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Protecting Vancouver Island’s Old Growth Forest

Question period in the legislature today was surreal. I left the chamber wondering whether I should quit politics altogether. I was absolutely appalled by the behaviour of official opposition and government members. It was shocking — truly shocking.

Personal attacks, vitriol, abuse, obnoxious heckling and utter disrespect was on display for all to see. This place needs to change. It needs a complete shake up.

That won’t happen, it seems, unless the general public rises up to vote out those politicians on both sides of the house who are more interested in hurling abuse than dealing with issues facing British Columbians. There was no excuse for the behaviour today. No excuse at all.

I was up on question period today and had planned to ask the relevant Minister two questions. The Minister was not at Question Period so I had to be nimble and ask a completely different question (see next post).

The question I had planned to ask is reproduced below. It was meant to coincide with an announcement on the need for widespread protection of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island.

We have lost over 90% of our biggest and most productive low-elevation old-growth forests. The government is continuing to allow the harvesting of our old-growth forests on Vancouver Island based on a plan created in the 1990s. It’s time to create a plan for this century.

The reality is, the government will say they are ‘protecting’ old-growth forests when in reality they have largely protected the steep, high mountain slopes or wet bogs. Yes it’s technically old-growth, but it’s the valley bottom, low-elevation, highly productive old-growth forests with the massive thousand-year-old trees that are at greatest risk.

In 2013 the UVic Environmental Law Centre proposed an “Old Growth Protection Act”. Part of this science-based plan was to immediately end old-growth logging in critically endangered forests and to quickly phase out old-growth logging where there is a high risk to biological diversity and ecosystem integrity. I believe the idea has merit.

Aside from ensuring habitat and biodiversity integrity, protecting our old-growth forests in British Columbia should be a part of our province’s climate plan. On Vancouver Island, apart from reducing our emissions, one of the most significant things we can do to for the climate is to leave our old-growth forests intact. It is also the responsible thing to do for our eco-tourism industry and follows the wishes of local communities across this island.

In April the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities passed R11 – a resolution calling for increased protection of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island.

The Walbran Valley is the one of the most concerning productive old-growth forests but there are a number of old-growth areas that are or could be logged any day including: Nootka Island, East Creek, Edinburgh Grove, Tsitika Valley, Nahmint Valley, Southwest Nimpkish, Echo Valley, Maclaughlin Ridge, Horne Mountain, and the Cameron Valley Fire Break. In my view there is no compelling reason to justify the logging the last of our productive old-growth forests.

Background Facts

  • On Vancouver Island 90% of the biggest and most productive low-elevation old-growth forest has been removed
  • Only 13% of the land base on Vancouver Island is protected from logging, only 8% of the island’s productive forest ecosystems are protected, and just 3% of the valley-bottom rainforests are protected.
  • A recent report from the Wilderness Committee calls for a conservation plan for Vancouver Island’s rainforest where ½ of Vancouver Island’s rainforest is set aside
  • Old-Growth forests are substantially better carbon sinks than young forests. According to a new study in the journal Nature, a tree’s growth accelerates with age, enabling them to take up more carbon than younger trees.
  • In 2013 the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre proposed an “Old Growth Protection Act” to ensure better protection for BC’s ancient forest heritage.
  • They called for a science-based plan that would have immediately ended old-growth logging in critically endangered forests and phased out old-growth logging where there is a “high risk to biological diversity and ecosystem integrity”.
  • Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Uvic Environmental Law Centre, stated at the time that “there is a need for new legislation and planning that is based on science, governed by timelines, and plugs existing loopholes or inconsistencies.”
  • While there is an old-growth management strategy currently in place, it is heavily skewed towards protecting areas of low productivity (e.g. mountain tops and steep slopes)
  • The Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities 2016 R11 resolution stated the following:

“be it further resolved that AVICC send a letter to the provincial government—Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations—as well as relevant government organizations requesting that the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan be amended to protect all of Vancouver Island’s remaining old growth forest on provincial Crown land.”


Question


While I’m pleased with government’s announcement today that they’re going to protect 186,198 hectares of already-protected old growth forest on the mainland, on Vancouver Island, our old growth forests are in dire need of protection. The Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club have called what’s happening here an ecological emergency.

Putting this in context, over 90% of the grandest and most productive low-elevation old-growth forests on Vancouver Island have already been logged. Only about 3% of the original high productivity, valley bottom old-growth forests are protected in parks and Old Growth Management Areas on BC’s Southern Coast. Several species are also on the brink of disappearing and biodiversity is being affected.

The Walbran Valley is one of a rapidly dwindling number of contiguous prime ancient forests left on Southern Vancouver Island large enough to provide habitat for healthy populations of a number of endangered species. Yet a 486-hectare core area of the valley is unprotected — a portion of it is slated for logging right now.

Is the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations open to implementing an alternative science-based forest management system for Vancouver Island’s remaining intact old-growth forest?


Supplemental Question


Old growth forests are not only fundamental to the ecological integrity of Vancouver Island, they are also a major eco-tourism draw and many island communities have recognized this.

For example, Chambers of commerce and city councils from Tofino to Victoria have passed motions opposing the continued old-growth logging in the Walbran Valley.

Two weeks ago the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities endorsed a motion calling on the government to amend the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan to protect all of Vancouver Island’s remaining old growth forest found on provincial Crown Land. This land use plan was created in the 1990s and logging of old-growth forest has continued for the last two decades.

