Controversial wolf sterilization plan scrapped

By Cathy Ellis
Rocky Mountain Outlook
October 23, 2008 7:00 AM

A controversial government-endorsed University of Alberta experiment to sterilize adult wolves and kill off other members of the packs in order to boost elk numbers has been scrapped.

Researchers will continue to study wolves in the Clearwater area, but Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) says their decision was based on advice of a science panel that was struck in the face of a public outcry over the proposed experiment.

But, they say they still want to boost elk numbers there and are looking at reducing the number of elk tags for hunters, while at the same time considering selective destruction of some wolves and encouraging groups to offer bounties for the carnivores.

Darcy Whiteside, a department spokesman, said there are other ways to deal with what his department says are dwindling elk numbers in that region and to manage wolves they say have some of the highest densities found anywhere in North America.

“Our concern is ungulate populations in the Clearwater, so we’ll be looking at access management and habitat enhancement and reviewing the hunting allocations in that area,” he said.

“There are some opportunities outside of our organization to promote wolf hunting. We can work with the Alberta Fish and Game Association and the Sundre (Fish and Game Association) used to offer a compensation program,” Whiteside added.

“Now of course in extreme situations, we can go in and do population management. We aren’t shooting wolves now, but there’s always that option available. It’s always on the table”

A request to speak with Anne Hubbs, a provincial biologist that was working closely with the University of Alberta on the first phase of the experiment, was refused. A media spokesman was appointed from Edmonton.

Dr. Evelyn Merrill, the lead scientist on the project at the U of A, refused to speak to the Outlook, saying she preferred to speak with a “more reputable” reporter, before promptly hanging up.

The aim of the university’s five-year experiment was to keep wolf packs small, so that elk herds may increase, not only to boost threatened caribou numbers, but also to bolster elk numbers for humans to hunt in that region bordering the national parks.

The researchers said at the time that wolf packs are productive and wolf densities are high in that region, ranging from 19 wolves per 1,000-sq. kms in the foothills to five wolves over the same distance in the mountains.

As well, they indicated current hunting rates in Alberta are well below the levels needed to even temporarily reduce wolf populations, despite government-endorsed wolf trapping courses, long hunting and trapping seasons and no bag limits.

Just last month, SRD officials met with U of A scientists and researchers, as well as a science panel made up of seven wolf experts from across North America, to discuss the research.

While the various positions were far from unanimous, Whiteside said SRD is not proceeding with sterilization of the wolves and pack reduction because that technique is unlikely to be used for ungulate population management in the Clearwater.

As well, he said it was deemed the research results may not be directly transferable to other areas and the proposed numbers of packs “to have been manipulated” would not be enough to show changes in ungulate populations.

“Of course, public sentiment is going to have a role,” said Whiteside.

Paul Paquet, considered one of North America’s leading wolf experts and who was appointed to the province’s committee to examine the merits of this experiment, welcomed the province’s decision.

When it first came to light earlier this year, Paquet called the sterilization experiment “destructive and morally reprehensible”, arguing sterilization could prove dangerous to the long-term viability of wolves in the region.

“Even though we weren’t all in agreement, I am pleased they seem to have listened to the comments from the science committee,” said Paquet, who holds a PhD in zoology.

Jim Pissot, executive director of Canmore-based Defenders of Wildlife Canada, who has continually labelled the research proposal as “atrocious”, said this is a good news story coming out of the province.

“Albertans and people around the country saw through it and raised their concerns. I haven’t seen such an outcry,” he said.

“This was a misguided wildlife program that was nothing more than wolf reduction cloaked in a poorly disguised research design. It simply would have repeated a failed experiment done over a five-year period in the Yukon.”

Pissot said people continue to be mesmerized by artificially high numbers of elk west of Sundre that occurred as a result of accelerated forest clear-cutting in the 1970s, which produced ideal elk habitat for a few years.

“The area probably supports all the elk it can right now if you look at the long-term trends,” he said. “There is no excuse to engage in predator control to boost numbers.’

But the Alberta Fish & Game Association, which voiced support for the U of A experiment earlier this year, is not happy.

Maurice Nadeau, the group’s president, said the problem in the region is there are too many wolves.

“Wolves by far kill more elk and big game than hunters and trappers do,” he said,

“To help boost elk populations by reducing hunter participation of the harvest in those areas, that is totally backwards. The province should deal with wolves, not elk,” he said.

“The people who make a living by hunting elk want out of there. There’s no ungulates left or very few because of the wolf populations. It seems every day we’re banging our heads against the wall.”

The province says an average of 60 to 80 individual wolf pelts are taken by hunters and trappers a year.

In 2006, 240 elk tags were available, in 2007 there were 153 available and this year there were 70. All were for six-point, or larger, bull elk, covering an area from the Bighorn River to Burnt Timber Creek.

Whiteside said researchers with the University of Alberta would continue to collar and monitor wolves in the areas to assess other aspects of wolf ecology.

“It will be looking at other aspects of wolf ecology: survival rates, pack aspects, pack behaviour and population studies,” he said.

“Understanding wolves in the area is always a benefit, especially when we know it’s going to impact other wildlife.”

Parks Canada indicated its opposition to any wolf control for increasing elk densities, saying predator control in the 1960s created unnaturally high prey densities and problems that are still prevalent.

In particular, they had concerns about two wolf packs whose territories take in both provincial and federal lands, including a known wolf pack near Saskatchewan River Crossing between Banff and Jasper.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.