BC announces wolf cull to protect endangered Selkirks caribou

BC announces wolf cull to protect endangered Selkirks caribou

Conservation Northwest / Jan 21, 2015 / Caribou

This past week, the British Columbia government announced it will begin using helicopter sharpshooters to remove two wolf packs in southeast BC to protect endangered mountain caribou (also called woodland caribou). We generally do not support predator controls as a management tool except in rare and extreme cases.

The controversial action is a last ditch effort to save the South Selkirks mountain caribou herd whose range includes northeastern Washington, northwestern Idaho and southeastern British Columbia. The South Selkirks herd is the southernmost caribou population in North America, and the only remaining caribou in the lower 48 states. The herd, which is largely isolated from other caribou herds to the north, consists of an estimated 18 animals in 2014, down from 46 in 2009.

In 2006, BC based Wildsight, Conservation Northwest and several other conservation groups participated in the British Columbia government’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan(MCRIP) to ensure that habitat protections and population recovery measures were properly mandated and implemented to protect these highly endangered animals.

The MCRIP has since protected more than five million acres of mountain caribou habitat from logging and road building and another roughly three million acres from motorized winter recreation – by any measure significant habitat protections in the biologically rich Inland Temperate Rainforest of southeastern BC.

The BC Mountain Caribou Recovery Science Team, which includes top government scientists and independent consulting biologists with decades of experience, included provisions for predator management (wolves and cougars) in their 2006 recommendations which formed the basis for the MCRIP. Though wolves remain endangered statewide in Washington, they are fairly abundant in BC and are not considered At Risk.

Predators are often scapegoated when government policies and human caused habitat loss result in reduction of ungulates. We share the public sentiment against wolf kills. But we recognize that in some rare cases it may be necessary to keep a globally unique animal like mountain caribou on the landscape and, in so doing maintain its protected habitats.

Our groups have communicated a clear and consistent position to the BC government on predator controls for the benefit of mountain caribou persistence. We could only support predator removals if:

  • The habitat of the herd in question was “effectively protected” from further development impacts and restored where possible
  • There was clear evidence linking wolves to caribou deaths
  • The predator controls proposed were carefully targeted to remove the wolves responsible

We have also consistently and forcefully opposed a broad-brush strategy of predator controls through much liberalized wolf hunting and trapping rules as inhumane, ecologically destructive and ineffective for protecting caribou. In this instance, we believe the criteria we set forth for lending support to wolf control actions in the South Selkirks have been met. However, our groups have not endorsed the April 2014 Provincial Grey Wolf Management Plan and believe predator control should only be used as a last resort in protecting species at risk; nor do we support wolf control actions in the Peace region as announced by the BC government.

Though the wolf kills announced this week are heartrending, the continuation of these caribou herds, listed as Endangered in both the United States and Canada, is of great importance.

This decision comes after years of field research and policy debate over the controversial and emotionally charged issue. Most herds are in decline as a result of widespread changes in their old growth forest habitat from the cumulative effects of rampant logging, road building and myriad other development. The science is clear that the habitat fragmentation and the conversion of old growth forests have made mountain caribou more vulnerable to predation.

In fall of 2009 the BC Mountain Caribou Recovery Science Team confirmed the need for wolf controls for herds where caribou numbers are very low (fewer than 50 animals) and where wolf predation is expected to hasten their demise before the benefits of other recovery actions (e.g. habitat protections and restoration) are realized. It’s a short term, desperate strategy to grow herds and heal degraded habitat to the point where predation is less of an issue.

There will be intense pressure to reopen those habitats to logging, road building and motorized recreation if the caribou disappear – habitat that is critical to thousands of other plants and animals.

Removing wolves may not ultimately lead to mountain caribou recovery. We recognize and accept that risk because at this moment there are no other choices. But wolves reproduce and disperse well – they will return to the area. If they are extirpated from southeastern BC, northeast Washington and northwestern Idaho, woodland caribou will not.

Clearly there is more work to be done to protect caribou habitat, particularly in the valley bottom corridors where caribou are most vulnerable to predation and habitat loss. But that doesn’t preclude the current need to protect the South Selkirks caribou herd now.

For more perspective on this announcement, please see this column by ecologist Barry Wilson.

Editor’s Note: We recently spoke with biologists working in the area about the location of the Salmo Wolf Pack that dens in northeastern Washington and occasionally ventures into southeast British Columbia. Based on collar data, the Salmo Pack is not believed to be in British Columbia at this time, nor is it near collared members of the South Selkirks caribou herd.