When wolves and caribou collide

Attempting to save Mountain Caribou through a wolf cull is a complex, difficult issue

  • Jan. 22, 2015 8:00 p.m.
The B.C. government has ordered a cull of wolves to save caribou herds.

The B.C. government has ordered a cull of wolves to save caribou herds.

CAROLYN GRANT

The decision by the provincial Ministry of Environment to try to protect the dwindling South Selkirk Mountain Caribou herd by taking out predators — namely wolves — is generating a lot of reaction.

The Ktunaxa Nation and Northern Lights Wolf Centre have already responded, the former stating that the intention to shoot wolves from helicopters is a narrow and short term approach, while the latter called it morally indefensible.

However, others believe it is the only solution.

Bob Jamieson, a wildlife biologist well-known in the East Kootenay, and a member of an ad hoc group of those who have lived and hunted elk in this valley for years, says he is concerned with the situation with predators and ungulates in its totality.

He says he certainly understands the opposition to the plan — nobody wants to kill wolves — but does anyone want to lose the caribou either?

Jamieson doesn’t buy that the caribou herd is habitat challenged. He says given the amount of lichen each caribou consumes in a year, he doesn’t believe the 18 or so animals can’t find that forage over the many kilometres of the Salmo-Creston higher elevations.

“They are not habitat limited,” Jamieson said. “We are losing these animals to predation. Predators kill the old, the weak and the young. That’s the key, the young. Predation has a huge effect on calves.”

Jamieson cites a study done in Yellowstone by doctoral student Shannon Barber-Meyer, in which 142 calves were collared.

“100 calves died, three of disease and 97 from predators. Those are utterly astounding numbers.

“We are seeing collapsing ungulate populations all over the Rocky Mountains. We’ve gone from  a predator poor to predator rich environment. We have completely changed the equation that wildlife managers have to deal with.

“It’s difficult for people to understand the degree these ungulate populations are collapsing. The whole thing is incredibly complex and difficult. The situation is very different from what it used to be and it’s coming home to roost with these mountain caribou.”

John Bergenske of Wildsight has posted an interesting blog, along with Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest, on the Wildsight website, in which they offer a reluctant support of the wolf cull.

Bergenske argues that habitat degradation is what has led to increased predation, differing from Jamieson on that point.

“The science is clear that the habitat fragmentation and conversion of old forests to new have made mountain caribou more vulnerable to predation,” he writes.

“The South Selkirks herd is the southernmost of 18 mountain caribou herds that together comprise fewer than 1,700 endangered animals across their entire range. This decision comes after years of field research and policy debate over the controversial and emotionally charged issue.

“Our groups have communicated a clear and consistent position to the BC government on predator controls for the benefit of mountain caribou persistence: that we could only support predator removals if the habitat of the herd in question was ‘effectively protected’ from further development impacts and restored where possible; if there was clear evidence linking wolves to caribou deaths; and, if the  controls proposed were carefully targeted to remove only the wolf packs responsible.

“There is certainly more work to be done to protect caribou habitat, particularly in the valley bottom corridors where caribou are most vulnerable to predation. But that doesn’t preclude the current need to protect the South Selkirks caribou herd now. We have consistently and forcefully opposed a broad-brush strategy of predator controls through much liberalized wolf hunting and trapping rules as inhumane, ecologically destructive and ineffective for protecting caribou. We believe the criteria we set forth for lending support to wolf control actions in the South Selkirks have been met.”

Bergenske believes that allowing the South Selkirk caribou to die out will lead to intense pressure to reopen their habitat to logging, road building and motorized recreation, and this habitat is critical to thousands of other plants and animals.

“The short-term strategies to remove wolves may not ultimately lead to mountain caribou recovery. We recognize and accept that risk. But the wolves will come back, the caribou will not.”

 

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