British Columbia's newly released wolf management plan is based on unreliable data, said Sadie Parr, the organizer of the advocacy group Wolf Awareness Inc. in Golden.
"They're claiming this is all sustainable harvest when really we have no idea what the populations are or the mortality rates are," said Parr. "This is based on large unknowns."
More than 16 months after holding a public consultation on a draft plan, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations released its 56-page management plan for the grey wolf in B.C. the day before the start of the Easter long weekend.
The plan outlines a two-zone strategy. In most areas, wolf populations will be managed through hunting and trapping regulations such as season lengths and bag limits.
In areas where growing wolf numbers threaten livestock or wildlife, the government will help stakeholders, ranchers and First Nations manage the problem, according to the ministry's news release announcing the plan. "In these areas, detailed implementation plans would be developed before any actions are undertaken."
The plan acknowledges the difficulty in counting wolves and describes how ministry staff reached the population estimate. "Direct census of wolves is infeasible over such a large area as B.C.," it said. "However, an estimate based on published wolf density and range estimates, as well as ungulate biomass estimates, suggests the current B.C. population is approximately 8,500 wolves (range 5,300 - 11,600)."
The assessment of changes in population numbers is based on both anecdotal information and records of the number of wolves killed. "Trends in the wolf population are estimated primarily from changes in reported harvest, along with observational reports from ministry staff, First Nations, stakeholders, and the general public," it said. "These indicators suggest that B.C.'s wolf population is currently stable to increasing throughout their range."
Nor is it known whether reducing wolf numbers will help mountain caribou recovery, the plan said. "The ultimate reason that caribou have declined is likely habitat fragmentation and loss, but proximate factors such as predation continue to limit population recovery even where suitable habitat is extensive and secure, relative to the size of the caribou herd," it said.
"To date, B.C.'s wolf management actions have not been successful in meeting Mountain Caribou recovery objectives," it added. "A recent review by the Mountain Caribou Science Team indicated that current predator control efforts were not sufficiently intense to be effective, and that an aerial reduction program for wolves that threaten caribou herds of fewer than 50 animals should be implemented."
That's despite past failures to connect decreasing wolf numbers with caribou recovery. A pilot project started in 2001 in the Cariboo succeeded in reducing wolf densities, "however, a correlation between reduced wolf densities and caribou recovery could not be substantiated," it said.
Another project had the government paying trappers to kill wolves in and near the caribou range in the Kootenay region. "Although some wolves were removed, most caribou herds continued to decline," the plan noted.
The plan also expressed government support for controlling wolves where they pose a significant risk to livestock. Wolves killing livestock is a growing concern, particularly in the Cariboo and Peace regions, it said.
Step backward, says advocate
The largest unknown, however, is what happens when you remove wolves from an ecosystem that also includes other large predators like cougars and bears, it said.
A chart included in the management plan shows that in 2009 and 2010 the number of wolves recorded as killed in the province approached 1,400, the highest since record-keeping began in 1976 and about double the annual average over that period.
The plan also noted the public is deeply divided about what, if anything, to do about wolf numbers. "Actions also need to be aligned with public expectations, although this is challenging given the polarized nature of the wolf management debate," it said. "Under these circumstances, the most prudent approach is to be as transparent as possible regarding management decisions and to ensure that outcomes are monitored, management results are assessed objectively, and actions adjusted accordingly."
Norm Macdonald, the NDP critic for Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and the MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke, said it was interesting to see the plan acknowledging that the province has a poor grasp on the size of the province's wolf population. "The science isn't there," he said. "It undermines any argument the population can be managed sustainably, or with science as its basis."
Similar criticism can be made of the government's data on moose, caribou and the land base in general, he said. "It is disappointing, but it seems to be where we are with management."
The failure will be concerning to British Columbians, but there is also international interest in how the province is managing iconic species like wolves, he said. "We're not doing the job we should be doing."
Parr said she is glad the plan has finally been released. "Now we know what we're up against and what we're working with."
The report finds several threats to wolves pose a low or negligible risk. However, Parr said, it fails to look at the cumulative impact of all the various threats. "When you combine them, there's definitely a different story happening," she said.
The plan replaces a version written in 1979 that Parr said put more emphasis on the need to create large protected areas, minimize cattle grazing on Crown land, and put more value on protecting wolves for their own sake.
On first reading, the new plan seems like a step backward, she said.