Will the government recognize that a plan formed in the 1990s is no longer adequate for today, listen to wishes of local communities and amend the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan to protect all remaining old-growth forests on crown land?

Bill 2 – 2016: Great Bear Rainforest (Forest Management) Act

Today in the Legislature I rose at second reading to speak in support of the historic Bill 2 – 2016: Great Bear Rainforest (Forest Management) Act. This bill is being supported by all parties. It provides the legislative changes required to enable the recent negotiated agreement between 26 First Nations, the province, non-government organizations and forest companies that protects vast areas of our Great Bear Rainforest.

Below are the text and video of my speech. Near the beginning a speech you will see that a class of grade 5 students from Vancouver were introduced by George Heyman, MLA for Vancouver-Fairview. It was a light moment for both sides of the house as we collectively greeted the students.


Text of my Speech


A. Weaver: It gives me great pleasure to rise with my colleagues on both sides of this House to support, as well, Bill 2, the Great Bear Rainforest (Forest Management) Act.

This is truly a remarkable event when we find 26 First Nations, the province of British Columbia, several — in fact, numerous — non-governmental organizations and forest companies coming together to reach an agreement in terms of what can be logged, what will be logged, what should not be logged and how logging should be done in an area on the west coast of our province known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

The bill before us, Bill 2…. Let’s be clear that this bill is really a bill about what can be logged, what can be cut. It leaves a lot, as we’re seeing from other bills, up to regulations that will be put forward through order-in-Council at some point in the future. I don’t want to diminish the importance of this bill, of course, but again, I want it to be very clear that what we are debating is what can be cut in the Great Bear Rainforest, rather than, in some sense, the ways in which we do cut or the overall ecosystem-based approach to forestry that’s being taken.

Let me also acknowledge that, as with any bill or any agreement, there will be those who think that government gave away too much. There will be those who think that government didn’t give away enough. There will be those environmental groups that think this was a sellout. There will be those environmental groups that think this is a great success.

This is true of every agreement that is made. But what’s important to recognize is that we were not at the table. Who was at the table? Well, 26 First Nations, a number of environmental groups and a number of forest companies. To get agreement on this is truly an important event.

G. Heyman: With respect to the member for Oak Bay–Gordon Head, I seek leave to make an introduction.

Leave granted.

Introductions by Members

G. Heyman: Thank you very much, and thank you to the member.

Joining us in the gallery above me today is a grade 5 class. In fact, the class is split in two from Talmud Torah School in Vancouver-Fairview. I met them at the door. They’re accompanied by teachers Lisa Romalis, Becky Chan and Nicole Andersen.

This is almost a school within a school. There are 75 grade 5 students. We had a very brief discussion about the bill that we’re debating right now, and they’re pretty excited about being here for such a momentous occasion. I hope that the House will make them very, very welcome.

Debate Continued

A. Weaver: It gives me great pleasure to sit down and allow the member for Vancouver-Fairview to introduce a class, because it is so incredibly important that we engage our youth in our democracy. So thank you to the member, and thank you to the class for being here, even though I can’t see you up there.

On to the agreement that we’re debating, Bill 2, Great Bear Rainforest Act. I’m sure that each and every young person in that class is going to go home riveted to the screen and watch all debates today and make sure that they study this, because there will be a test on Friday next week on what you have learned about the Great Bear Rainforest. I’m just joking.

Interjections.

A. Weaver: There’s no test. I’m only joking.

Interjection.

A. Weaver: Oh, it’s Good Friday, of course. It’s a holiday.

Coming back to the agreement, as I mentioned, there will be some who don’t think enough was given. There will be some who think too much was given. But I say to those people and to those groups: “You were not present at the table. I was not present at the table.” Those who were present at the table — 26 First Nations, the province, non-government organizations, forest companies — came to an agreement, a monumental agreement, that protects vast areas of our Great Bear Rainforest.

Now, the issue of protection is a complex one. As we know, the forests make up more than half of the Great Bear Rainforest — a total of 3.7 million hectares, or 9.1 million acres. The land use orders in this bill identify 1.36 million acres of managed forest that will support a sustainable harvest. That creates stability for First Nations, workers, communities, investors and customers alike.

One-third of the Great Bear Rainforest is fully protected in parks and conservation areas, and about 9 percent of the total — it’s about 15 percent of the forested area — is available for timber harvesting in the managed forests. The managed forests comprise 550,000 hectares, or about 1.36 million acres, where harvesting of old growth and second growth is guided by ecosystem-based management.

We’ll explore at committee stage what this government’s interpretation of ecosystem-based management is, but I would like to outline the subtle differences between the various land use zones. It is complex, and it is something that I think that not all will appreciate.

So 471 hectares are fully protected in what are known as parks and protected areas. Now, protected areas generally have one or more existing or proposed activities that are not usually allowed in a park — i.e., perhaps a proposed industrial road, pipeline, transmission line or communications site. Allowable activities and management direction are determined by specific provisions and special conditions when the area is established as well as relevant sections of the Park Act and the Park, Conservancy and Recreation Area Regulation, as identified in the order-in-council.

Conservancies are also being used. Now, 1.5 million hectares, or about 3.7 million acres, are in a designation that protects ecological values and recognizes the importance of specific areas for First Nations.

