As elk, deer and moose living along the eastern slopes of the Rockies in central Alberta struggle to survive, wildlife officials are willing to try almost anything to prop up the dwindling herds.
Just yesterday, 85 elk were carefully loaded onto trucks and moved from Elk Island National Park, east of Edmonton, into their new digs around Rocky Mountain House.
But instead of crowing about the initiative, officials found themselves fending off criticism about another conservation experiment: the shooting of adult and baby wolves to reduce the surging numbers preying on the ungulates and, consequently, cutting down the number of hoofed critters available for people to hunt.
"While a wolf is a beautiful animal to look at, it can cause a lot of damage," said Darcy Whiteside of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.
Though acknowledging how unpalatable it sounds to suggest killing such an iconic creature, Mr. Whiteside said: "No one has a problem swatting a mosquito."
Nigel Douglas, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, called the experiment - which also involves sterilizing adult wolves - "ludicrous" and "abhorrent." The only ecosystem management technique required, he said, is for Alberta to do more to protect wildlife habitat from the onslaught of development.
"Wolves bring out the best and the worst in people. Wolves have always been the scapegoats," Mr. Douglas said.
Increasing the number of ungulates available for hunters to kill is a minor goal of the wolf cull and birth-control program, officials said. The initiative, to be conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta and backed by the provincial government, is just one of several culls that have come under fire in the province.
Some residents are upset by the deer slaughter now taking place along Alberta's southeastern boundary - a bid to stop chronic wasting disease detected in the area from spreading west. In the previous three years, 3,171 deer, whether they were healthy or not, were shot by wildlife officials under the program.
The Alberta government was also attacked in 2006 when it starting killing wolves near Hinton, not far from Jasper National Park, in order to help protect the threatened woodland caribou population, which had tumbled by as much as two-thirds. Wolves are the primary suspects, according to officials, and so far 170 of them have been killed, but it's too soon to tell if the caribou herd has rebounded.
In the U.S. last month, wolves lost their endangered status in the Rocky Mountain states. They are thriving after a repopulation program involving wolves sent from Canada successfully reversed what was the near eradication by hunters and ranchers.Alberta's Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton stressed to reporters in Edmonton that the research is still "an experiment" by wildlife biologists and not government policy.
"These aren't amateurs or hacks. These are some of the best qualified men and women in their field," he said. "The object of this is to not get rid of wolves, but to strike a balance."
With a report from Katherine O'Neill in Edmonton