Caribou populations are declining so quickly along the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline route that British Columbians are now faced with a stark choice: kill wolves to save the caribou or halt development.
Probably nobody knows that better than Elena Jones, a biologist who has been studying five caribou herds in northeast B.C. for the past decade.
At the rate the caribou populations are dropping, she says, they will soon vanish from the landscape – unless something is done to save them.
"The populations are declining quite dramatically and if those trends continue I would expect those herds . . . to be locally extirpated within five to 10 years," she said, admitting to a feeling of "helplessness" as she watches the unrelenting decline of caribou.
"I feel really that my job at present is almost documenting the decline of caribou as opposed to being able to actually study caribou or make any difference," Ms. Jones said.
Widespread development in the booming oil-and-gas area has opened up the forest habitat, boosting moose and deer populations by providing rich browsing range. In the past, wolf numbers rose and fell in synchronicity with the caribou population. But with more moose and deer around, wolf numbers have stayed high, disrupting the natural predator-prey symbiosis. Put simply, the caribou are literally taking it in the neck, with wolves causing 40 per cent of all mortalities.
And now Enbridge is proposing to put the Gateway pipeline right through the middle of that caribou range, which would open up the woodlands even more, exacerbating an already severe wolf-predation problem.
The numbers show how desperate the situation is. In recent years, the Moberly herd has gone from 191 caribou to 35. The Bearhole-Redwillow herd has dwindled to 21 animals from 80. And when biologists went looking for the Burnt-Pine herd of 17 caribou this year, they could only find one animal left alive – standing alone in a tract of forest where there hasn't been a new calf born in four years.
Any doubt that the pipeline route passes through caribou habitat was removed by a recent study in which Ms. Jones and Dale Seip tracked animals using radio collars. They found that over the course of a year several herds (and particularly the Bearhole-Redwillow population) criss-cross the pipeline right of way many times, moving between feeding and calving grounds.
So what should be done to save the caribou?
"That really is quite a political decision," Ms. Jones said. "My job is basically to say these are the ways that will increase caribou populations, and then the public really decides how they want to do it. Do they want to kill wolves and maintain development? Or do they want to decrease development? Those are really the public's choices."
It was against this backdrop that the provincial government last week released its draft wolf-management plan for public discussion.
The paper lays out a wide range of management options, from basically doing nothing, to hunting down and shooting entire packs of wolves from helicopters.
The environmental group, Pacific Wild, has condemned the report, saying it projects "a barbaric and grim future for B.C. wolves."
That may be true, but if nothing is done to change things, northeast caribou simply have no future.
In another development last week, Chris Tollefson, a lawyer representing BC Nature and Nature Canada at the Gateway hearings, sought to have a recently completed caribou report by Ms. Jones and Mr. Seip entered as evidence. A decision on that application is pending, but it is hard to see how the joint review panel can ignore a document that raises such urgent questions about the entwined fate of caribou, wolves and the Gateway pipeline.