What are conservancies? Well, conservancies are slightly different, again, from the protected areas. They are Crown land set aside for four things: “(a) the protection and maintenance of their biological diversity and natural environments; (b) the preservation and maintenance of social, ceremonial and cultural uses of First Nations; (c) the protection and maintenance of their recreational values; and (d) the development or use of natural resources in a manner consistent with (a), (b) or (c).” As I say, conservancies are a designation that protects ecological values and that recognizes the importance of specific areas to First Nations.

So 764,000 acres are being designated biodiversity, mining and tourism areas. These are areas where the primary use is biodiversity conservation and protection of ecological and cultural values. Commercial forestry and hydroelectric generation linked to the power grid are not allowed.

Then there are the special forest management areas, 675,000 acres of which are preserved. These are areas where hydroelectric generation and mining and tourism development are allowed as long as they maintain ecological integrity. Commercial forestry is not allowed. It is expected that some of these will become biodiversity, mining and tourism areas or conservancies over time. The land plan and the land use zones are quite complex and lead to a rather beautifully coloured map — which I’m not allowed to show, as it would be considered a prop — that we have to consider when we look at the Great Bear Rainforest.

When I quote a couple of leading voices on this agreement, I think it’s important to recognize that there is widespread support. Vicky Husband, as we all know, one of B.C.’s leading environmental voices, said: “It is impressive that environmental negotiators were able to get so much when government wanted to give so little. But she is dismayed the deal has allowed the government to cast itself as green, when it is still allowing ancient forests to be logged and grizzly bears to be shot.” So there’s support but qualified support.

Rick Slaco, who chairs a group representing the logging companies in the region, stated: “What we’re getting for it is a dedicated land base, a defined amount of harvest, a harvest that is conflict-free, a harvest we can plan our business around. It comes with a social licence.” He also noted: “The significant part of this agreement for the forest industry is that we’re still going to cut trees down. We’re going to cut down less of them” — he should have said “fewer of them” — “and cut them down in a different way.”

Interjection.

A. Weaver: I’m glad that the class has now left. I was just correcting the grammar for them there. I should add “sic” in brackets for Hansard there.

“We didn’t do this to go out of business,” he says.

We have qualified support from Vicky Husband, a well-known name. Frankly, to get qualified support from her is quite a sign that this is a deal that has got widespread support in the province — and from the forest industry as well, when so much land is preserved, is also quite a significant coup that we have.

I do caution some temperance on the rhetoric that we’re hearing from the government. I recognize that the government is proud to bring this to us today, as we are all proud in British Columbia to be able to support this. However, statements like: “We’re green world leaders. This is our gift to the planet….” It’s a little tough to take from a government that’s purporting to develop an industry that the rest of the world is either moving away from or already has a glut of supply in.

Let’s not forget, too, that in fact, the deal that saved the Great Bear Rainforest has actually been announced something like 15 times already over the past number of years. While an often-cited announcement, it is important to recognize that it is this government and this Legislature that has the honour of being able to prove it today.

While I do caution the temperance, government doesn’t need to oversell this. This sells itself. There’s no need for rhetoric to say how great government is in doing this. This sells itself. We will praise this agreement on this side of the House as much as anybody. So I suggest that in some sense, credibility is lost a little bit if government touts its own success. Let others tout this success, because this is a success, and we are here to actually support government on this.

But it is not the thing that makes B.C., giving a gift to the entire world, green leaders of the world. It’s an important step, an important conservation step, a historic agreement, that puts the rights of First Nations front and centre and the rights of ecological systems there front and centre. We’ll explore this in more detail at committee stage.

As I mentioned, this bill really, again, is about very specific details focused on determining the allowable annual cut and forest licences, tree farm licences, that will be affected. It’s not light reading for grade five elementary students who may attend it here. The summaries are much easier to grapple with. As the government has suggested, this bill will: “Enable implementation of unique ecosystem-based management rules to the Great Bear Rainforest that move beyond current legislation while ensuring that normal rules under the Forest Act still apply.” This is important, but we need to explore what government is thinking “ecosystem-based management” means.

Government also is suggesting this will “Legally establish a Great Bear Rainforest area and assign an initial allowable cut of 2.5 million cubic metres per year for ten years for the entire area. But after ten years, the allowable annual cut would be determined by the chief forester under section 8 of the Forest Act, as is the case in other management units” — again, something that needs exploration at committee stage as to what government is thinking here in the longer term.

The government says that this agreement will “Establish new timber supply areas and reconfigure existing ones to better reflect the boundaries of the Great Bear Rainforest.” Again, something that we’ll explore further at committee stage with respect to what the boundaries are, and how they are defined, of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The government also says that this bill will “Provide for the designation of new special forest management areas that prohibit commercial timber harvesting areas.” Again, here, we’ll seek information further as to what commercial means in this regard and how the different land use zones come in to play.

Government says that it plans to “Enable regulations to specify where forest practices may differ from those under the Forest and Range Practices Act and regulations.” Again, this needs to be explored more comprehensively in the committee stage.

Finally, this bill, government states, will “Allow the minister to set ‘partitions’ at the licence level, where partitions can be set to ensure a certain portion of a licensee’s annual cut is directed in a particular geographic area or restricted to a particular tree species” — again, a topic that I think needs to be explored further at committee stage.

