War on wolves fails test of reason, efficacy and morality

The real culprit in the decline of the caribou is human activity

The Vancouver Sun

December 18, 2008\
By Chris Darimont and Chris Genovali

With dismay we read Larry Pynn’s article (Wolves killed to protect caribou, Dec. 15) regarding the B.C. government’s clandestine war on wolves. What an astounding folly-in-the-making, and on several grounds.Emboldened by the forest industry and some hunting groups, the province has demonized and scapegoated wolves for the decline of everything from marmots to mountain caribou. In fact, it seems official government policy is to cull, sterilize and otherwise persecute these animals.

Wolves are a frequent target by governments looking for an explanation for the falling population of favoured species, but they are not always to blame photo: Doug Brown

The ultimate reason why the endangered mountain caribou are on the way out is because their old-growth habitat was logged and fragmented into a landscape that can neither feed them nor provide the security they need.

The relentless destruction of B.C.’s forests by humans has conspired to deprive mountain caribou of their life requisites while exposing them to levels of predation they did not evolve with and are incapable of adapting to. Consequently, caribou are on a long-term slide to extinction; not because of what wolves and other predators are doing but because of what humans have already done.

Human activities have been shown to affect the kill rate of wolves and other predators. Industrial forestry, roads, compaction, and removal of snow for recreational and industrial purposes affect wolf movements and predatory behaviour. Accordingly, restriction or elimination of these activities might reduce kill rates.

If kill rates can be reduced by managing humans and their activities rather than lethal control, then managers will need to decide whether industrial and recreational activities have primacy over the conservation needs of endangered caribou. Clearly, this is a decision that politicians and managers would prefer to avoid, but failure to seriously address alternatives to killing wolves exposes the real motivation.

Our understanding is that the government’s own analysis shows that grizzly bears, black bears and cougars have been most often responsible for predation on mountain caribou. Given they know talk of “culling” grizzlies would set off a firestorm of protest (and rightly so), it becomes more acceptable for the province to scapegoat wolves.

Last year there was an announcement by the province to remove bag limits for wolves in mountain caribou habitat, a decree that encouraged trophy hunters to kill as many wolves in the region as they possibly could.

Controlling wolves by lethal or non-lethal sterilization techniques is technically unsound as a long-term management tool. Lethal control has a dubious record of success as a means of depressing numbers of wolves over time, because removing individual wolves may fragment packs and allow more wolves to breed.

Likewise, the effectiveness of sterilization has not been established. Problems include the difficulty of identifying the dominant breeding pair of wolves in a pack, and, even if they are identified, the changing nature of pack hierarchies means that a breeding pair one year may not be the breeding pair the next.

Disconcertingly, the potential impacts of control efforts for wolves as highly evolved and complex social predators are poorly understood. In wolves, we observe a suite of social traits only shared with primates: a social hierarchy, division of labour, year-round integration of age and sex classes, cooperation during hunting, and communal care of young. Killing adults with dependent young — especially in a small pack or one with a large litter — may ultimately be the same as killing the young directly.

Moreover, high levels of mortality may reduce genetic variability and affect evolutionary potential of populations. With this understanding of possible negative impacts, it is biologically indefensible to pursue management goals that encourage high levels of mortality.

So at the end of the day, this plan generates little effect or certainty other than dead or mutilated wolves and much suffering. And this is the biggest failure of all. Scientists and managers can argue with each other until their voices are hoarse about the plan’s need or efficacy, but there is little room for argument on moral grounds.

We propose that the slaughter of these sentient beings, or forceful removal of their reproductive organs, is morally indefensible, and we suspect the majority of Canadians would agree.

Chris Darimont is a Research Scientist with Raincoast Conservation and the University of California.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation.