A controversial new study recommends ongoing government-approved killing of wolves, in combination with habitat protection and conservation, as the best way to help save endangered caribou populations in the short-term.
More than 700 wolves were shot dead from helicopters or poisoned with bait laced with strychnine in Alberta from 2005-2012 in the name of protecting the dwindling Little Smoky caribou herd. About 100 more wolves have been killed each year since then.
The study, printed in a recent Canadian Journal of Zoology, concluded that despite ethical debates over wolf culls, delays in killing wolves to reduce the number of caribou they kill would dramatically increase the risk of caribou populations being wiped out.
But the publication is drawing controversy from some researchers, including one of the world's leading wolf experts, Paul Paquet, who says the report and the way wolves are being killed is unethical and should never have taken place.
“This is a true case of scapegoating wolves for something that we're all responsible for,” Paquet said. “There's no effort to address the ultimate causes of caribou endangerment – industrial development over numerous years.”
The study's researchers concluded predator reduction in the short-term, when combined with long-term habitat conservation, restoration and management, “may be the only path forward for recovering many woodland caribou populations.”
Even if all industrial development on caribou ranges was to cease, the researchers concluded it would take about 30 years, likely longer, for habitat conditions to favour caribou over moose and wolves.
There are only about 100 animals left in the Little Smoky caribou herd and the study suggests the herd has stabilized as a result of the wolf control program, while other herds continued to decline.
Dave Hervieux, the study's lead researcher and provincial caribou management coordinator for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said the Little Smoky herd was in a state of dramatic decline before the wolf control program – and now the herd as stabilized.
“In the absence of a predator program, the Little Smoky caribou would most certainly be gone now. It was a critical intervention and the accomplishments of the wolf control program are that they are not extinct,” Hervieux said.
“The landscape has been so disturbed both within their range and outside their range, that the ecological processes are a bit whacky right now. Nevertheless, the animals are still there and there's an option to do a better job in the future.”
To test if wolf culls are an effective way to recover caribou, researchers compared the effects of killing wolves in the Little Smoky to an adjacent woodland caribou population in the Redrock-Prairie Creek area where there was no wolf control program.
Researchers captured and radio-collared 92 and 80 adult female caribou in the Little Smoky and Redrock populations, respectively. They maintained, on average, 25 radio-collared females per population per year.
Researchers monitored annual survival for the 172 adult female caribou and calf recruitment from 2000 through 2012. The wolf cull in the Little Smoky began in 2005 and continues.
They concluded wolf removal translated to a 4.6 per cent increase in mean population growth rate of the Little Smoky population, mostly through improvements in calf survival. In contrast, the Red Rock Prairie Creek control population saw a 4.7 per cent decline.
“The Little Smoky caribou have stabilized,” Hervieux said.
Threatened throughout their range, woodland caribou conservation is perhaps the most widespread wildlife conservation issue currently facing Canada. Across provincial, territorial and federal jurisdictions in Canada, woodland caribou are listed as threatened or endangered.
Natural predator-prey prey systems have been significantly altered in most of Alberta's caribou range, largely due to habitat changes and destruction from industrial development such as forestry, oil and gas development, and mining and mineral exploration.
Industrial development destroys and alters older forests preferred by caribou. The younger forests, shrubs and grass that grow in place of older forests is preferred by moose, deer and elk and lead to greater populations and distribution of these ungulates, and in turn, more wolves.
In addition, roads, pipelines and cutlines make it much easier for wolves to travel into caribou range. Research indicates wolf predation was found to be the leading cause of caribou mortality in western Alberta.
Mark Hebblewhite, an associate professor at the University of Montana's Wildlife Biology Program who has studied both wolves and caribou, said 11 of 13 woodland caribou herds are declining very rapidly, about 50 per cent every eight years.
Hebblewhite, who was hired as an independent university academic to help analyze the government-delivered wolf cull and is a co-author of the publication, said the Little Smoky herd is among the fastest declining and more threatened from a habitat perspective.
“We show that really, all we did was buy a bit of time, and hardly recovered caribou. The population was stable during the wolf control, but did not increase,” said Hebblewhite.
“In contrast, all other adjacent herds continued to decline. So we concluded that wolf control without effective habitat conservation is merely buying time in a more degraded world.”
The publication printed in the Canadian Journal of Zoology and the government's ongoing wolf slaughter in the Little Smoky area is steeped in controversy.
Paquet said shooting and poisoning of wolves for this purpose is “unscientific and unethical,” adding the cull will be ineffective in the long term because habitat loss, not wolves, is driving the caribou's decline.
Not only that, Paquet said killing wolves indiscriminately at levels sufficient to suppress populations disrupts pack social structure and upsets stability of established territories, allowing more wolves to breed while promoting the immigration of wolves from nearby populations.
“The whole thing is unethical and I have been very vocal from the beginning,” he said.
“Killing the number of animals they did, and using the methods they did, is completely outrageous.”
From 2005-12, the wolf cull saw 579 wolves shot from helicopters, and a total of 154 wolves poisoned. The cull continues, and the province reports about 100 wolves are killed each year since 2012 in the Little Smoky region.
Wolf packs are located from a helicopter and one or more individuals per pack are captured and fitted with VHF radio collars. There are attempts to shoot all remaining members of each pack throughout winter from a helicopter, with the radio-collared wolves killed at end of winter.
Bait stations are also set up, using strychnine, to target wolves that cannot be found or removed using aerial shooting. Strychnine is permitted for use in Alberta for the purpose of predator control.
Trapping has been allowed to continue at the same time as the cull.
Prior to the initiation of the wolf cull in 2005, provincial information shows fur trappers reported a total of 49 wolves taken in the Little Smoky area, and 22 wolves trapped from the Redrock-Prairie Creek area.