In conclusion, I, like the rest of my colleagues in this chamber, am delighted to stand and support this historic agreement. I look forward to committee stage, to explore some of the thinking of government as we move towards a discussion of what it has in mind with respect to the regulations that it is empowering in the introduction of this bill.

I leave government with a final note. Let us celebrate your successes well. It is far better than when government touts its own successes too much, because people don’t actually value and appreciate the success when it is done that way. It is better when others call you world class. It is better when others congratulate you. When one congratulates one’s self or one calls one’s self world class, it makes one wonder if you are world class or whether we should be congratulating you.


Video of my speech


 

We need to end the trophy hunt in British Columbia

Today I had an OPED appear in the Times Colonist. I reproduce it below with several hyperlinks added.


In the grizzly hunting debate, the BC legislature appears to be the last stronghold protecting the trophy hunting industry in our province.

Economic, scientific, and social justifications for the practice don’t add up. Ecotourism and bear viewing companies generate more revenue than their trigger-happy counterparts, and they are far more sustainable over the long term. There is considerable uncertainty within the scientific community about grizzly bear population numbers and notable concerns about how they will adapt to the challenges climate change will bring. Polls repeatedly put public opposition for trophy hunting in British Columbia in the 90% range, for both urban and rural populations and resident hunters who overwhelmingly oppose the practice.

This is where we must draw an important difference between trophy hunting, and hunting.

Trophy hunting is the killing of an animal for the sake of the kill, the sake of collecting a trophy ­ often a severed head. It is a cruel, selfish, and barbaric practice that is packaged and sold as a sport. Trophy killing has little to do with the thousands of British Columbians who hunt because they enjoy spending time outdoors, respect the animals they harvest, and take great pride in sharing the meat they harvest with their loved ones. If we are going to end Trophy Hunting in British Columbia, we must first understand that it has nothing to do with hunting. As the legislation currently stands, it is illegal to waste meat when hunting in British Columbia, unless the animal you have killed is a cougar, wolf, lynx, bobcat, wolverine, or grizzly bear. The edible parts of big game must be removed from the animal and packed out to one¹s home, or importantly for non-resident hunters, to a meat cutter or a cold storage plant. These last two options provide trophy hunters with legal meat laundering opportunities, meaning that they could still hunt for the trophy but give away the meat.

In March I brought forward a Bill, supported by First Nations Summit, that would close this loophole, forcing the packing out of all meat from all animals (not just grizzly bears) hunted in British Columbia to a person’s home, whether that be in British Columbia, Texas, Australia or Germany. This was carefully written to protect the rights of First Nations and resident hunters in British Columbia, while going after the practice of trophy killing. As you might imagine, the guide outfitting industry did not support this legislation. I suspect many a trophy hunter would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pack out several hundred pounds of Trichinosis laden grizzly bear meat across international borders. As with all legislation, its success or failure relies on proper implementation and a commitment to enforcing it.

When legislating the practices of non-resident hunters, the rights and interests of First Nations and British Columbians should still be first and foremost. We need legislation that says in this province we hunt for food, not for the sake of killing – it is not okay to come here to kill our animals for a prize. Hunting should not be a corporate endeavour. Furthermore our government needs to acknowledge and act upon calls from First Nations who have enacted bans on trophy hunting in their traditional territories.

What has surprised me about this debate is how little our elected officials have had to say about it, given the almost unanimous opposition to the practice amongst British Columbians.

Both the BC Liberals and the BC NDP have refused to have an honest discussion about this issue in the legislature. The BC Liberals point to the studies that justify their inaction, all the while ignoring the growing body of academic literature that suggest action is needed.

The BC NDP on the other hand have yet to state any firm position on the issue. One hopes that this isn¹t simply avoiding taking a position on an important issue for fear that it will help their electoral prospects.

While this is certainly an emotive issue, it’s one that most British Columbians agree on. Trophy killing debases the very legitimate reasons that many British Columbians choose to hunt. It’s time we enact policy that understands the difference between the two, and finally puts an end to trophy hunting in British Columbia.

Saving Woodland Caribou from extirpation will also save old growth forests

Over the last few months British Columbia’s controversial wolf cull has been the subject of substantial public dialogue. Like most MLAs, I receive ongoing communication from numerous British Columbians questioning the rationale behind the government’s approach. One of the most recent communications I received was from a young woman named Katie. She started off her email saying:

“My name is Katie, and I oppose the wolf cull. In school we learned about predator prey relationships. I know you probably won’t care, and that the government will go ahead with it anyway, but please read this…”

I found her email to be a source of inspiration. Despite her apparent cynicism towards politicians, she took the trouble to express her concerns to me (even though she is not a constituent). Her email struck a chord. I campaigned on a promise of evidence-based decision-making and giving youth in our society, the generation that will have to live the consequences of the decisions my generation is making, a voice in the legislature.

The BC NDP have not contributed anything of significance to this issue. Instead, when questioned they offer up a sense of vague disappointment and an endorsement of “long term habitat protection.” Habitat protection is vital of course, especially for herds that are still relatively healthy, but if that is the only policy we offer the threatened mountain caribou they will all be dead by the time the trees grow back.

The policies that the B.C. Liberals are putting forward are concerningly intertwined with the interests of industry and lack safeguards that would ensure other herds do not follow the South Selkirk and South Peace mountain caribou to the brink of extirpation.

