A prominent environmental voice in B.C. is supporting the province's controversial wolf cull, saying an endangered mountain caribou herd "will be extinct this year" if the predator population is not reduced.
Andrew Weaver, the Green Party's only MLA, previously expressed concern about the cull, and wrote to the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in January asking for a justification for the plan. In his letter, he questioned the effectiveness of culling wolves to help caribou survive.
He says the ministry's response has persuaded him wolves are responsible for most of the recent deaths in the South Selkirk caribou herd near B.C.'s border with Washington and Idaho, which now numbers about 18 individuals.
"Without the cull, they're gone," he said. "This will give them a fighting chance."
In January, the province announced it had begun a planned cull of up to 184 wolves this year, and that it will continue every winter for five years, when its effectiveness will be evaluated. The decision was made to protect the South Selkirk herd and seven herds in the South Peace in northern B.C. that number about 950 caribou.
Despite his support for the cull, Mr. Weaver emphasized that habitat destruction is the cause of caribou decline. He said the provincial government has not done enough to protect habitat, particularly in northern regions that are rich in oil and gas. He does not believe killing wolves is a long-term solution, but he said it is an important emergency measure.
"I believe humans are the reason that the Selkirk herd is in the situation it is," he said. "Humans owe it to this herd to do what we can."
University of Alberta ecologist Stan Boutin said a wolf cull that began in 2005 in Alberta has stopped the decline of the threatened Little Smoky herd, which has about 80 animals.
"To halt declines, the only alternative we currently have has to be some sort of predator control," he said.
But he also said the Little Smoky herd has not been growing, and if the cull is stopped, the wolf population will likely bounce back.
"It's not a short-term measure, unfortunately," he said. "We've waited so long that … we're caught in these drastic measures of predator control for many, many years."
Dr. Boutin said wolf culls and large pens that exclude predators are among the only options if governments decide caribou populations must be preserved. But he said he would prefer to let B.C.'s South Selkirk herd disappear, and put more resources into protecting those that are still doing well.
"It's kind of silly management if you ask me," he said. "It's a lot of effort for such a low return."
Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said he was disappointed to hear Mr. Weaver is supporting the cull.
"It's completely misguided," he said. "All he's done is regurgitate the provincial government's propaganda."
Mr. Genovali said he is not convinced the South Selkirk herd would die out this year if predators were not controlled, but he also stressed that B.C.'s mountain caribou are not a distinct species.
"What we're talking about here is the loss of specific populations of caribou, not the extinction of caribou," he said.
In response to a request for updated information, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources wrote in an e-mail that this year's wolf cull will continue until spring thaw ends, and no results will be available before then.