The recent decision by the provincial government to make a last ditch effort to save the South Selkirk caribou herd through removal of predators, namely wolves, has generated a great deal of discussion.
It has put East Kootenay-based conservation group Wildsight in the somewhat difficult position of reluctantly supporting the removal of wolves.
John Bergenske of Wildsight explains that he has been involved with mountain caribou since the 1970s and with Wildsight since the 90’s when they first sponsored caribou research in the Purcell Mountains.
“It has been clear since that time that there are no simple solutions or easy answers to mountain caribou recovery,” he said.
And that includes sometimes supporting plans that are not perfect, such as the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan in 2006 that protects 5.5 million acres of habitat, banning logging and road building in caribou habitat and placing restrictions on motorized recreation.
“It is not a perfect plan, but I supported the minister for the announcement.
“The Mountain Caribou Recovery Science Team, comprised of leading caribou researchers from across British Columbia, included in their recommendations the need to employ predator control in situations where a herd was below 50 animals and threatened with extirpation by predation. I argued strenuously on behalf of MCP that predator control should only be considered in extreme situations, and then only if targeted specifically at predators who could be shown to be directly preying on the endangered caribou.”
Bergenske says that over the past five years, corresponding to the time when wolves have settled in the South Selkirks, caribou numbers of just under fifty animals (that had been stable and slightly increasing over the previous decade) dropped to 18 animals.
“In the last year, caribou kills have had both wolf track and wolf DNA present. Radio collared caribou and wolves are sharing the same habitats. The caribou biologists responsible for recovery said that a wolf cull is absolutely necessary to buy time for mountain caribou recovery. The fear is that if predation continues as it has over the past five years, extirpation of the herd is imminent.
“It is difficult to accept the necessity of predator control, but to maintain this endangered species and the associated habitat protection it has become necessary. While always accepting that these measures would be needed in extreme situations, we always hoped that it would not be the case. It is unfortunate and sad to be targeting wolves when we know it isn’t wolves that have created this situation. Wolves are far too often scapegoated for human caused problems. And the situation Mountain Caribou are now in is indeed human caused — habitat changes from forestry and recreation have made caribou habitat available to wolves.
Bergenske said that wolves are apex predators who are very good at taking advantage of changes that make prey more available. A wolf cull has merit only if large areas of old growth forest are protected, winter recreation in caribou habitat is controlled and steps such as maternal penning are employed to recover caribou numbers to a point that can withstand predation, he added.
“Without action, however, there will be no caribou left, and habitat protection reduced. The largest single gains in the Kootenays over the past few years for protection of wild places have been due to the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan.”
Ultimately, Bergenske says, if the caribou are allowed to die out, that will end protection for old growth forests and all dependent species.
“I do not like to have to be in the position to be the spokesperson for killing any animals, but I find that I must act for the long-term health of the ecosystem and all living things.”