As a member of the legislature it is my job to do more than outright oppose policies I don’t like. I need to be able to substantially contribute to the debate and provide feasible solutions and alternatives. So, I got my office to research the topic, and threatened species management more generally, in great detail. Our subsequent analysis derived from a literature review and many hours of discussions with scientists, including wildlife biologists who have expertise in the area.

When you start rationalizing culling one species to protect another you also introduce an ethical element that needs to be considered alongside the science. Is it ever justifiable to kill one animal in the name of saving another? Science can never answer that question.

Let one of those species become threatened and your situation becomes immensely worse. Ethically, the wolf cull is a horrible response to an ecosystem out of balance. From a management perspective, we need to focus on endangered mountain caribou and the logging practices that got them to where they are today.

Before humans began changing the North American landscape, woodland caribou’s range extended largely across Canada. While northern subpopulations of caribou once roamed in massive herds numbering in the thousands, mountain caribou have always been more sparsely distributed. Mountain caribou survive on a lichen-rich diet, especially in winter months, a food source that is intricately linked to old growth forests. As industrial development and logging activities began to fragment their old growth forest ecosystems, mountain caribou populations began to destabilize. Not only has logging demolished much of their habitat directly, the associated road networks and areas of new growth forest have also brought an influx of moose and white-tailed deer into the ecosystem. Populations of wolves then followed the moose and deer (their primary prey) and caribou (their secondary prey) are now being killed as bycatch. We are scrambling to save herds of mountain caribou on the brink of extirpation because we weakened their natural habitat and made them vulnerable to increased predation. Of this, there is no disagreement within the scientific community.

The future for these threatened caribou is not looking promising; climate change is altering food supplies and habitat conditions, industrial activities are unbalancing ecosystem composition, and human settlement is concentrating the necessity of protected wilderness.

As per requirements enforced under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, the province has protected 2.2 million hectares of forest from logging and road building where populations of caribou are classified as threatened. These areas have immeasurable value for preserving British Columbia’s biodiversity, especially in light of ongoing global warming. But these areas, a substantial fraction of which are old growth, also have substantial commercial value.

Recent Freedom of Infomation documents reveal that the B.C. Liberals met with forest industry representatives when developing plans to save endangered caribou. The Minister of Environment said it is common practice to consult all stakeholders, but I worry that industrial pressures are playing too big a role in habitat allocation. My concern, that I raised last week during Question Period in the British Columbia Legislature, is that vast tracts of forests will stop being preserved the moment the threatened caribou herds go extinct. With their death, the protection of their habitat will no longer be enforceable under the Species at Risk Act.

We need to protect as much land as possible from all human activities so remaining wildlife populations have the space and resources needed to respond to predation and food supply challenges. The cost of restricting industrial development in B.C.’s forests would be expensive in terms of lost revenue, but it would save us having to micromanage every dwindling species.

Where is our provincial government on species protection? Shockingly, we are one of only two provinces (the other being Alberta) that don’t even have any endangered species legislation. Protecting more habitat for our biological diverse ecosystems should be the goal, and creating a provincial endangered species act would be a good place to start.

At the same time, it’s crucial that critical environmental issues are not framed simplistically. There are very real consequences to allowing caribou herds to become extirpated. And one of the most profound of these will be the subsequent logging of remaining stands of British Columbia’s old growth timber.

Endangered Species Management: Caribou versus Wolves

Over the last few months British Columbia’s controversial wolf cull has been the subject of substantial public dialogue. Like most MLAs, I receive ongoing communication from numerous British Columbians questioning the rationale behind the government’s approach. These communications crescendoed when well known singer Miley Cyrus spoke out against the cull and urged her more than 23 million followers to sign a petition. One of the recent communications I received was from a young woman named Katie. She started off her email saying:

“My name is Katie, and I oppose the wolf cull. In school we learned about predator prey relationships. I know you probably won’t care, and that the government will go ahead with it anyway, but please read this…”

I found her email to be a source of inspiration. Despite her apparent cynicism towards politicians she took the trouble to express her concerns to me (even though she is not a constituent). Her email struck a chord. I campaigned on a promise of evidence-based decision-making and giving youth in our society, the generation that will have to live the consequences of the decisions my generation is making, a voice in the legislature.  And so Claire Hume and I decided to look at BC’s controversial wolf cull a little more closely. What follows is an extensive analysis of the available literature. Our analysis derived from many hours of discussions with scientists, including wildlife biologists, with expertise in the area.  I look forward to your comments.


Mountain-type_Woodland_CaribouIs it justifiable to kill one animal in the name of saving another? What if one of those animals is endangered?

I have always maintained that humans have a moral obligation to prevent endangered species from going extinct, but wildlife management conflicts in which species are pitted against one another are always challenging. For a variety of industrial, social, or budgeting excuses, they are often situations that have been allowed to escalate far past a point of simpler intervention. When you start rationalizing culling one species to protect another you also introduce an ethical element that needs to be considered alongside scientific findings. Let one – or both – of those species become threatened or endangered and your situation becomes immensely worse.

Many ecosystems have been altered so drastically that we can no longer let nature take its course. If we don’t continue to intervene with the mountain caribou crisis we are currently facing in B.C., for example, it will not be long before the remaining herds in the South Selkirk and Peace regions are extirpated. Ideally, our wildlife management system would never let things get this bad. But it happens. And when it does we have no choice but to make tough decisions.

