Wolves have long been a source of fascination for biologist Kevin Van Tighem, who grew up in southern Alberta in the 1960s and 1970s. He read widely about the exotic creature he had never seen, an animal often hated and feared: depicted in a popular fairy tale as a big-toothed, big-eyed monster whose trickery would soon be rewarded with a pleasant meal.
Van Tighem’s first personal encounter with a wolf — unexpectedly hearing one howl near his home in Banff — helped launch him on a lifelong journey to understand our complicated relationship with the shaggy canid whose ancestors branched off millions of years ago in the tree of evolution, eventually to gift humans with our most loyal companions: dogs.
There was a particular poignancy to that first surprising howl, recalls Van Tighem, author of the prize-winning book The Homeward Wolf.
Wolves had been exterminated from southern Alberta — hunted, trapped and poisoned by strychnine, along with foxes and skunks and the inevitable by-catch of other furry and winged critters, including ravens.
Now, they were back.
“As a hunter, when I’m out there I really identify with them,” Van Tighem, the former superintendent of Banff National Park, tells The Narwhal.
“I’m trying to experience the landscape in the same way that they do. I cut across their tracks and I see that they’re out there. There’s just a sense that these are my kindred spirits, that these are my fellow hunters.”
Today, Van Tighem’s fellow hunters remain the hunted.
Each winter in B.C., when snow brightens the landscape and wolves are clearly visible, the provincial government dispatches sharpshooters in low-flying helicopters to kill Canis lupus.
In this case, the killing is not motivated by fear of rabies, as it was in southern Alberta when Van Tighem was young.
Instead, the provincial government culls wolves in a costly attempt to pull endangered southern mountain caribou herds back from the brink of local extinction.
In the words of the ministry responsible for the cull, “predator reduction is an immediate measure to stop caribou from dying in order to stabilize and recover identified herds in B.C.”
This past winter, the B.C. government spent almost $2 million to kill 463 wolves in the habitat of 10 endangered caribou herds, according to an email from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development.
That’s an average $4,300 per wolf.
In the habitat of the Columbia North herd in the Kootenays, where 10 wolves were shot over the winter, the government spent $100,000, according to the ministry — an average of $10,000 per wolf.
No easy fix for waning caribou populations
For Van Tighem, the winter cull is a symptom of an ecosystem out of balance, a natural world so disturbed by human activity that we are forced into playing an ecological version of whack a mole (or, in this case, shoot a wolf). All the while, we clear-cut the old-growth forests on which southern mountain caribou depend, seeding their habitat with oil and gas operations and splintering it with roads.
“We overshot the mark,” Van Tighem says. “We basically took more than the ecosystem could spare and, sure enough, we started seeing symptoms of the problem. And one of the most obvious symptoms is this fact that most of these caribou populations are either gone or in decline.”
Animal rights groups, along with some conservation groups and some scientists, decry the wolf cull as cruel, unnecessary and ineffective, especially in the absence of robust habitat protections for southern mountain caribou — a species that evolved to escape undue predation by spreading out on vast, unfettered landscapes.
Other scientists and conservation groups support the cull as an emergency stop-gap measure, while also underscoring that improved natural resource management and habitat protection — including protections that allow caribou to range between mountain tops and valley for food — are essential to saving the species from local extinction.
There’s no easy fix: killing wolves in endangered caribou habitat is not something the B.C. government can do for two years, five years, or even 10 years to ensure that caribou herds persist, while at the same time continuing to allow their critical habitat to be fractured by new development like industrial logging and pipelines.
According to biologist Paul Paquet, an internationally recognized authority on wolves, 70 to 90 per cent of the wolves in endangered caribou habitat will have to be eliminated every single year for decades in order for the cull to be effective.
His estimate aligns with a B.C. government document that circulated last September, proposing to kill more than 80 per cent of the wolves in the habitat of three endangered caribou herds over the winter.
Those herds include the Hart Ranges in the province’s interior, where the Coastal GasLink pipeline is the latest in a line of industrial disturbances, and the company building it — a subsidiary of TC Energy, formerly TransCanada Pipelines — paid for the winter wolf kill.
“That intense killing would have to continue over numerous years, probably up to 50 years, to have a positive effect,” says Paquet, a carnivore specialist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a group that advocates for an end to all wolf kills.
“Wolves can recover. And it’s not only that they can recover within the regions where they’re being killed. But they also will come from other areas as well.”
Wolves, which can travel up to about 45 kilometres a day, quickly adjust to the cull; when one pack is eliminated, another pack will soon move in. If the alpha male and female are killed, the pack often breaks up without their leadership and younger members are faster to reproduce, Van Tighem points out.
“You’re constantly breaking down their social structure and sending untrained adolescents out onto the landscape to figure out how to kill things and to reproduce. So you’re increasing predation because these are inefficient hunters.”
It all adds up to more wolves — and more culls.
