The cull of the wild: management for industry, not wolves

British Columbia’s government-sanctioned wolf cull is ecologically, ethically and economically indefensible.

The government of British Columbia’s controversial wolf cull program, which has killed 1,709 wolves since initiated in 2015, has been extended another five years. In January 2022, the province released the results of its Predator Reduction for Caribou Recovery Engagement Survey. Nearly 60% of respondents opposed killing wolves ostensibly to save caribou. To date, BC taxpayers have already shelled out more than $6 million for what many scientists, conservationists, and British Columbians have condemned as an “inhumane” slaughter of wolves that has ambiguous scientific support as a conservation measure for endangered caribou. 

Over the past four winters alone, the province has spent this exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars to trap, hunt, and shoot wolves from low-flying aircraft. Considering the program has been operational for seven years, following decades of “unofficial” government-sanctioned aerial gunning, poisoning and sterilization, five more years of killing wolves could bring collective costs well beyond $10 million. More importantly, this program will continue to incur a grave additional cost – the suffering and lives of hundreds, if not thousands more wolves. This price is ethically and ecologically unjustifiable.

The level of human-caused wolf mortality in BC can only be described as staggering. In addition to the number of wolves dying at the hands of lethal control programs, the BC government estimates that some 1,200 wolves are killed annually because of recreational hunting and trapping, all sanctioned and encouraged by the province.

Notably, where the welfare and humane treatment of wild and domestic animals falls under provincial jurisdiction, BC is one of two Canadian provinces that has not adopted the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) standards when revising their regulations. As such, BC’s wolf kill program is not in accordance with this national standard.

In a 2016 report written by two members of the Provincial Mountain Caribou Recovery Science Team, the authors concede: “There are no humane methods to directly reduce wolf numbers, but aerial removal is the only method of killing enough wolves (and entire packs) to reduce wolf densities with no risk of by-catch.”​ Five years later, the method remains the same, but the province’s narrative on aerial removal has shifted to “the most effective and humane method”. Further, the BC government asserts that their approach to predator killing follows the current American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines for euthanasia of wildlife in field conditions – a claim that is more aspirational than actual and holds no accountability. Killing wolves by aerial gunning does not conform with the guidelines.

Both CCAC and AVMA guidelines consider shooting an effective method of humane killing if carried out by experts and the animal is shot at close range. To render the animal immediately insensitive to pain, the bullet must strike the brain or in less favourable conditions, the heart or lungs. This may be achievable from the ground but delivering an accurate shot to a moving target from a moving platform like a helicopter is a very challenging task with limited efficacy to reduce suffering, even for the most skilled of marksmen. Regardless of the outcome, being chased and targeted by a low-flying aircraft places the animal under tremendous emotional stress. Without question, the province unreservedly sanctions inhumane and cruel methods of killing wolves and then explicitly encourages the continuation of their usage.

Wolf walking on a beach.
Photo by Florent Nicolas.

In a November 2021 article in The Tyee, scientists at the University of Alberta and University of Victoria, including Raincoast large carnivore expert Dr. Chris Darimont, cautioned that “keeping caribou herds afloat would require the extraordinary persecution of wolves, carried out over large landscapes and over long periods (perhaps on the order of decades).” Wolves are not only sentient beings that have the capacity to feel pain and emotion, but also make up populations that are extremely resilient. Thus, five more years of lethal control means BC wolves will be caught in yet another enduring cycle of suffering and replenishment, only to face more suffering again.

The BC government has yet to conduct an environmental assessment of a provincial management scheme for wolves that has always relied on killing, via recreational hunting and lethal control, as its focus. Wolves play a profound role in the ecosystems in which they live, influencing a variety of other flora and fauna. Removing wolves from ecosystems can adversely affect ecological and evolutionary relationships, causing substantial changes in the number, behaviour, and distribution of plants and animals. Environments without wolves can suffer from severe ecological imbalances and environmental impoverishment.

Although killing wolves might provide temporary relief for caribou, long-term and permanent recovery of endangered herds is an unlikely outcome. At best, culling wolves is wildlife management masquerading as conservation in an effort to avoid doing what is clearly necessary, i.e., protect caribou from the ecological harm caused by people and industry. Caribou have co-evolved with and depend on increasingly rare old-growth forests to shield them from predators and provide the lichen they eat. Accordingly, safeguarding intact old growth forests and recovering degraded habitats are the most important aspects of caribou recovery. Recent research from the University of Alberta suggests that restoration of caribou habitat can reduce not only wolf predatory efficiency, but also regional wolf density. The dilemma, however, is that despite these restoration efforts, including wolf control, landscapes are not going to favour caribou again for a very long time, if ever. 

Owing largely to combined adverse effects of industrial forestry and climate change, habitat required by many mountain caribou herds is unlikely to be viable in 50 to 100 years. With this outlook, is such a large experiment in wolf control, given its limited signal of efficacy and an unrelenting appetite of industry, worth the carnage?

A version of this article was first published in the the Times Colonist.

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Chelsea Greer hanging a wildlife camera.