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Credit: Stephane Alberola

In January I wrote to the Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations to ask a number of questions regarding the rationale for the wolf cull in the South Selkirk Mountains and the South Peace region. In response Minister Thompson sent me the supporting data that backed up their wolf cull. I read through it and agreed that with 18 caribou left we needed to take immediate and drastic action to ensure as many caribou as possible survived through another breeding season. Since then, the issue has continued to polarize our province with both sides of the debate claiming science. And in many ways, both sides are right. There is supporting evidence that suggests, for certain situations, that culling wolves is an appropriate wildlife management tool. There are also many other studies that conclude that it is an ineffective solution, one that could make the situation even worse while causing a great deal of animal suffering in the process.

So, where do we go from here? We do a literature review of the available relevant research and we have a conversation. We explore the feasibility of other options and try to find a solution that maximizes protection for threatened species while minimizing the harm done to all other animals. Over the last few months my office has been talking to scientists and analyzing data across disciplines, across species, and across the country (across continents in one case) to learn more about endangered species management.

Lessons from the Vancouver Island Marmot

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Credit: Andrew A. Bryant

In the late 1990s the Vancouver Island marmot population dropped to 70 members. While clear-cut logging in marmot territory was thought to be the initial and main reason their population numbers were plummeting, the landscape changes also led to increased predation. Between 1995 and 2005 predation by wolves, cougars, and eagles accounted for 80% of marmot mortality. Much like the caribou, habitat destruction was the main catalyst for their decline and wolves moved in to take advantage of the new open landscape. I reviewed the group’s marmot recovery plan and contacted them to ask why predator control has never been a part of their strategy.

Their Executive Director, Viki Jackson, said they tried everything they could think of on Mount Washington in place of culling predators: they collared cougars and brought dogs in to scare them away, had “shepherds” stay with the marmot colonies, put dirty human clothes around to deter predators, put up fences, and used bear bangers. Having people camp with the marmots 24/7 worked well, Jackson said, but the other attempts didn’t do much. At the same time, they started to have success with their captive breeding program. Without their active intervention the Vancouver Island marmot would have likely gone extinct years ago.

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Credit: Allen Miller, USFWS

When it comes to endangered species management, Jackson said, there will never be consensus but you have to do everything in your power to protect key females when animal numbers drop to extreme lows. You need to get them over the extinction hump and stable enough that other conservation efforts have a chance to help.

While the specifics of this case do not exactly translate to the needs of larger, transient animals like caribou, I found their imaginative approach to crisis species management inspiring. Threatened species in our province are facing very modern difficulties as they try adapt to new stressors and habitats changed by development. Perhaps we should be trying to combat these challenges with equally modern and innovative solutions before defaulting to predator culling, a practice that only targets one aspect of highly complex situations. With this thought I contacted Dr. Adam Ford from the University of Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology to talk about the use of technology in wildlife research and management.

GPS Management

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) placed on collars, Dr. Adam Ford explained, can be used to pinpoint, with high accuracy, the location of an animal at a given time. It is also possible to track animals and process data almost instantaneously.  Knopff and his colleagues, for example, used GPS to track cougar predation to study predator/prey interactions with immediate data retrieval. “Real time monitoring has enormous potential in the fields of wildlife ecology and conservation, especially for at-risk wildlife,” their report states.

With these systems you can monitor the spatial relationship between an animal and a wide variety of geographical features. Data can be collected that orients an animal in relation to specific points (like feeding grounds), linear features (roads, fence lines, fishing nets, etc.) and  spatially dynamic features (like a mobile herd of livestock). Given these tracking advancements, and the incredible success scientist and conservation officers have had using them in wildlife management settings, it is hard not to feel hopeful imagining the great potential for their use with woodland caribou in BC. I think it would be worth assessing, for example, the feasibility of attaching GPS’ to select members of threatened caribou herds and their neighbouring wolf packs, as suggested by Dr. Ford. You could outfit caribou and wolves with GPS collars, Dr. Ford explained, and program them with a GSM-linked messaging system that warns managers when wolves, say, are within 1 km of the caribou. The managers could then travel to the coordinates shown in the GSM message, and herd the wolves away with aversive conditioning. That way, intervention is case-specific and the helicopter time is used much more efficiently. They use this method in Kenya with elephants to keep them away from crop fields and refer to it as ‘geofencing‘.

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Credit: Brittany H

I appreciate comparing elephants to caribou sounds dangerously like an apples-to-oranges tangent, but the success the Save the Elephants organization has had with GPS-based wildlife management is incredible and certainly worth further consideration. Their Geo-fencing program started ten years ago, in the hopes of reducing human-elephant conflicts. “Kimani was the first elephant to be collared and tested under the Geofencing [system]. He became the focus of the Ol Pejeta management due to his considerable skill in breaking expensive fences. In December 2005 he went on a crop-raiding spree that lasted 21 straight nights.”

In phase one of the project they programmed a virtual fence line (or string of coordinates) into the GPS collar worn by the elephant. If the elephant strays out of his designated range – suggesting he is heading towards farms or villages – his collar sends a text message with his exact location to the reserve managers, who can then mobilize and intervene with negative reinforcements before he does too much damage. After only a few months in his GPS collar, Kimani the elephant had stopped breaking fences. Years later, Kimani has still not returned to his crop-stomping ways.

