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Woodland caribou in the Selkirk mountain range of British Columbia, Canada are shown in this file photo.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

Government-contracted hunters were in helicopters over two regions of British Columbia on Thursday as the province launched a controversial culling program that will sacrifice as many as 184 wolves this year alone in an attempt to save endangered caribou.

The province announced a plan to immediately start killing wolves during the next four years in the South Peace region, located in northern B.C., and in the South Selkirk region along the border with Washington state and Idaho.

The areas are home to dwindling caribou herds, and the government insists that thinning out the wolf population is a viable solution to protect the herds and allow their numbers to increase. The Alberta government has had a similar program in place for almost a decade.

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But B.C.'s plan faced immediate resistance from environmentalists, who condemned such mass culls as inhumane and ineffective while accusing the government of ignoring the habitat degradation at the heart of the caribou's plight.

Tom Ethier, an assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said a wolf cull is the only way to have an immediate impact on the caribou population.

"Some of the modelling we've done here is that by removing wolves, removing this predation risk for these two areas, we can get an increase of around 10 per cent per year over the next number of years," Ethier said in an interview.

He said the plan has been reviewed by outside experts.

The South Selkirk herd had just 18 caribou by March of last year — down from 46 in 2009.

In the South Peace region, there are roughly 950 caribou in seven herds, the government said. The province's goal is to increase that number to more than 1,200 within 21 years.

Ethier said there is adequate land and food to support the caribou population, but he said changes to the landscape related to forestry, roads and other forms of development have fragmented the habitat while making it easier for wolves to hunt.

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The province says its long-term focus is to protect and restore habitat. That has included protecting high-elevation caribou habitat, requiring land to be set aside to offset development, and restrictions on logging, road building and recreational activity such as snowmobiling in habitat areas.

However, Ethier said it will be decades before such measures have a significant impact on the caribou.

"We think we've set the table for caribou recovery, but we've got this challenge with this immediate threat of predation," he said.

A study published last year examined a culling program in Alberta, where almost 1,000 wolves have been killed since 2006 on the range of the Little Smoky herd, a small group of caribou in the west-central part of the province.

Researchers concluded the cull, which involved shooting wolves from helicopters or poisoning them, stabilized the caribou herd and likely prevented the animals from being wiped out of the area.

Paul Paquet, a biology professor who also works with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, suggested the cull would be ineffective because habitat loss, not wolves, is driving the caribou's decline.

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"These caribou are on a long-term slide to extinction as a consequence of what people have done, and that's clearly where the blame should go," Paquet said.

"I think the provinces have been unwilling to do what would have been absolutely necessary to do to save caribou, and that was to protect their habitat initially. You can't easily recover the habitat that it's lost."

Officials in B.C. also plan to use the cull to study the effectiveness of such a program. A large herd in the South Peace region won't be protected through the wolf cull, which will allow researchers to compare that population with herds on ranges where wolves were killed.

Paquet questioned the ethics of shooting wolves from helicopters to conduct research.

"It doesn't satisfy the need for humane killing and that's real problematic," he said.

Ethier, the assistant deputy minister, defended the government's methods.

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"We think by hiring experienced pilots and experienced sharp shooters that this is the most humane way to remove wolves," he said.

The ministry said the Canadian Council for Animal Care's guidelines allow for animals to be shot as a method of euthanization. B.C.'s provincial wildlife veterinarian, who co-authored the document, examined the wolf cull program and concluded it falls within the council's guidelines, the ministry said.

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