From 2005-12, fur trappers reported a total of 108 more wolves killed in trap lines in the Little Smokey region, and another 59 were trapped in the Redrock region.
Since 2000, there were almost 700 animals accidentally caught in the trapping neck snares. Among them were three grizzly bears, 12 black bears, two caribou, 163 cougars and 62 deer, 40 eagles, 70 lynx, 12 moose and 12 owls.
Paquet said wolves are being killed in inhumane ways.
“If you're going to be killing wolves, certainly in mass numbers, then the very least you would be thinking is euthanasia as intended. How do you kill animals in a humane way?” he said.
Paquet said while the study has been carried out by highly respected scientists, it is a study that should never have been done and would never have passed by institutional animal ethics committees that adhere to Canadian Council on Animal Care guidelines.
In addition, he said the risks of non-lethal painful injuries from poison and 28 associated deaths to large numbers of non-target animals during the cull, such as ravens, coyotes, red foxes martens, weasels, fishers and three lynx, are likewise not ethically acceptable.
“I think the issue is that many biologists believe that science gives us permission to do whatever we want, regardless of the consequences for other species or the ethical implications – a very slippery slope,” Paquet said.
“The conclusions aren't warranted based on the results. The results are very vague and difficult to arrive at any substantive conclusion. I am disappointed the study was approved and ever carried out.”
Hebblewhite defended the Canadian Journal of Zoology publication, but agrees the issue should be controversial.
“Up until now there has been no official public record or information available to the people of Canada, or other scientists, to view the data and ask themselves if it's worth it,” he said. “Now they can and I hope they do. This issue should be controversial and very distasteful to people.”
Having worked most of his career for wolf conservation, Hebblewhite said he finds this “whole sordid story quite depressing.”
He said wolf control has bought time so far, as Alberta has done almost nothing to effectively protect caribou habitat and this “whole mess” has come about because of the government's unrestricted energy development policies.
“This is what the cost of Alberta's addiction to cheap oil has cost us, and now that we are finally seeing the bill for caribou conservation, wolves seem to be bearing it for us,” he said.
“But, do I think that caribou are worth conserving? Absolutely, yes, and we are also legally obligated to do so. Caribou are endangered in Canada, wolves are not, despite how interesting they are. This just highlights how messy real world conservation is.”
Hebblewhite said under the Species At Risk Act, effective habitat protection for many of Alberta's caribou herds would need to be such a 180-degree turn from the standard operating practices that he has deep concerns whether they could be realistically put in place.
He said one estimate puts the cost of buying out oil and gas leases in just the Little Smoky caribou herd range at $656 million. That does not even begin to take into account the issue of forestry.
“For herds as at risk as the Little Smoky, it is hard for me to see how anything short of a full moratorium of energy and forestry, complete with lease buyouts and the like, would do anything meaningful for caribou conservation,” he said.
Hebblewhite said extreme measures are called for, or caribou herds will die off.
“If people are so opposed to killing wolves for ethical or moral reasons alone, and do not see the broader conservation picture of caribou and the boreal forest, then they need to accept also that some caribou herds are going to disappear in Alberta in our lifetimes and sooner,” he said.
“The world is a complex place, and in the 21st century, conservation involves trade-offs between the lesser of two evils often, and moralistic or idealism is no match for the global market forces of the oil and gas industry.”
Government officials say since the federal government released the boreal caribou recovery strategy in October 2012, there have been 136 new wells drilled in the Little Smoky caribou range.
“The Government of Alberta has taken steps to minimize new disturbances in the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges by not selling further mineral rights and requiring new restrictions on seismic activity,” said Jamieson Hanlon, Public Affairs Officer for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
“Suspended holds on the sale of new minerals rights have been placed in some areas within critical caribou habitat. We will continue to evaluate additional tools in further developing caribou range plans across the province.'”
Hervieux said the wolf cull in the Little Smoky area is evaluated every year, and anticipates it will be ongoing.
“We might not have to do it every year into the future, in that we would have to do it in a periodic enough manner so that the population didn't go into a critical zone with respect to heavy decline and low numbers,” he said.
“We need to make improvements with respect to habitat management, we need to get going on habitat restoration, but until we get there, we'll need to do it, perhaps not every year, but in a sufficient periodic manner to avoid losing gains we have made.”
Alberta is open to introducing wolf culls in other areas.
Hervieux said Alberta's woodland caribou policy indicates the government will consider “effective management of excessive mortality.
“As of today, there is no predator management occurring in northern Alberta, however, there could be a program on an as-needed basis into the future,” he said.
“The policy points out we're going to have to take a variety of different measures to get this beat. There could be a program next year, next month, but right now I can't say. There isn't any approved plan.”
Hervieux, did say, however, that the Cold Lake caribou population, as well as a caribou herd on the east side of the Athabasca River, are in real trouble.
“The Cold Lake population at this point is critically endangered. For the last five years, 20 per cent of adult females die every year, and survival of calves to the end of the first winter has been about zero to four calves per 100 hundred females,” he said.
“Another example is the east side of Athabasca River. For that population, adult female mortality was 12 per cent, and the calf survival is from one to seven calves surviving per 100 females. This isn't rocket science.”
Hervieux said there are other ideas to bring caribou numbers back up, such as maternity pens and caribou translocations, but he said he believes wolf control is the only practical way in the short-term.
“The levels of mortality on caribou are unsustainable,” he said. “The mortality is as a result of us, it's not the wolves' fault, they are just doing what wolves do, but the wolf populations are greater than they were before,” he said.
“Is predator control something we want to do? Not at all. Is it something we know how to do? Yes. Can it be done in a responsible manner? Yes. Does it need to be associated with good habitat management? You bet.”