Another breakthrough, which does not relate to caribou but highlights the brilliant potential for innovative wildlife management strategies, was their elephants and bees hypothesis. “Having found that elephants run from the sound of bees, in 2007, we set up a unique beehive fence line in the area to see if they would deter elephants from raiding crops. To test our hypotheses, we geo-fenced several known crop-raiding elephants to see if their behaviour changed once confronted with large concentration of bees. Thanks to the geo-fencing technology, we were able to witness and confirm that bees did in fact deter elephants from crop raiding.”

Elephant-caribou differences aside, the technology is transferable. “The real-time monitoring algorithms presented here for monitoring African elephants (proximity, geo-fencing, movement rate, and immobility) are widely adaptable and applicable to monitor a variety of behaviours across numerous species,” wrote Wall et al.

While there is considerable consensus within the scientific community about the effective use of technology in wildlife management, I have found concerning disagreement about the role of wolves in caribou declines and the impact of culling them. What follows is a literature review of sorts, of the relevant research that has been done on this subject.

Wolf Cull Literature Review

Apps et al. studied the GPS, very high frequency (VHF), and motion sensor data collected from 541 caribou over 22 years. When the collared animals stopped moving for prolonged periods researchers tracked their location and tried to determine the caribou’s cause of death. In their cause-specific mortality analysis of mountain caribou in B.C. they found that wolves are only one of many important sources of mortality for caribou. The data, though limited, indicates that wolves are not necessarily the primary killer of mountain caribou. In fact, it is possible that bears and cougars may have a stronger impact on caribou numbers. That said, I spoke to Dr. Clayton Apps about his study and he cautioned that the data should not generalized too broadly as it pertains to specific sampling cases. The wider conclusion of his work focused on caribou vulnerability as it relates to landscape changes. Wolf predation was found to be concentrated at lower elevations and areas with a higher concentration of roads, which they used as a navigational advantage when hunting.

caribou mortality graphcaribou mortality chart

 

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Credit: Stephane Alberola

On a similar theme, DeCesare’s data links industrial development with increased encounters between wolves and caribou, which in turn can lead to increased predation. Supporting that notion, other studies have illustrated the considerable impact wolves can have on local ungulate populations. Kortello et al. conducted a study that analyzed the diet and spatial overlap between wolves and cougars in Banff National Park. During their research they observed a 65% decline in local elk populations following the arrival of wolves. This shift caused cougars to switch from a primarily elk winter diet to one that favoured deer and other alternative prey options.

At this point we have a fairly clear picture of a wolf – caribou relationship that has been knocked out of whack in areas that have been altered by industrial development. Wolves eat caribou, even more so when roads and cleared forests give wolves efficient access to a larger range while simultaneously limiting caribou’s own food sources. If we have too few caribou, and too many wolves, it is easy to conclude a wolf cull would be an appropriate response. Some short term studies support that assumption. Bergerud et al. for example suggested that a wolf cull in Northern B.C. and the Yukon lead to increases in ungulate populations, but many studies do not.

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Credit: Tracy Brooks/USFWS

In an incredibly comprehensive and long term study, Wielgus et al. assessed the effects of a wolf cull on reducing livestock depredations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming from 1987–2012 using a 25 year time series. The number of livestock depredated, livestock populations, wolf population estimates, number of breeding pairs, and wolves killed were calculated for the wolf-occupied area of each state for each year. Unsurprisingly, their results describe a positive association between the number of cattle in a given area, the number of cattle killed, and the number of breeding wolf pairs. In other words, as you increase the number of cows and wolves in a given area, instances of wolf-cow conflict will also rise. Incredibly, however, their data also shows a positive, not negative, association with the number of wolves culled the previous year – meaning culling wolves actually led to more livestock being killed by wolves the following year. “The odds of livestock depredations increased 4% for sheep and 5-6% for cattle with increased wolf control” (graphed in Figure 1.). Wielgus et al., hypothesized that livestock depredation increased when wolves were killed because the cull disrupted pack structures, which in turn, lead to a compensatory increase in breeding pairs, more pups, and more hunting (Figure 2.). This trend was consistent until 25% of the breeding wolf pairs had been culled, after which point livestock predations began to decline from its elevated state (graphed in Figure 3.). As the paper stresses, however, “mortality rates exceeding 25% are unsustainable over the long term.” As you can see in Figure 3., to get to the livestock mortality rate that you started with before the wolf cull elevated depredation levels, you would need to kill over 40% of the breeding wolf pairs. Ultimately, Wielgus et al. concluded that their results do not support the ‘remedial control’ hypothesis of predator mortality which predicts a drop in livestock following increased lethal control. “However,” they write, “lethal control of wolves appears to be related to increased depredation in a larger area the following year.”

wolves vs cattle graph

Figure 1: Wolves killed versus cattle depredated: The number of wolves culled the previous year plotted against the number of cattle killed by wolves the following year. The black line indicates that as more wolves were killed through control methods, the remaining wolves killed an increased number of cattle. The dashed lines show the upper and lower limits of the 95% confidence interval for the best fit line.

