Debate rages over wolf bounties

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The war on wolves continues in Alberta with hundreds killed every year – but the provincial government now appears interested in trying to stop third-party bounties on wolves.

Wolves in this province are shot from helicopters or poisoned with bait laced with strychnine in the name of saving endangered caribou, killed by private landowners when they kill livestock and hunted and trapped without a quota system.

But wildlife experts say there is also a growing practice of promoting indiscriminate and random killing of wolves, with municipalities and counties, and hunting and trapping groups, paying out bounties on dead wolves.

Experts say municipalities lobbied by ranchers concerned with cattle-killing wolves, and hunting groups who blame wolves for killing the animals they want to hunt, are essentially taking over wolf management in Alberta.

“There’s an open war on wolves in this province,” said Dwight Rodtka, who was Alberta’s predator control and problem wildlife specialist for 39 years until his retirement in 2013.

“Everything is slanted towards killing as many wolves as possible and it’s mainly because a lot of people feel threatened by wolves.”

Dave Kay, commercial wildlife and priority species specialist with Alberta Parks and Environment, said the province is looking at ways to regulate against the use of wolf bounties by municipalities and hunting and trapping groups.

“It might be legal, but socially it’s really not that acceptable and we certainly don’t promote them,” said Kay. “We’ve had some discussions internally about how we can regulate against the use of bounties on wolves.”

Trappers and hunters must have a valid Alberta licence, but there is no quota for wolves, so they can kill as many as they wish. There are regulations on hunting and trapping seasons and wolf kills must be registered in many areas, though not all.

Under existing provincial regulations, any landowner can shoot a wolf on or within eight kilometres of their land, and any Albertan, without a licence, can shoot a wolf for about nine months of the year on land to which they have right of access.

In addition, any person or organization can, for any reason, offer a bounty on any species that can legally be killed in Alberta, which means wolves, cougars and coyotes and a host of other wildlife.

Bounties on wolves ended more than 40 years ago in Canada, but were reintroduced in Alberta in 2007 by hunting, trapping and farming groups, as well as municipalities like Bonnyville, Cardston, Smoky River and Northern Lights.

Bounty payments can range anywhere from $75 to $500, and Rodtka said at least 1,425 wolves were reported killed by bounty hunters in the last five years, though he suspects the actual number of dead wolves is much higher.

He said it seems the province has allowed wolf bounties to appease ranchers whose livestock have been killed, even though there’s a government compensation program, and hunting groups who think wolves are reducing the number of ungulates available to them.

Rodtka said the failure of bounties to noticeably reduce wolf populations, or to significantly increase game species for hunters, is the main reason bounties are not widely used today in most jurisdictions.

“Predator bounty programs have been found to be ineffective by wildlife professionals, and they use killing methods that cause needless suffering and jeopardize wildlife conservation,” he said.

Rodtka said his main concerns centre on bounties being issued by hunting and trapping groups, including the Alberta Sheep Foundation. The foundation did not respond to a request for an interview.

“You have a private outfit that’s providing money to local trappers all up and down the eastern slopes to kill wolves at $350 a hit,” said Rodtka, who is co-author of two recent scientifically peer-reviewed paper on bounties and inhumane snaring methods.

“You’ve got a private interest group who wants to manage public wildlife. They want to kill wolves so theoretically they can kill more big game. They’re killing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of wolves.”

Bounty hunters are known to use shooting, lethal trapping, and poisoning to kill as many animals as possible, but when it comes to trapping wolves, Rodtka said they prefer to use killing neck snares.

He said bounties have dramatically increased the amount of snaring that’s been done along the eastern slopes of the Rockies, including on lands that run up against Alberta’s national parks.

“Because wolves are worth about $300 now, trappers go out there and it’s basically hobby trapping,” he said. “With fur prices now, nobody wants to skin a wolf. It’s crazy.”

Rodtka said research has shown neck snares are inadequate for consistently and quickly rendering canids unconscious, causing suffering and delayed deaths, and are therefore inhumane.

“The snaring is grossly inhumane and cruel,” said Rodtka, who, during his time with the government, trained people how to use snares. “The animal can die anywhere from 15 minutes to a week.”

Specifically, Rodtka said it is almost impossible to stop blood flow to and from the brain by tightening a neck snare around the neck because of collateral blood circulation. Also, it’s difficult to collapse the trachea due to its rigid cartilaginous rings and adjacent musculature.

“In an attempt to escape, animals frequently chew the snare, and cut their mouths and break their teeth,” he said. “If they do not escape, they then suffer a slow death with the snare embedded in their neck.”

Rodtka said there’s not even a mandatory check time on snares.

“The majority of trappers are what I call weekend warriors. They go out once a week to check snares and so the animal can be suffering a long time,” he said. “It’s wrong.”

The other problem is these snares capture non-target animals by mistake, including at risk wildlife.

Last year in the Sundre district alone, Rodtka said, 15 cougars were caught as well as two golden eagles, one that survived and the other that died. There was also a wild horse and numerous deer caught in snares.

“The only non-target animals that trappers have to report are those on quota or grizzly bears,” he said. “I call these carcass dumps. Generally, they pick up all kinds of road carcasses and put them out in the bush and they catch literally everything’s that’s attracted to a carrion dump.”

Rodtka said trappers can lay out as many as 25 to 100 snares and, depending on the location, there may be more.

“A trapper can do that all over his trap line. I basically call it a wall of death,” he said. “How does an animal negotiate through 200 snares from one trapper?”

Canmore’s Kevin Van Tighem, author of The Homeward Wolf, is also opposed to bounties, saying the Alberta government needs to take back control of wolf management from private interest groups.