“The wolves are incredibly resilient,” says Stan Boutin, a mammalian ecologist at the University of Alberta. “If you stop the control, they will go back in numbers very quickly to what they were before you started the control and, as soon as those numbers get back up, it’s back to caribou populations declining.”
“You can’t take your foot off the pedal, which you would love to do.”
B.C.’s wolf and caribou dilemma
Before humans transformed the landscape, wolf predation didn’t unduly affect the teeming caribou herds that roamed across Canada. Caribou were so iconic to the country that, in 1937, they were chosen for the tail of the Canadian quarter, where they remain an antlered emblem of the north.
“They were doing just fine in getting along with each other until this culture arrived that was into exploiting the habitat that they both occupy,” Van Tighem says. “Anybody who says wolves wipe out caribou is missing the point … They certainly can now, but it’s only because we re-arranged all the deck chairs and it’s easier for them to get around.”
As forests are clear-cut and landscapes are disturbed by additional industrial development, a flush of new growth attracts moose and deer. Wolves soon follow the moose and deer into caribou habitat. Roads, seismic lines and other linear disturbances, akin to predator highways, make the pursuit all the easier.
“The spin off for that has been the increased overlap and density of wolves in caribou range,” Boutin says. “And caribou take it on the chin and down they go.”
So what to do? Either wolves die, or caribou die. But now B.C. faces a Sophie’s Choice dilemma, in which the outcome might be undesirable not just for wolves, but for caribou as well.
The B.C. government is on a trajectory to spend tens of millions of dollars killing thousands of wolves in the habitat of endangered caribou herds over the next few decades.
Yet those caribou herds might disappear regardless, due to the twin scourges of on-going habitat destruction and climate change, which is taking an eraser to habitat for herds already in precipitous decline and creating new habitat favourable to deer.
Some scientists, including Boutin, believe a number of southern mountain caribou herds are likely to wink out no matter what measures are taken at this point in time, because we haven’t acted soon enough to save them. Old-growth forests, on which mountain caribou depend for nutritious lichen, their sole winter food, don’t grow back in a few decades.
If some caribou herds are likely to become locally extinct, even with annual wolf culls, why shoot wolves in the first place?
The B.C. government has no choice, Boutin points out.
The federal Species at Risk Act mandates that action be taken to recover species and population groups at risk of extinction.
“The federal requirement, the law, says, ‘thou shalt try to protect these herds no matter what the state they’re in and how likely or unlikely you are to get them to be self-sustaining,’” Boutin says.
Yet there are likely some herds in whose habitat such extensive land use changes have taken place “that there is absolutely no way we could actually restore the habitat back to any sort of magnitude [in which] we could expect to see a viable caribou herd exist,” he says.
The B.C. government can’t sit back and do nothing, or federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson could ask Cabinet to approve an emergency protection order under the Species at Risk Act. That order would allow Ottawa to make decisions that normally fall within provincial jurisdiction, such as whether or not to grant logging permits, a hot-button political issue for any provincial government.
And B.C. has left it very late for action. By permitting the on-going destruction of caribou habitat, the provincial government placed itself in a capsule with only one emergency escape hatch — killing wolves.
Culling wolf populations is now a priority for B.C.’s $47 million caribou recovery strategy, which also includes population monitoring, habitat restoration, caribou health monitoring, supplemental feeding, maternity penning, and tourism and recreation management.
The recovery strategy aims to address the precipitous decline of the province’s remaining 13 southern mountain caribou herds, all threatened with local extinction. Four herds have already been declared locally extinct, including two herds in the Kootenays that winked out just last year.
Study found wolf cull effective
When Boutin and nine colleagues examined the effectiveness of wolf culls and other adaptive management strategies, in a 2019 paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, they found the survival rate of caribou calves and adults increased and herd numbers stabilized when wolf control was carried out aggressively.
“In the short term, wolf control as a way to stop declines in fact works and you can use it for that reason,” Boutin says.
“But at the end of the paper we say quite clearly that if you want to have caribou populations in the long term you can’t do wolf control forever and ever. You’ve got to deal with the habitat creation problem that has led to all of this. We have to get that habitat back to a place where it’s not good for wolves and it’s great for caribou. And unless you have energy to do that part, the wolf cull is either around forever and ever — or you will never have viable caribou populations anyway.”
Paquet says wolves have a profound influence on the ecosystems in which they live, including on a variety of other species. Removing them from the landscape could be damaging to the diversity and productivity of the environment.
“That’s not been considered,” he says about the wolf cull.
When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., after the last pack in the park area was exterminated in the 1920s, the wolves had a buoyant impact on the ecosystem. Elk populations, which had ballooned in their absence, were kept in check; elk were no longer able to cause lasting damage to the land and plants from overgrazing, including on woody species such as cottonwood and aspen.
