Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." If true, then the attitudes and actions of the Government of British Columbia toward the grey wolf (Canis lupus) found in their new wolf management plan strongly suggest B.C. is moving away from greatness, and that it's going through a period of extreme moral regression.
On April 17, the government released its long-awaited and updated wolf management plan. In its accompanying news release it stated, "the last wolf management plan was prepared in 1979, and the new plan provides a substantive update in the science guiding the conservation and management of wolves."
After closely comparing the 1979 and 2014 wolf management plans, we strongly believe this claim is false. The 1979 plan was more consistent with what modern science has since revealed about the grey wolf.
While the 2014 plan claims to address conservation concerns and incorporate current science, it is little more than an attempt to reduce wolf populations across the province as low as possible without actually endangering them. It seems designed for the sole benefit of a small number of private entrepreneurs that use much of B.C.'s crown land for cattle grazing -- to the detriment of the natural ecosystems across our province.
The 2014 plan is regressive in three main areas: its failure to acknowledge the value of a wolf to society, its flawed justification for aggressive proactive wolf control, and its failure to truly acknowledge the critical role wolves play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Wolves have monetary value
The two foremost wolf management objectives listed by the 1979 plan for B.C. wolves were to maintain viable populations of wolves in wilderness areas, and to provide opportunities for people to listen to and have a chance to view wolves in their natural habitat.
These two objectives acknowledge the intrinsic value of wolves and the potential economic value of wolf ecotourism. The actions proposed by the 2014 plan completely fail to acknowledge that wolves have any economic benefit.
This is despite widespread knowledge that wolf viewing in Yellowstone and Denali national parks is extremely beneficial to local economies. The latest annual figures for Yellowstone show wolf ecotourism injected $35 million into the local area.
Those reintroduced wolves coincidentally came from Canada.
The 2014 plan is almost completely focused on controlling wolf numbers over the majority of B.C.'s land area. The motivation for this is twofold: the entrenched belief in the high toll wolves take on grazing cattle and the government's dubious and non-verified claim that wolf populations are increasing in B.C.
According to government figures, only 162 cattle were killed in B.C. by all predators (including black and grizzly bears, pumas, coyotes and wolves) during a 12-month period in 2012-13. This is a scant 0.07 per cent of all cattle grazing on crown land in B.C. Predation statistics in the northern U.S. show similarly minuscule predation rates by wolves on cattle.
The claim in the 2014 plan that wolf populations in B.C. are increasing is based on a population estimate that uses a new (and questionable) methodology that is supplemented by anecdotal reports of wolf sightings and notoriously unreliable historic trapping records. The report itself acknowledges the extremely high margin of error (approximately 35 per cent) in this population-estimation method.
There is no methodologically-comparable study from the past to compare the population size to. Thus the claim of a population increase is actually based on only a single data point. Deriving a trend from a single data point is impossible, thus there is no scientific basis for the claim that the wolf population in B.C. is increasing. Thus the entire claim of increasing wolf populations is based on a few anecdotal observations and trapping records confounded by numerous uncontrolled variables.
In contrast, the 1979 plan recommends only reactive control of wolves on a site-specific basis to deal with isolated incidents of livestock predation. It also states that population sizes should be generally allowed to fluctuate naturally (without management intervention). This progressive strategy results in minimal disruption of the social stability of packs. Current research has shown that stable pack structure helps to ensure that young wolves are fully trained to hunt their traditional natural prey animals and not predate on cattle.
Wolves have ecological value
The 1979 plan recognized that ecologically functional populations of carnivores are essential for a healthy ecosystem, that we need to co-exist with them, and that wolves should be managed as an integral part of wild ecosystems. The plan was ahead of its time -- a number of recent studies have shown that the biological diversity and stability of ecosystems are enhanced when carnivores are present.
The act of predation on ungulates by carnivores has a profound effect on the entire ecosystem and cascades right down to the productivity of the vegetation, the quality of the soil, and even the ability of the ecosystem to more effectively sequester carbon dioxide. Wolves also help in reducing the spread of diseases in their prey populations.
In progressive fashion, the 1979 plan also recognized the need to designate tracts of public land explicitly for the use of large carnivores. Cattle grazing was to be prohibited in these zones.
The 2014 plan mentions the role of wolves in maintaining healthy ecosystems, but only includes actions designed to limit or remove wolves from the majority of B.C.'s public land. There is not a single initiative included that is designed to return wolves to zones in which they have been extirpated or reduced to relic populations. The only areas where the reduction of wolves is prohibited are existing no-hunting zones (i.e. some provincial parks) or areas where the province has no jurisdiction over wildlife (i.e. national parks).
Our recommendation? Scrap the 2014 plan for the management of the grey wolf. Return to the progressive management plan of 1979. Augment it with what science has learned since 1979, almost all of which dispels the notion of the "big bad wolf" and shows its value to society and ecosystems. Grey wolves are not vermin and it is shameful that our government is attempting to manage them as such.