Canada Wants to Kill Gray Wolves to Save Another Struggling Species

Up to 24 wolves, which spend part of their time in Idaho, will be shot to protect the last 18 woodland caribou in British Columbia.

Woodland caribou. (Photo: Reuters)

Jan 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Sometimes protecting endangered species involves tough trade-offs. In California, for instance, sea lions have been killed to stop them from eating endangered salmon. In Oregon, some barred owls have been shot to help boost the population of northern spotted owls. Now Canada plans to kill up to 24 gray wolves to save the last 18 woodland caribou in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains.

The caribou population in the Selkirk Mountains has fallen from 46 in 2009 to 18 today, according to an announcement from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations. Wolves, the ministry said, have been linked to two caribou deaths in the past 10 months as well as to declines in the three other local caribou herds in the region. The British Columbia government signed an agreement with First Nations tribes in 2012 to increase the number of caribou by 10 percent in what is known as the South Peace region, just north of Idaho.

With this goal is mind, the ministry stated that up to 24 wolves in the Selkirk Mountains would be shot from helicopters this winter before the snow melts. A total of 120 to 160 wolves will be removed throughout the South Peace region. This follows the killing of more than 1,000 wolves in Alberta over the past decade to protect the 100 caribou living there.

The ministry did not reply to questions about how many wolves live in the South Peace region but estimated that there are about 8,500 wolves in British Columbia. The species is considered “plentiful” there and is not protected.

Environmental groups and experts have been quick to criticize the plan.

“The decline in caribou numbers happened long before wolves came to the stage,” said Suzanne Asha Stone, senior northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who pointed out that hunting, poaching, and habitat loss were the initial causes of the caribou population crash. “You have to address the root causes first and tackle those if you want a long-term recovery of a species.”

She said eliminating wolves may slow a further decline, but it would be unlikely to lead to a caribou baby boom.

Science backs her up. A study published this past November in the Canadian Journal of Zoology found that the wolf hunt in Alberta stabilized caribou numbers there but did not result in a population increase. Researchers found that long-term habitat restoration—requiring as long as 30 years—would be necessary to boost caribou numbers in Alberta. The caribou’s habitat there has been degraded by oil and gas development and industrial logging, according to a Huffington Post editorial by Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Although wolves are not protected in Canada, the planned hunt could impact both wolf and caribou populations in the United States. The ministry says the populations of both species “move frequently” among British Columbia, Idaho, and Washington. Stone said only about a dozen caribou remain in the northern U.S.

Wolves in Idaho, meanwhile, lost their U.S. Endangered Species Act protection in 2011. Since then, at least a quarter of the wolves in the state have been killed.

But Stone acknowledged that wolves “are clearly not as endangered as the caribou population. As bad off as wolves are, caribou are definitely in worse shape,” she said, noting that people have a tendency to “jump to killing predators” first instead of addressing other reasons for declines in ungulates such as elk and caribou.

“Without addressing these other issues, this hunt isn’t going to help the caribou,” Stone said.

British Columbia, however, is taking steps for the long-term recovery of the caribou.

The 2012 caribou conservation plan sets aside four hectares of caribou habitat for every hectare that is developed in the future. It also promises to take “immediate action” to prevent the local extinction of caribou in the South Peace region. The ministry’s announcement points out that “the risk of removing the number of wolves recommended is very low, whereas the risk to pertinent caribou populations of doing nothing is very high.”