Paquet says it’s unlikely that habitat required by some southern mountain caribou herds will be viable even in 50 or 100 years, given the species’ dependence on increasingly rare old-growth forests and with the variable of climate change.
“I think they’re on a long-term slide to extinction no matter what we do,” he says.
“And this creates all sorts of ethical dilemmas and really some moral confusion because you feel compelled to do something given what the situation is. And one of those things that people are doing, and I think they’re doing it in good faith, is killing wolves under the assumption that that will benefit caribou in the long-term.”
Toby Spribille is an evolutionary biologist who studies hair lichen, the winter food for mountain caribou.
He says many factors and interactions are at play in the sharp decline of caribou herds. Whether wolves are really driving the decline, he says, has not been proven.
“Yes, wolves are causing mortality in some areas,” says Spribille, an assistant professor in biological sciences at the University of Alberta.
“But in other areas, such as the Columbias, other causes of mortality — such as avalanches, bears and cougars — exceed mortality from wolves. So you could kill all the wolves you want and caribou would still decline. It looks like we haven’t gotten to the root of the problem.”
Herd declines need to be examined from the “bottom-up,” starting with the accessibility of sufficient amounts of lichen to support herds at different times of the year, according to Spribille.
The destruction of old-growth forests — and, with them, lichen, which grows in foragable amounts only on mature trees — means caribou have to travel further to find food, with greater exposure to harassment by winter recreation as well as predators, he says.
Snow-pack fluctuations caused by climate change mean that deep-snow winters, which give the lichens a “hair-cut” in the tree canopy, are sometimes followed by shallow-snow winters, making it difficult for caribou to reach hair lichens, hanging from tree branches, that sustain them through the coldest season, he further notes.
And then there’s the question of wolf distribution.
Spribille points out that in the Kootenays, where caribou herds have been in perilous decline over the past quarter-century, verified wolf mortality is lower than mortality from other predators. That could indicate smaller wolf populations in southern B.C., compared to wolf populations in the Peace and other northern areas.
‘We would have to think differently about who we are’
B.C.’s winter wolf cull figures appear to support Spribille’s observation, with far fewer wolves taken out — at greater cost — in the Kootenays.
Twenty wolves were killed over the winter in the habitat of the Central Selkirk caribou herd in the Kootenays, according to an email from the ministry in response to questions from The Narwhal. Just 10 wolves were killed in the Columbia North herd range.
In the Peace, 80 wolves were killed in the range of three caribou herds, including the Klinse-Za herd that two First Nations have spent the last six years trying to resuscitate, with tenuous success documented in Boutin’s co-authored paper, through an elaborate and expensive maternal penning project.
And 94 wolves were killed in the range of the Itchas Ilgachuz herd in the Chilcotin, while 54 were killed in the Tweedsmuir herd range, the ministry said.
Van Tighem says we, as a society, are not prepared to address the underlying issue of habitat loss for caribou because “it means we would have to think differently about who we are and how we live.”
The prevailing mindset is to conceive of the Canadian economy rooted in the exploitation of natural resources — the oft-cited “hewer of wood and drawer of water,” he notes.
We aren’t willing to change our ambitions, he says, so we seek another way to ‘save’ caribou.
Instead of taking immediate measures to protect critical caribou habitat and designate some areas off limits to forestry, mining, oil and gas development and road-building, we zero in on wolves.
“We look at the problem and we say we need to find a way to save the caribou and keep logging,” Van Tighem says. “We need to find a way to save the caribou and keep … motorized recreation. We need to find a way to save the caribou and keep on drilling for oil and gas and piping it off to the export markets … And it comes right back to how you introduce the question.”
Earlier this year, the B.C. and federal governments signed a landmark agreement with two First Nations in the Peace region that aims to protect endangered caribou herds through habitat protection and restoration, in addition to annual wolf culls.
But no such new protections have been forthcoming for endangered southern mountain caribou herds in the rest of the province, including in the Kootenay and Chilcotin regions. The majority of B.C.’s southern mountain caribou herds are covered by a second, much vaguer, caribou recovery agreement that does not include robust habitat protections.
Last year, Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said additional habitat protection for caribou in the south of the province were unnecessary, but did not provide any scientific evidence to back his statement.
Boutin says society will have to make some tough decisions about which caribou populations to save and which to let go, based on probabilities of herd survival. Those decisions must be guided by science, he says.
It’s a similar strategy to priority threat management, championed in Canada by scientist Tara Martin, who describes the methodology as “a mathematical equation to determine how to save as many species as possible for the least cost.”
Right now, Boutin says “we’re just throwing good money after bad,” killing wolves in the critical habitat of some caribou herds that have lost so much habitat they are unlikely to persist no matter what we do.
“If there’s no concerted effort by governments to do the other hard part — which is land use management — it’s a very unfair situation because we’re just killing wolves for a short term return on investment that in the end will not amount to our ultimate goal, which is to keep caribou around in the long term.”