 

wolf cull graph

Figure 2: Number of breeding wolf pairs versus cattle depredated: The number of breeding wolf pairs present in a region the previous year plotted against the number of cattle killed by wolves the following year. The black line indicates that as the number of breeding wolf pairs increases, so to does the number of cattle they kill. The dashed lines show the upper and lower limits of the 95% confidence interval for the best fit line.

 

wolf kill predation graph
Figure 3: The proportions of wolves killed versus cattle depredated: The proportion of wolves killed the previous year versus the number of cattle killed by wolves the following year. The black line indicates a 2-way negative interaction. Cattle depredation increased with increasing mortality up until roughly 25% of the wolf population was culled, then the number of cattle killed began to decline.

Echoing their conclusion from a different research angle, Brainerd et al. analyzed pooled data from 148 territorial breeding wolves and found increased movement and dispersal of wolves when the pack’s breeding (alpha) pair was removed. In other words, when you kill the alpha wolf pair who keep the rest of the pack in line, remaining wolves are statistically likely to breed more and spread into new territories. This disruption to the ecosystem is likely to trigger other changes and lead to issues to neighbouring environments.

Similarly, Treves et al. found that the removal of carnivores generally only achieves a temporary reduction in livestock depredation before other predators move in to fill their space and eat their prey. Harper et al. also found that killing a large number of wolves in Minnesota did not reduce the following year’s livestock depredation levels. They did notice, however, that a mere increase in human activity decreased the amount of hunting wolves did in the area.

Caribou Health

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Credit: Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game and Fish

Unfortunately, there is yet another layer of concern to add to this complex analysis; caribou health. The University of Alberta’s Center for Conservation Biology began studying this issue after the government of Alberta announced plans to cull up to 80% of wolves in the oil sands in the hopes that it would slow the rate of caribou decline. They conducted dietary analyses had found that 60% of the caribou winter diet consisted of lichen. “This food source is particularly vital to pregnant caribou as it is high in glucose, which is the primary food source to the fetus,” they wrote. If female caribou do not have adequate access to lichen, they explained, it compromises their pregnancies and lowers birth rates.

“They [the government of Alberta] argue that climate change and habitat disturbance are causing deer, the preferred prey of wolves, to move north into the oil sands. Wolves are said to increase in response, increasing the risk of predation on caribou. Our work suggests that there may be better options.”

The conservation biologists suggested that reducing human and industrial activities in lichen rich feeding grounds may be a more effective mitigation strategy than killing wolves.

“Moreover,” they continued, “owing to the preference of wolves for deer, removing wolves from the population to protect caribou could actually place the ecosystem at markedly greater risk by accelerating the expansion of deer into this ecosystem.”

The Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology has picked up on this theme too. “Caribou decline may be related to too much energy spent on just trying to stay alive,” explained national park warden John Flaa. “Over the past summer, the three caribou mortalities I investigated had no body fat, which is bound to have an effect on calf production. Census results here show that the proportion of calves in the herd are below replacement level.”

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Credit: Gary Kramer, USFWS

Accessing an adequate food supply has been an ongoing issue for elk too, especially across the border in Wyoming. Their Game and Fish Wildlife Division, however, has managed to greatly inflate herd size over the last few decades by feeding them hay every winter. Not surprisingly, issues of disease began to increase as more elk congregated at feeding grounds. As Creech et al. explained; “High seroprevalance for Brucella abortus among elk on Wyoming feedgrounds suggests that supplemental feeding may influence parasite transmission and disease dynamics by altering the rate at which elk contact infectious materials in their environment.” Thankfully, they have also since shown that spreading out feeding areas reduces cross contamination infection rates by 70%.

This is not an ideal solution, of course, but it has been quite successful in many respects. Elk populations in Wyoming are now strong enough to support hunting, an activity that more than covers the cost of the feeding program. “Elk hunters spent $49.9 million in 2012… The program cost $558 per animal and generated $1,856 in ‘economic return’ per [elk].”

Conclusion

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

Credit: USFWS

As Dr. Adam Ford wrote in his summary paper Science, Uncertainty, and Ethics in the Alberta Wolf Cull; “It is past time that we adopt a more creative view of how we can coexist with caribou and wolves in an industrialized landscape.” After reviewing the literature available on this and related issues I agree. While this is an undeniably complex situation with a lot at stake, I think we should be doing more to learn from innovative wildlife managers around the world.

We could try creating a geo-fence between wolves and threatened caribou like conservation officers do with their problem elephants in Kenya. Or get ‘caribou shepherds’ to track GPS collared herds, intervening when they are at risk of predation; much like the ‘marmot shepherds’ who saved endangered (admittedly easier to track) colonies on Vancouver Island. We could explore the feasibility of capturing, sterilizing, and re-releasing the alpha breeding pair in a pack of wolves; thereby reducing the growth of a wolf population while keeping the governing pack structure in place. Given the above concerns about food availability for caribou, as well as the effective use of feed lots elsewhere, I think we should also consider supplementing the diets of the South Selkirk and Peace region herds with a stable supply of lichen over the winter. It would be a relatively cost effective, simple, and could potentially be game-changing for our struggling caribou.

Some of these solutions may sound crazy, but when you consider we are currently spending millions of dollars to indiscriminately shoot wolves from helicopters, I would argue they potentially offer for more cheaper and less-crazy alternatives.

Acknowlegements

We are sincerely grateful to the many scientists who made time to talk to us about their work.