M any decades ago now, a Regional Wildlife Biologist referred to the East Kootenay as the “Serengeti of North America.” That comparison to its famous counterpart in East Central Africa, was in no doubt a direct reference to the wonderful diversity of animals (ungulates and otherwise) that we are so fortunate to have here in the Kootenay region.
Big Game numbers were also quite plentiful back then. So solid in fact — and this may surprise some — that there was even a limited hunting season on caribou in these parts.
Today, it’s painfully sad to see that the “Serengeti” that biologist Ray Demarchi made mention of, is rapidly disappearing. Yes, we still have the diversity aspect of the equation, but the numbers which were prevalent back then are simply not there anymore.
As everyone is aware, the caribou is now on the endangered species list with less than 20 animals left in the herd closest to us in the South Selkirks. Mule deer populations are in serious decline, elk numbers have been reduced dramatically, sheep populations have been completely wiped out in some traditional areas such as Premier Ridge, and moose and mountain goats in some management units have been in decline for some time now.
The obvious question which comes to mind is: How did we get here, and secondly, what can be done about it?
Some will never agree to what I am about to say and suggest, but no one can argue with the reductions in ungulate numbers, especially in the last decade.
It is a reality, so here are my personal thoughts and subsequent strategies on this issue.
Better Predator Management
In the last 20 years, we have shifted from a predator-poor to a predator-rich environment. This has created a new level of complexity for managers, and in my mind, and in many others I know, a major shift in management strategies is required.
That strategy must be based on current data not ideology, or emotion. Wolves have become a significant factor in recent times, compared to “relatively insignificant” in the 1970s and 1980s.
Of course the B.C. government implemented a very controversial wolf reduction plan in critical caribou habitat this past winter. They culled 84 wolves, all shot from helicopters, in an all-out effort to try and assist caribou recovery.
I believe the 10-year wolf reduction plan was entirely necessary but it cannot be just considered for caribou, it needs to be expanded to include all ungulates in targeted management units where wolves are a real threat to achieving healthy ungulate numbers.
Let me just give you one example which I have used before to illustrate what an over abundance of wolves can do in any given area. In a closely monitored region near Yellowstone, a pack of 26 wolves killed over 600 elk in a 12-month period, mostly for sustenance but in some documented cases, just for sport.
While it may seem that way, I am not just picking on wolves, for we desperately need a better management plan that focuses directly on all predators, including bears, cougars, and coyotes. Predators just don’t kill the old and the weak as is commonly thought — they kill the young as well. Bears in particular take a terrible toll each spring on the calving grounds. That has a dramatic effect on any prey species involved, for if there is not sufficient offspring survival rates every year, the low level of recruitment cannot support a herd. (Areas such as the Flathead, Upper Finley — Dutch Creek, Beaverfoot, and Upper Kootenay may already be in that unenviable position when it comes to elk numbers)
It is undeniable that in areas where large predators do not occur (eastern Alberta, parts of Colorado and Nevada for example) that elk recruitment has remained in the 30-50 calves per 100 cows range. Historic calf ratios of 40-60 per 100 in this valley have declined in recent years to 20-30 per 100, coinciding with a major increase in wolf and bear numbers.
Migratory elk that head to the mountains each summer are likely exposed to much higher levels of predation than those that remain year round in the Trench. There are some high country guide-outfitters this past season, I am told, that unwillingly achieved a zero per cent success rate on bull elk for their clients. For the most part, they are out in the woods every single day of elk season, and the industry itself, like it or not, is an excellent barometer of what is happening with our big game populations.
Now, I’d be the very first person to tell anyone that I strongly believe all predators — including wolves, bears, cougars and coyotes — must always be an important part of the eco-system here in the East Kootenay. They are part of what puts the “wild” into the wilderness we all love and cherish. However, they, like anything else, need to be managed. It would be very foolish indeed to think that wildlife managers should just manage ungulates and totally leave predators out of the mix. Some people do think that though, in particular, members of the national media. The actual impact of predation is far, far different from what they portray or even comprehend for that matter.
The Big Picture
In conclusion, it would be totally unfair to blame just four-legged predators for our diminishing ungulate populations. While they are, and have been, a major factor, it is much more complex than that. Habitat loss, forest in-growth, noxious weeds, lack of a comprehensive access management plan, some of the most liberal hunting regulations in recent history, and yes, even significant advancements in technology for hunters, all have contributed to higher mortality rates on ungulate populations in the past few years.
All of the aforementioned categories need and deserve to be examined, and dealt with on their own, by wildlife managers. That is, in addition to fashioning a much more aggressive approach to predator management right now and in the future. It won’t be an easy task that is for certain, but I maintain it’s high time we moved in that direction.
F.J. Hurtak is the author of the books Elk Hunting in the Kootenays and Hunting the Antlered Big Game of the Kootenays. Books are available at selected retailers in BC and Southern Alberta. All profits go to land for wildlife and habitat restoration in the Kootenays.