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A grey wolf in October, 2020.Zac Mills/The Wildlife Collective

Contractors hired by the B.C. government are shooting wolves from helicopters this winter, part of a five-year plan to protect endangered caribou that was approved by the province despite its own public consultation that showed a majority of residents are against the hunt.

Opponents of the hunt say killing the wolves is only a superficial measure that won’t protect the caribou in the long run. Harder choices are needed, they say, to cut back on industrial activity in endangered caribou habitat. In addition, the federal government still hasn’t imposed an emergency protection order, despite declaring caribou at “imminent” risk four years ago.

But Darcy Peel, director of strategic initiatives with British Columbia’s Species at Risk branch, says that while the wolf hunt is unpopular with the general public, it has been successful in bringing caribou herds back from the brink of extinction after the previous five-year program killed more than 1,400 grey wolves.

Mr. Peel pointed to the Klinse-za caribou herd in northeastern B.C., which has grown from 42 animals to 101 since wolf-reduction measures began in 2015.

But killing wolves was only part of the effort. The province also used measures such as protecting pregnant caribou and their calves from predators during the critical birthing period, making it impossible to measure the results of the wolf cull.

“The problem is that caribou are declining across the nation, and that’s largely driven by habitat change, due mostly to forestry,” Mr. Peel said. “It was easier to be a caribou in a landscape that has lots of mature forests.”

B.C. is home to 54 herds of woodland caribou, but the southern mountain population is most at risk and was listed as threatened 20 years ago under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The population, which numbers just 3,300 today, has been in decline because of habitat degradation – logging, wildfires and development – which in turn has handed the advantage to wolves, bears and cougars.

In 2018, Ottawa declared an “imminent threat” to the recovery of the once-abundant southern mountain caribou, paving the way for an emergency protection order to cover the caribou’s habitat, which is mostly in B.C. but with some herds ranging across the Rockies into Alberta.

Such an order would have allowed the federal government to make unilateral decisions over resource development that is normally within the jurisdiction of provincial governments, such as logging and mining. The province doesn’t want to give up that power, and wants to balance habitat protection against the importance of economic activity.

“The level of urgency is high and this order recognizes its importance,” said Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson, then-parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of environment.

The province responded with a plan that would increase undisturbed habitat for the caribou, but the proposal backfired as communities in the province’s northeast complained that it would threaten hundreds of forest jobs.

The plans were delayed to allow more consultation, and the province eventually penned an agreement that included some habitat protection, but also relied on predator management to preserve the social and economic well-being of communities.

There are an estimated 8,500 wolves in B.C., a population the government has deemed healthy, although their numbers are uncertain because wolves are difficult to count. Wolves have been hunted to extinction in many parts of North America, and had been wiped out on Vancouver Island at one point through government-sponsored campaigns of hunting, trapping and poisoning.

Wolves are pack animals with large territories, they can have a range of 1,000 square kilometres. This targeted cull aims to reduce their numbers to fewer than three wolves per 1,000 square kilometres in areas where they are believed to pose a threat to caribou herds that are at risk, Mr. Peel said.

The province decides the fate of a wolf pack by trapping and putting radio collars on some to determine if they are crossing paths with caribou. Opponents of the wolf hunt say the tactic destroys tightly knit family groups that are organized much like humans – a mom and a dad, and one or more generations of offspring.

“These are sentient beings who have very defined social structures, they care for each other,” said Laurie McConnell, Pacific Wild’s wolf campaigner.

Pacific Wild is one of the environmental organizations that has condemned the hunt. The BC SPCA has also criticized the government for focusing on “an unscientific wolf cull” instead of caribou habitat.

When the province consulted the public and stakeholders last fall, it found that 59 per cent of respondents disagreed with killing wolves as a solution to the caribou challenge. Habitat protection and restoration were preferred options.

Mr. Peel said the province has to weigh other factors including jobs. “It’s a polarizing subject,” he said. “But I don’t think that there’s many people who would argue that caribou recovery isn’t a worthwhile endeavour. The challenge is how we do that – it’s difficult to satisfy all groups.” He said both habitat disruption and predators are part of the problem.

In a paper published last April in Conservation Science, biologists found that Canada’s species-at-risk protections are failing: The woodland caribou lost twice as much habitat as they gained in the first 12 years after they were declared endangered. Culling predators won’t save the caribou because it doesn’t address the ultimate causes of decline, the study concluded.

“Our findings support the idea that short-term recovery actions such as predator reductions and translocations will likely just delay caribou extinction in the absence of well-considered habitat management,” wrote lead author Mariana Nagy-Reis, of the University of Alberta’s Department of Biological Sciences.

“Predator reductions are a palliative measure as caribou populations are prone to returning to decline soon after such actions cease. Further, it is likely that effective predator management would become increasingly difficult, or impossible, as landscape alteration increases.

“Our study suggests that unless human-related habitat alterations are adequately addressed, the recovery of most woodland caribou populations seems unlikely.”

Ms. McConnell said the province should implement immediate deferrals of industrial activity in endangered caribou habitat and try to use alternate methods, such as maternal penning and habitat restoration, without a predator cull to see if caribou herds can increase without killing another species.

Almost four years after Ottawa declared the caribou at “imminent” risk, it has yet to impose an emergency protection order.

“So we are using the killing of thousands of wolves as a way to keep the federal government off their back, in the meantime they are still giving out cutblock approvals,” Ms. McConnell said.

“Everybody gets a free pass but the wolves.”

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