You really can’t trust information on the internet these days. That sadly includes the B.C. government’s online survey about its publicly funded wolf control program.
The arm of the government charged with using scientific evidence to craft policy, no less, has offered up egregious — and perhaps telling — misinformation.
The province’s “predator reduction survey” seeks public opinion about killing wolves in an effort to save 13 dwindling woodland caribou herds.
The goal of the survey seems to be preparing the public to stomach another five-year cycle of wolf control, which is to start up again this winter.
Troublingly, the survey, open until Nov. 15, grossly misinforms potential respondents.
On the survey’s FAQ page, supposedly intended to educate people before they complete the survey, one key question stands out: “Does reducing wolf populations really help caribou recovery?”
Citing a peer-reviewed paper from 2019, the FAQ’s answer leaves the reader with no uncertainty that killing wolves is “the most effective short-term tool to halt or reverse caribou population declines.”
But a reanalysis of the same data set, also published in a peer-reviewed journal, demonstrated that lethal control had no statistical signal of efficacy. Yet, this high-profile publication was conspicuously absent from the 17 references included in the FAQ’s literature-cited section.
Full disclosure: two of us co-authored the followup analysis. It is not surprising that we would be alarmed. If disregarding our contributions to this complex resource management problem was the only baffling component of the survey, you might dismiss our concerns as those of disgruntled scientists.
But there is much more to this misinformation story.
The same FAQ section cites a 2019 government report describing five years of wolf control applied to three caribou herds. The FAQ narrative reports this study’s estimated 15-per-cent annual population decline before wolf control, but then immediately offers that, “as of 2021, the… herds have increased by 81 per cent.”
Wow! That’s amazing, a reader might believe. That 81-per-cent increase, however, was not derived from the cited report. Although the source is not revealed, we can only imagine that this is an unpublished estimate from recent government analyses.
Only when survey participants proceed to the survey can attentive readers discover — deep on the survey’s landing page, festooned with compelling infographics — that supplemental feeding and maternity pens to protect calves were also applied to these same three herds.
How much of the stunning 81-per-cent increase is related to wolf control compared with the influence of supplemental feeding and maternity pens? The latter in particular — “caribous in zoos” — might contribute significantly to this increase.
After all, when small populations fall to dangerous levels, a modest increase in the number of calves existing under these unnatural conditions makes it numerically easy to increase a population by 81 per cent — at least in the short term.
Unfortunately, neither the typical survey respondent nor those outside government know these details. The government instead provides an unblemished report on the apparent efficacy of their last cycle of wolf control.
Failing to disclose and obscuring key information while cherry-picking evidence paints an unrealistically rosy picture. It misinforms.
The result is that the survey might prime respondents into showing support for the continued culls. Who wouldn’t, except for the most ardent of wolf huggers, want to use a management approach that is “known” to save caribou?
Especially, as the government rightly explains, when the approach will not cause the wolves to go extinct? The bodies will pile up, but wolf populations will recover to provide more individuals to be shot again each year in an enduring cycle of suffering and death.
One is lured into thinking killing wolves, though unfortunate, represents the only logical and pragmatic solution.
The multifaceted misinformation could simply be compounding errors by a government believing too hard in its own story.
But if there was an intent to misinform, one might wonder why. Social licence is more important than ever in politically charged resource management decisions.
Maybe some fabulous survey results — primed by misinformation — could help shelter the government from criticism and yield some valuable social licence?
Let’s be honest. Multiple governments, captured by commercial logging and fossil-fuel industries, have failed caribou in B.C., even though ecologists have sounded alarms for decades.
The outlook for most of B.C.’s remaining mountain caribou herds is bleak. In the south especially, prospects range from looming extinction to long-term life support in the form of calving-assistance programs, supplemental feeding and, above all, predator culls.
Because the available scientific information is insufficient to guide the recovery of caribou, these kinds of fraught actions are little more than desperate, impromptu experiments.
Wolf control is a final desperate tactic that might help some herds, but not others. It would require the extraordinary killing of wolves, over large landscapes and extended periods (perhaps decades).
And even such a bleak forecast assumes forest restoration outpaces the voracious appetite of future-eating logging and oil and gas industries.
Moreover, climate change will also make it highly unlikely such degraded caribou habitat can ever be restored to what it once was.
Caribou ultimately need safer habitat. But that’s unlikely, owing to the dynamics of forest succession and continued failures by government. Despite some recent protection, the provincial government has signed off on the destruction of ever more habitat, even recently some habitat identified as “critical.”
And new information, compelling but not yet peer-reviewed, has now emerged showing that provincial subsidies to oil and gas companies directly fund damage to the ranges of endangered caribou.
Killing wolves supports status quo exploitation of caribou habitat. Industry and its captured government enablers are trying to convince the public that a dependable solution to the caribou problem is in hand.
We view the wolf cull as another form of industrial subsidy. The major beneficiary is industry, which also funds associated monitoring, research and, in one area, even lethal control of wolves.
In effect, wolf control allows a subservient provincial government to satisfy their industrial captors by permitting (literally!) more-or-less status quo habitat destruction. The “extinction debt” that such a process enables will continue to grow. Sadly, that reality seems to be lost on those who consider themselves both advocates for caribou habitat and supporters of wolf control.
At this plays out, the government invests in performative heroism. Dangling from helicopter with rifles the government and its sharpshooting contractors take extreme actions in the conservation theatre, aiming to save caribou.
But extreme measures like wolf control require a high burden of scientific evidence that such measures work. And in the absence of strong evidence, governments should not misinform their citizenry.
Science matters but good science matters most. Communicating science requires governments to identify the uncertainty in scientific knowledge. That key step is missing.
While wolf scapegoats are shot from helicopters, industrial business will continue largely as usual.
Unless the public demands more from their provincial government. As a start, the province can redesign and relaunch its survey.
Both citizens and contributing scientists deserve transparent accounting of the current science and policy — and the links between them.
To merit the public trust, especially in an age of misinformation, governments need to act honestly.