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Aerial Culling of Wolves to Save Endangered Caribou

Over the last few days I have received more than 150 emails and letters from constituents in my riding as well as from British Columbians across our province in reaction to government’s decision to proceed with aerial shooting of wolves as a means of attempting to preserve several endangered herds of caribou. Below is a letter that I sent today to Minister Thomson seeking clarification as to what evidence his Ministry is relying on to suggest that this will be an effective approach. In fact, the evidence appears to be rather clear that enabling the preservation of natural habitat is the single most important conservation tool at the government’s disposal.


January 16th, 2015

Honourable Steve Thomson
Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC
V8V1X4
Dear Minister Thomson,

I am writing to you with regards to the government’s recent announcement of a wolf cull to take place in the South Selkirk Mountains and in the South Peace.

I have received numerous emails raising concerns about this initiative. I have reviewed the material provided in the backgrounders attached to the government’s press release, and am left with a number of outstanding questions regarding the appropriateness and potential effectiveness of the government’s response. In particular, in the government’s announcement it states: “Evidence points to wolves being the leading cause of mortality”. I am supportive of science-based initiatives that promote conservation but in this particular case, I cannot find the ‘evidence’ the government is apparently relying upon. Please let me expand upon this.

  • In the government document written in 2010 titled “Estimating the Short-term Benefit of Wolf Management to Mountain Caribou Herds”, the author, Steve Wilson, notes in his discussion that “[T]he Southermost herds (South Selkirks and Purcell South) benefit the least from wolf reductions because wolves are not responsible for a significant proportion of caribou mortality in these areas” and that “removal of wolves from very small herds…might be sufficient to stabilize populations but additional management actions will be required to significantly increase herd size”. Furthermore, Wilson notes in his conclusion that “the benefit of wolf reduction will be limited in most small herds although removal of most wolves might be sufficient to reduce or halt population declines.”

Given the comments of this report come with a ministry preamble written in 2012 that notes that “this report is a significant accomplishment and will guide government in moving forward with Mountain Caribou Recovery), how does the government respond to the authors claims that a) The South Selkirks stand to benefit the least from wolf reductions, b) that the removal of wolves are merely a short term solution and that “additional management actions” are necessary to increase herd size, and c) that small herds in general (such as the one in the South Selkirks) benefit the least from the removal of wolves, unless the majority of wolves are removed?

Given this comment, can the Minister please outline the habitat protection activities that have taken place in the South Selkirk Mountains and in the South Peace since this document was written in 2008? It would seem to me that unless clear steps have been taken to address what the ministry cites as the “ultimate cause of mountain caribou declines” the removal of wolves from these areas is nothing but a short term solution that perpetuates a system of mismanagement.

  • A 2005 document written by the Mountain Caribou Science Team notes that “While predator management appears to be a straightforward solution to halting subpopulation declines, there are several difficulties with the strategy. First, predator management using hunting regulations might be insufficient to kill the number of predators necessary to recover mountain caribou subpopulations. Second, in the absence of other measures to recover mountain caribou, especially habitat management, predator management would need to be extensive and permanent. As a result, more extensive and socially sensitive measures, such as broad-scale kill programs, might be required. Third, reducing predators alone would likely result in even higher primary prey numbers, and if predator management was to end (for political or logistical reasons), the larger prey populations might support even higher numbers of predators, and/or unstable dynamics in the local predator-prey system.”

This document makes a strong case that a focus on predator management is at best a measure to be taken in conjunction with other management options, and at worst can increase the pressures on prey populations and become an ongoing practice. In light of this, can the Minister please provide a) what additional management activities will take place after the wolf cull to ensure the long-term growth of caribou populations in these regions, and that the predator management does not become increasingly extensive and permanent, and b) additional information that supports the government’s positions that a wolf cull in necessary and won’t subsequently un place the predator/prey dynamic in the region?

  • The Conclusion of the February 2013 “Quesnel Highland Wolf Sterilization Pilot Assessment” notes that “There is also no evidence that any methods are causing herds to increase. However, wolf sterilization may be stabilizing Quesnel Highland caribou, or causing a recent increase in abundance. It is important that the project continue to measure responses to recently effective wolf reductions. Messier et al. (2004) suggested the scale of mountain recovery studies in B.C. need to be increased to include ‘control’ herds, and more information should be collected about the internal dynamics of mountain caribou’s responses. My evaluation shows the value of comparison herds, and the need to understand adult and calf survival rates to better explain the nature of short-term caribou responses to wolf treatment”.

The conclusion of this study, while highlighting the possibility that wolf sterilization may be stabilizing in the short term, points to a lack of information about caribou survival rate, and therefore the nature of these short-term responses to predator management. Can the Minister please comment on what additional research is currently being done to better understand caribou survival rates, and how that research is being applied to any decisions concerning wolf sterilization?

  • In the documents provided as backgrounder to the government’s decision, there is repeated reference to an October 16th, 2007 announcement for the “Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP). This plan’s goal was to restore the mountain caribou population to the pre-1995 level of 2,500 animals within 20 years.

Can the Minister please provide an update as to the status of the MCRIP, including what current mountain caribou population levels are, and what habitat management activities have taken place to support the planned increase in caribou herd size?

  • In the government’s press release there is a note that “The operational plans for both the Selkirks and South Peace have been independently peer-reviewed”.

Can the Minister please provide the supporting documentation for this claim, including the independent peer-reviewed reports that comment on these operational plans?

The primary theme that I have seen in reviewing these documents is that there are significant and legitimate questions still to be asked about the effectiveness of culling wolves to increase the survivability of the Mountain Caribou. It appears to me that so far the government has failed to make the necessary changes to protect the South Selkirk Caribou and South Peace herds from the larger threat of habitat loss, and that now only as these herds approach a critical need for protection, is government initiating a program that will only potentially assist in the short term, and is in itself a study to determine the effectiveness of a wolf cull.

I look forward to your response to my questions, and hope that it will shine more light on this issue.

Sincerely,

Andrew Weaver
MLA Oak Bay-Gordon Head

 

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