Despite widespread condemnation from conservation groups and scientists, the B.C. government is set to continue shooting wolves from helicopters in an attempt to save endangered mountain caribou herds from local extinction in the South Selkirk, South Peace and North Columbia herd areas.
The wolf cull is happening in conjunction with other measures to try and stem the decline of mountain caribou herds, including maternity penning projects and restricting snowmobiles in some critical habitat.
“The wolf cull, maternity pens, it’s all part of the talk-and-log process that’s going on,” says Craig Pettitt of the Valhalla Wilderness Society. “We know damn well that the caribou need habitat and, as we talk, they are logging their habitat.”
Pettitt lives in the Slocan Valley and has worked on caribou issues since the early 1970s. He can see the logging from his window.
While government scientists say the wolf cull is necessary, many independent scientists are skeptical this strategy will have any meaningful long-term effect on the recovery of the mountain caribou, without significant measures to restore and protect their habitat.
According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development “wolves are the leading cause of mortality” amongst caribou in the South Peace region, attributing 37 per cent of adult caribou deaths to wolves.
“Habitat loss, due to industrial development and recreational activities, has also adversely affected the number of caribou,” the ministry acknowledges. This includes oil and gas, mining and forestry.
When old-growth forests are clear-cut, nutrient-rich habitat is depleted and the early growth that comes back attracts deer and moose. This brings more wolves, which prey upon the caribou as by-catch. Roads and transmission lines also limit the area in which caribou can hide and provide easy access for wolves to travel and hunt, making them more successful predators.
“As a result, we’re decimating their food source, we’re fragmenting their habitat and we’re facilitating access for wolves,” Pettitt says. “So to start targeting wolves without dealing with the other side of the equation is a talk-and-log process.”
Habitat protections a ‘sham’
So has the B.C. government set aside enough suitable habitat for caribou? Certainly the government is placing some land off limits to certain types of activity, from coal mining to oil and gas development to snowmobiling.
But if you ask Virginia Thompson – who represented the Revelstoke-Shuswap planning district during the 2007 Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Planning (MCRIP) process – the province isn’t doing nearly enough.
“It is a sham that they did any habitat recovery in this planning area,” she said.
Thompson recalls scientists recommended to the province in 2007 that about 34,000 additional hectares of caribou habitat needed to be set aside from logging in her unit. The province agreed to set aside 10,000 hectares. And even this minimal amount was eventually whittled down by amendments and loopholes for the forest industry to continue business as usual.
“This [wolf cull] is a drastic, over-the-top bloodbath,” Thompson says. “And they haven’t even done the minimal amount of habitat control that they promised to do in the last recovery plan.”
Too little, too late
While some of the larger herds, such as the Columbia North herd, may still have time to recover, given significant measures are taken to restore their habitat, it may be too late for some herds.
“We’re now in the position where we’ve waited too long,” says Hannah Barron, conservation director at Wolf Awareness. “So now it seems that we’re trying to stem the decline [of caribou] rather than recover the species. It is kind of a last ditch attempt to make it look like they’re doing something, all the while habitat destruction continues.”
The government says predator to prey ratios need to be controlled to allow caribou herds to stop declining. To illustrate this point, the ministry highlights the South Peace region, where the caribou population in wolf control zones has increased from 166 to 192, an increase of 16 per cent since the wolf cull began. In contrast, in the South Peace areas where no wolf control has happened, adult mortality remains high and calf recruitment is low.
However, in the South Selkirk region, government scientists say in their 2017 wolf management report the program “is not demonstrating success in terms of increased caribou numbers.”
Sara Dubois from the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC questions when the government will draw the line.
“Even if you remove wolves, there are other predators, there are cougars. Do you go in and remove all the cougars next? Where do you stop?” she asked.
Even the ministry’s own scientists acknowledge that wolf recovery from year to year has been so persistent that, “a very extensive effort will be required every year to continue to keep the wolf population low.”
World-leading authority on wolves Paul Paquet writes in his essay, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Wolf As Scapegoat: “Quite simply, people are the ultimate cause of caribou endangerment through the ongoing degradation imposed by our resource industries on caribou habitat… Yet, governments habitually favour the destruction of wolves over any consequential protection, enhancement or restoration of caribou habitat.”
Industry at the wheel
Some evidence as to what is driving this agenda can be gleaned from a single line in the review of last year’s wolf management plan, which reads: “Continued successful implementation of wolf control is seen as an essential step by industrial sectors, since significant habitat has already been set aside to help recover caribou.”
The ministry states that it has, “worked extensively with companies and sector organizations to advance caribou management and recovery.”
But Pettitt sees this statement as an admission that industry is influencing government policy. “That quote is by the industrial sectors. They’re driving the government. They’re saying, look, we’re not giving up any more habitat. You go out there and kill wolves.”
Last year, nearly 100 wolves were killed in the South Peace and South Selkirk areas combined. While ministry staff say it is difficult to predict how many wolves will be culled this year, their stated intention is, “to remove all wolves found in the treatment areas.”