which is centred in Wyoming but spreads into Montana and Idaho. In the late 1800s, wolves — whose populations were already in decline — were subsequently extirpated in the park largely due to bounties that resulted in 81,000 wolves killed between 1883 and 1914.
Then studies began to point out that wolves were not responsible for the decimation of ungulates and that wolves may, in fact, keep the populations at healthy levels. After eight years of court proceedings, the U.S. Wildlife Service acquired the legal mandate for a wolf-restoration program. And in 1995, 66 wolves captured in Canada were set free in Yellowstone.
Within a few years, the effects were dramatic: Foliage increased as elk no longer fed along waterways, which rippled to unexpected effects for beavers whose dams changed the landscape and led to new habitat for otters, muskrats, moose and fish. From there, the success story continued for insects, rodents, foxes and birds and highlighted a complicated ecological connection and the crucial importance of predators that help to regulate the entire system from the top down.
Cue the industrial activities, whereby roads and power lines and even decommissioned roads change the way predators move. Instead of travelling through forests, wolves can take the path of least resistance, which can shave hours off their travel time. With resource extraction, development pushing into wilderness, and highways dissecting forests, the common solution is to kill the predators that encroach on development.
ROLE OF PREDATORS
"I think we need to change the narrative," said Plotkin. "I think we need to understand the important role of predators in ecosystems — that kind of basic, poetic version of interacting with healthy landscapes. And I think we also need to look at the fact that humans are causing species to become imperiled by further degrading the systems. We have to do industrial activities but we don't do them when they cause a species to become threatened to extinction.
"It's finding thresholds of our levels of activity. And restoration is going to play a huge role. For many caribou ranges, they've already been so highly degraded, so part of that needs to be aggressive habitat restoration."
Key for federal and provincial legislators, though, is to find solutions that don't involve killing wolves.
"It's really disheartening to see that stop-gap measures might be the new norm," said Plotkin. "We're just going to do predator control. It's mitigation instead of protection.
"The governments have to be held accountable so the provinces administer all of the different decisions about resource allocation and about how industrial activity occurs.
"But the federal government does have a mandate to protect Canada's species at risk and so it also has to be held accountable for fulfilling that mandate to ensure species aren't becoming extirpated in the process."
To put it into perspective, Parr of the Golden-based Wolf Awareness organization asks a few questions: "Why haven't we learned from Yellowstone? And why is it ethically acceptable to kill this one species when we certainly know it's not going to be enough to bring back the caribou?"