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Biologist Pokes Holes in BC's Wolf Killing Plan

It's too vague on poison use and doesn't factor in ecosystem complexity, says Bob Hayes.

By Andrew MacLeod 6 Jun 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

In April, the British Columbia government released a new wolf management plan that, among other things, detailed when the top predators may be killed to reduce conflicts with livestock or help mountain caribou recover.

The plan failed, however, to state that wolves have their own inherent right to exist on the landscape, said Bob Hayes, a biologist who spent 20 years studying wolves in the Yukon and moved to Smithers, B.C. in 2012. "Those are important things to say about animals, in my view."

Hayes is the author of Wolves of the Yukon and a former wolf biologist for the Yukon government. Rich in anecdotes from his experiences, the book describes the history of wolves, their place in ecosystems and the evolution of human thinking about them.

While he described the plan as "really human-interest based," "very comprehensive" and "technical," it's not nearly as inclusive of varying views as it might be, he said, noting it was written by ministry biologists with minimal involvement from the public.

"I think it comes from how it was built," he said. "It seems like there are missing voices in this."

In a conversation with The Tyee, Hayes discussed several further concerns with the plan, including its vague language on the government's intention to use poison (or not) to control wolf populations, as well as the length of the hunting season it permits. He also pointed out that controlling wolves may not help mountain caribou recover quite the way the government expects.

Some praise for the plan

In Nov. 2012, the government released a draft wolf management plan, then allowed three weeks for public comment.

There should be an opportunity for the public to express what values they'd like reflected in a plan before the drafting even begins, Hayes said, adding that consultation should be wide, not just among established stakeholders.

After some 16 months of deliberation and delay, in April 2014 the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations released the final 56-page Management Plan for the Grey Wolf in British Columbia.

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 B.C. plan wouldn't have been accepted in the Yukon, which in 2011 revised its own plan, said Hayes. "The actual building of the plan in the Yukon involved people outside of government," he said, adding the result was more comprehensive.

Hayes did find a few things he liked in the B.C. version. For example, at times there can be pressure from hunting groups to kill wolves, which they see as competing with them for game like deer and moose, but the plan does not succumb to that.

"B.C. has not killed wolves to increase hunting opportunities since the 1970s or early '80s," said Hayes. "I think it's a good principle B.C. has used for many years."

Missing pieces on poisoning

The plan's "two zone" idea, that wolves will be controlled in some places and left alone in others, has merit, Hayes said. But specifics on how they'll be controlled, how many will be killed and exactly where, is missing, he said.

The plan should also be clear about what the province is ruling out in terms of how wolves will be killed, he said. If the province doesn't intend to poison them, as Alberta does, for example, the plan should spell that out, he said.

"If that's what's indirectly being said, then say it," he said. "Don't leave it vague and open for interpretation... You want the public to trust the government."

Forests Minister Steve Thomson has said publicly the province does not intend to use poison to reduce wolf numbers, though that's not reaffirmed in the plan.

Poisoning is horrible for both the target and non-target species, Hayes said. Ravens, wolverines, coyotes, chickadees and marten are among the species that would also be killed in any attempt to poison wolves. "I'm highly against poisoning," he said. "It's just a ridiculous way to control anything."

Caribou concerns

One of the focuses of the wolf-culling plan is to support the recovery of mountain caribou. But that recovery would take a long time, and Hayes wonders whether the public will find it's worth the sustained effort to control wolves over the long-term in order to reach the province's goals for caribou.

And there are other factors that contribute to the caribou's recovery, such as the complex relationship between wolves, caribou, moose and forestry, he explained. Moose, which eat mostly willows, benefit when the forest is removed, such as through logging, he said. The caribou, in contrast, depend on lichen that grows on the trees, especially in winter. "When you cut down the trees, you cut down their food."

Wolves, however, eat both moose and caribou. If habitat changes increase moose numbers, wolves will increase as well, and in turn will put increased pressure on the remaining caribou.

Whatever action is taken, the plan should include studying the result and adjusting accordingly, but that hasn't been included, said Hayes.

The plan talks about suppressing wolf numbers to allow mountain caribou to recover, but neglects mentioning details of which herds are in trouble and where they are, he said. "If you have two zones, lay them out, let people see the scale of them."

Nor are the "recommended management actions" listed at the end of the plan clear, he said.

Hunting season too long

Hayes criticized allowing the wolf hunting season to stretch from Sept. 10 to June 15, which would overlap the animal's denning period. "It's ethically wrong to do that. Once an animal is in its den with its pups, it should be protected to raise its pups."

More careful tracking of the number of wolves killed would also be valuable, he said, and there should be a specific licence for hunting wolves and a responsibility to report how many are shot.

The government assumes that if the harvest goes up, it's a sign the population is increasing. "I'm not sure about that," he said.

The plan acknowledges that it's difficult to count the number of wolves in a province as large and as diverse in habitat as B.C., and instead relies on estimates and anecdotes.

"An estimate based on published wolf density and range estimates, as well as ungulate [hoofed animals, or wolf prey] biomass estimates, suggests the current B.C. population is approximately 8,500 wolves (range 5,300-11,600)," it said. Based on anecdotes, it suggests wolf numbers are expanding throughout their range.

Hayes said the total number is less important than the trend, and that pressure on the population will vary from region to region.

The plan notes as many as 1,400 wolves have been killed in a single year recently. Hayes pointed out that amounts to 18 per cent of the estimated population province-wide. It may well be, however, that in some remote areas few wolves are killed while in others the number could easily be approaching 30 or 40 per cent of the population.

That's the sort of information the government should be trying to find out, he said. "It would be nice to know that."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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