A prominent American naturalist used an appearance on NBC's popular Today show to salvage the image of the misunderstood grey wolf, and savage Canada's reputation over its plan to poison and shoot the predator in Alberta's oil sands region.
As host Natalie Morales joked about Little Red Riding Hood, David Mizejewski showed off two wolves and made a plea for their protection. He highlighted a Canadian plan to kill wolves as part of an effort to protect the boreal caribou herd, which is threatened by loss of habitat in the oil sands region and elsewhere.
The National Wildlife Federation conservationist said the wolf cull was one more reason that Americans should oppose their country's growing consumption from the oil sands.
"These beautiful animals – their wild kin – are going to be poisoned with strychnine, they're going to be shot out of helicopters, all to feed our addiction to dirty oil," he said.
The federal and Alberta governments say the wolf program is just one possible tool to be used in a national effort to protect the boreal caribou that, they say, is threatened not only by industrial encroachment on their habitat but by increased predation.
Environment Minister Peter Kent has acknowledged that wolves may have to be killed in northeastern Alberta and said that is "regrettable" but an accepted scientific approach. A spokesman said Friday it will be up to the province to implement and manage the plan once it has been finalized this spring.
David Ealey, a spokesman for Alberta's Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development, said the government is working with industry across the province to protect caribou habitat and protect the herds. For the past several years, there has been a wolf cull in one region of western Alberta that has succeeded in stabilizing the caribou population, he said, but it is not certain it will be replicated in the oil sands region.
Wolves have seen their Alberta numbers rise, in part because warmer winters are driving growing white-tailed deer numbers. But scientists say culling wolves is simply ineffective. Alberta's wolf population has rebounded from 1,500 in the late 1960s to an estimated 7,000 today.
The canine predators have tremendous range: They can move 40 to 50 kilometres in a single night; scientists followed one mother with pups that covered 100,000 square kilometres. For that reason, a dead wolf is likely to be rapidly replaced by another.
"There's not much difference here than taking a bucket of water out of the ocean. It will fill back in very quickly," said Andrew Derocher, a wildlife biologist at the University of Alberta.
Killing wolves may have some short-term protective benefits to caribou, especially if the wolves are killed around calving season. But it will do little to halt the decline of caribou numbers, which have come under pressure from habitat destruction, he said.
"It's a Band-Aid type solution for a gaping wound," he said. "We've changed the landscape so much that we're sort of dealing with the symptoms rather than treating the disease."