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BC Politics

Wolf Cull a Necessary, 'Desperate' Strategy to Save Caribou, Says Conservationist

But if habitat degradation continues, most parties agree it's unjustifiable.

Andrew MacLeod 22 Jan

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

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Mountain caribou herds are gravely threatened in British Columbia.

While many conservationists have spoken out against the B.C. government killing nearly 200 wolves in an attempt to protect endangered mountain caribou, others are offering cautious support for the cull.

"A wolf cull is a desperate measure made necessary by ongoing habitat loss and degradation," said John Bergenske, the conservation director for Wildsight, an environmental group in the East Kootenay, in an email. "It is not a solution; it is an unfortunate and distasteful stopgap measure that may buy time for recovery."

On Jan. 15, the provincial government announced it would immediately begin killing between 120 and 160 wolves in the South Peace region of northern B.C., and 24 wolves in the South Selkirk in southeastern B.C. In both cases, the plan is for ministry staff in helicopters to shoot the wolves before the snow melts.

The government justified the cull by saying the South Selkirk mountain caribou herd was down to 18 animals in March 2014 from 46 in 2009. It said that two of the remaining caribou were recently killed by wolves, and that in four herds in the South Peace, totalling as few as 163 caribou, at least 37 per cent of caribou deaths were caused by wolves.

Many condemned the cull, including Chris Darimont, the Hakai-Raincoast professor in geography at the University of Victoria and the co-author of two books on coastal wolves.

Industry, including forestry and oil and gas activity, has changed the landscape in ways that give wolves an advantage, Darimont said.

"These landscapes are not going to favour caribou again for a very long time," he said, adding the government hasn't done enough to slow development. "The damage that's been done is greater than the ability of caribou to recover, even with aggressive intervention."

Sadie Parr of the non-profit company Wolf Awareness Inc. questioned the government's science, saying it would take decades of culling wolves to give caribou and their habitat enough time to recover. Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, mused to The Globe and Mail about reviving a direct action group to stop the killings.

Cull okay if habitat protected: conservationist

Bergenske of Wildsight said he understands the opposition to killing wolves, but on balance the action is needed to give caribou a chance of avoiding extirpation, or local extinction.

"Many in the environmental community have been understandably outraged about the wolf cull, but have failed to accept the reality of extirpation that caribou biologists have warned of and the need for more action in order to see recovery measures implemented," he said.

"There is a lot more work to be done to recover habitat that continues to be destroyed by human development and recreation, but that will not serve for caribou recovery if we lose herds in the meantime."

While unfamiliar with how habitat is being protected in the Peace region, however, he said "there has been significant headway made in the South Selkirks to keep forestry and sleds out of key habitats."

Roads, railway tracks, pipeline corridors and snowmobile trails are among the human-introduced changes that make it easier for wolves to move through the landscape in the winter and hunt.

While it is easy to "generate justifiable outrage" around a wolf cull, it is more difficult to get sledders, skiers, miners and loggers to curtail their activities, he said. "That continues to be the challenge, particularly since most people remain less committed to caribou recovery than short term economics."

The cull has brought attention to the situation, but Bergenske said he worries the focus will prove to be temporary. "I fear that once the wolf discussion subsides, we will continue to see habitat degradation, in which case the cull is totally unjustifiable."

Public needs to be aware of trade-offs: ecologist

Bergenske posted a statement on the Wildsight website co-written with Joe Scott, the international conservation director with Conservation Northwest, a group headquartered in Washington State. One of the threatened caribou herds moves between B.C., Washington and Idaho.

"We share the public sentiment against wolf kills," it said. "But we recognize that in some rare cases it may be necessary to keep a globally unique animal like mountain caribou on the landscape and, in so doing maintain its protected habitats. It's a short term, desperate strategy to grow herds and heal degraded habitat to the point where predation is less of an issue."

There will be "intense pressure to reopen those habitats to logging, road building and motorized recreation if the caribou disappear -- habitat that is critical to thousands of other plants and animals," they wrote.

Removing wolves may not lead to successful caribou recovery, they acknowledged. "We recognize and accept that risk. But the wolves will come back, the caribou will not."

The two groups participated in the B.C. government's Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan in 2006 which protected 5 million acres from logging and road building, plus another 3 million from motorized winter recreation.

Barry Wilson, a systems ecologist based in Salmon Arm who accepts the government's argument for a wolf cull, said, "It's unfortunate that we've got ourselves into the situation where we feel we have no other choice but to kill wolves."

People need to understand the importance of the caribou recovery plans and that implementing them will likely mean trade-offs, such as fewer forestry jobs or reduced opportunities for recreation, said Wilson, who advocates taking social, environmental and financial factors into consideration.

"It's these trade-offs all British Columbians need to be aware of and participating in," Wilson said. The cull buys time, but won't work in the long-term without major changes, he said. "If we don't address the root causes of the problem we'll be back in the same situation, three, four or five years from now."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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