Van Tighem said one of his biggest concerns is that the provincial government insists its approach to managing wolves is based on science -– and he claims it’s absolutely not – and no one knows for sure how many wolves are actually being killed.

“Their whole focus is on keeping wolf numbers down and since that requires killing lots of wolves, and since wolves are hard to kill, it results in them allowing or even promoting inhumane and unethical practices we would never tolerate for other species — things like the use of choking snares, poisons and shooting lactating mother wolves over bait, which leaves pups to starve to death alone in their dens,” he said.

Van Tighem said the random killing of wolves breaks up packs and family groups and results in continuing social chaos among wolves, which actually makes predation problems worse.

“Small fragmented wolf packs have to kill more prey than large intact packs because they aren’t as able to defend their kills from scavengers,” he said.

“Broken-up wolf packs can result in more breeding pairs than when packs are kept intact, and also mean that inexperienced young wolves have to learn to hunt whatever they can catch, which often can include livestock.”

Science-based wolf management would keep wolf packs intact except when depredation problems develop, Van Tighem said. Then, it would target the responsible pack, not just kill wolves randomly.

He said Alberta should be managing wolf problems, not wolf numbers.

“By trying to keep wolf numbers down, the province simply panders to those who hate or fear wolves while actually creating more conflict problems than we would have if wolves were a protected species in Alberta and only trained wildlife problem officers were allowed to kill them when and where problems arose,” he said.

“The irony in this is that wolf mismanagement is self-perpetuating: by causing wolf problems we wouldn’t have had under a more protective management regime, they create an argument for killing more wolves. Then, when they kill more wolves, they create more problems. So then, of course, they have to kill more wolves.”

The Alberta Trappers Association supports bounties.

Bill Abercrombie is vice-president of the trappers association and also runs Animal Damage Control, a private business that deals with problem wildlife issues across the province.

He said there are too many wolves, estimating the population to be 12,000 to 15,000. This is based on anecdotal evidence, and compares to the Alberta government’s estimate of between 7,000 and 10,000.

“Right now, we have lots of wolves in Alberta, probably a few more than we need. They’ve not only increased their population, but increased their range into agricultural areas and rural communities,” said Abercrombie.

“Combined with the fact that right now the value of wolf pelts is not very high, that means that there’s not really an adequate harvest on the wolf population and that’s partially why their range is increasing.”

Abercrombie defends bounties, referring to them more as an incentive program to control wolf numbers and deal with problem wolves that kill livestock.

“It’s not the be all and end all, but it is an incentive to get an adequate harvest of wolves, simply because of the amount of conflict in these agricultural communities and rural communities,” he said, noting wolves have also been known to kill pets.

“In a time of low fur prices, the bounties are to try to get some incentive to hunters and trappers actually hunting and trapping wolves and not losing money doing it.”

Abercrombie also said snaring is humane, noting technology has come a long way and there are new rules that trappers be trained before getting a licence, other than just sitting a written test.

“It is a lethal device, and so we have been working very, very hard to make it as humane as possible,” he said.

“The mechanical mechanism of snares cuts off blood supply to the brain and neck muscles and renders animal unconscious, and very quickly, but the reality is it also comes down to the capability of the person using the device.”

Rancher Joe Englehart believes there’s another way to deal with wolves other than issuing bounties to kill them.

“I’ve worked on ranches all my life, and coming from interior B.C. as a young fellow, I was taught basically to hate wolves,” he said. “Any time we saw wolves we basically shot them. It was the same old story back in those days.”

But in his late 20s and early 30s, Engelhart began to change his mind about wolves.

“I started seeing a pattern that any time you did start shooting wolves, it seemed problems would escalate rather than go away,” he said.

Engelhart manages a ranch near Longview – with about 2,000 cow-calf pairs, and then about 600 yearlings – and in the summer of 2003 he began to have “quite a bit of wolf trouble,” when there was a pack of nine wolves, with eight pups.

“This pack had a grizzly bear following them and anytime they’d make a kill, this big boar would steal their kill and they had to go and kill another,” he said.

“By January that following year, I’d lost upwards of 30 head.”

In the end, many of those wolves were killed, including two that Engelhart shot himself. The pack was whittled down to three members, the alpha pair and a sub-adult. By 2005, there were pups again.

But killing the former pack didn’t sit well with Engelhart, so he spoke with wildlife biologists and Defenders of Wildlife, who put collars on some wolves. Now he makes it his business to know what the wolves are up to.

“Ever since that summer, I’ve made sure I know where the wolves are denned up and where their rendezvous sites are, their travel patterns in summer and winter. That allows me to be able to modify my grazing program around what the wolves are doing,” he said.

“I’ve had very little trouble since then. I kind of got tired of seeing things dying. I believe everything’s got a place and I’d like to make this work.”

These days, Engelhart said he probably loses two, three, maybe four cattle a year.

“When you’re running cattle amongst grizzly bear and wolf territory, I believe there should be an acceptable loss,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alberta Environment’s Kay said provincial figures indicate about 700 to 750 wolves are reported killed each year in Alberta, including about 500 to 550 that would be exported to the commercial fur trade.

The exact numbers of wolves killed every year in Alberta is not known, but Kay said there are certain wildlife management units where it’s mandatory to report wolves that have been harvested.

“We would typically get in neighbourhood of 150 to 200 wolves registered in those areas,” he said. “These would be wolves harvested from areas adjacent to Banff and Jasper National Park.”

Rodkta believes the number of wolves being killed is much, much higher.

He said in one area, the number of bounties reported paid and the number of wolves registered as harvested did not add up, noting there was a discrepancy of 19 wolves. “It’s suspicious,” he said.

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