BC's Wolf Killing Plan a Big Step Backwards
Released in April, the province's strategy for grey wolves lags behind its 35-year-old predecessor.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." If true, then the attitudes and actions of the Government of British Columbia toward the grey wolf (Canis lupus) found in their new wolf management plan strongly suggest B.C. is moving away from greatness, and that it's going through a period of extreme moral regression.
After closely comparing the 1979 and 2014 wolf management plans, we strongly believe this claim is false. The 1979 plan was more consistent with what modern science has since revealed about the grey wolf.
While the 2014 plan claims to address conservation concerns and incorporate current science, it is little more than an attempt to reduce wolf populations across the province as low as possible without actually endangering them. It seems designed for the sole benefit of a small number of private entrepreneurs that use much of B.C.'s crown land for cattle grazing -- to the detriment of the natural ecosystems across our province.
The 2014 plan is regressive in three main areas: its failure to acknowledge the value of a wolf to society, its flawed justification for aggressive proactive wolf control, and its failure to truly acknowledge the critical role wolves play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Wolves have monetary value
The two foremost wolf management objectives listed by the 1979 plan for B.C. wolves were to maintain viable populations of wolves in wilderness areas, and to provide opportunities for people to listen to and have a chance to view wolves in their natural habitat.
These two objectives acknowledge the intrinsic value of wolves and the potential economic value of wolf ecotourism. The actions proposed by the 2014 plan completely fail to acknowledge that wolves have any economic benefit.
This is despite widespread knowledge that wolf viewing in Yellowstone and Denali national parks is extremely beneficial to local economies. The latest annual figures for Yellowstone show wolf ecotourism injected $35 million into the local area. Those reintroduced wolves coincidentally came from Canada.
The 2014 plan is almost completely focused on controlling wolf numbers over the majority of B.C.'s land area. The motivation for this is twofold: the entrenched belief in the high toll wolves take on grazing cattle and the government's dubious and non-verified claim that wolf populations are increasing in B.C.
According to government figures, only 162 cattle were killed in B.C. by all predators (including black and grizzly bears, pumas, coyotes and wolves) during a 12-month period in 2012-13. This is a scant 0.07 per cent of all cattle grazing on crown land in B.C. Predation statistics in the northern U.S. show similarly minuscule predation rates by wolves on cattle.
The claim in the 2014 plan that wolf populations in B.C. are increasing is based on a population estimate that uses a new (and questionable) methodology that is supplemented by anecdotal reports of wolf sightings and notoriously unreliable historic trapping records. The report itself acknowledges the extremely high margin of error (approximately 35 per cent) in this population-estimation method.
In contrast, the 1979 plan recommends only reactive control of wolves on a site-specific basis to deal with isolated incidents of livestock predation. It also states that population sizes should be generally allowed to fluctuate naturally (without management intervention). This progressive strategy results in minimal disruption of the social stability of packs. Current research has shown that stable pack structure helps to ensure that young wolves are fully trained to hunt their traditional natural prey animals and not predate on cattle.
Wolves have ecological value
The 1979 plan recognized that ecologically functional populations of carnivores are essential for a healthy ecosystem, that we need to co-exist with them, and that wolves should be managed as an integral part of wild ecosystems. The plan was ahead of its time -- a number of recent studies have shown that the biological diversity and stability of ecosystems are enhanced when carnivores are present.
The act of predation on ungulates by carnivores has a profound effect on the entire ecosystem and cascades right down to the productivity of the vegetation, the quality of the soil, and even the ability of the ecosystem to more effectively sequester carbon dioxide. Wolves also help in reducing the spread of diseases in their prey populations.
In progressive fashion, the 1979 plan also recognized the need to designate tracts of public land explicitly for the use of large carnivores. Cattle grazing was to be prohibited in these zones.
The 2014 plan mentions the role of wolves in maintaining healthy ecosystems, but only includes actions designed to limit or remove wolves from the majority of B.C.'s public land. There is not a single initiative included that is designed to return wolves to zones in which they have been extirpated or reduced to relic populations. The only areas where the reduction of wolves is prohibited are existing no-hunting zones (i.e. some provincial parks) or areas where the province has no jurisdiction over wildlife (i.e. national parks).
Our recommendation? Scrap the 2014 plan for the management of the grey wolf. Return to the progressive management plan of 1979. Augment it with what science has learned since 1979, almost all of which dispels the notion of the "big bad wolf" and shows its value to society and ecosystems. Grey wolves are not vermin and it is shameful that our government is attempting to manage them as such.
BC Wolf Killing Plan Based on 'Unreliable Data': Advocate
Newly released strategy outlines difficulties in counting wolves
British Columbia's newly released wolf management plan is based on unreliable data, said Sadie Parr, the organizer of the advocacy group Wolf Awareness Inc. in Golden. "They're claiming this is all sustainable harvest when really we have no idea what the populations are or the mortality rates are," said Parr. "This is based on large unknowns."
The plan outlines a two-zone strategy. In most areas, wolf populations will be managed through hunting and trapping regulations such as season lengths and bag limits.
In areas where growing wolf numbers threaten livestock or wildlife, the government will help stakeholders, ranchers and First Nations manage the problem, according to the ministry's news release announcing the plan. "In these areas, detailed implementation plans would be developed before any actions are undertaken."
The plan acknowledges the difficulty in counting wolves and describes how ministry staff reached the population estimate. "Direct census of wolves is infeasible over such a large area as B.C.," it said. "However, an estimate based on published wolf density and range estimates, as well as ungulate biomass estimates, suggests the current B.C. population is approximately 8,500 wolves (range 5,300 - 11,600)."
The assessment of changes in population numbers is based on both anecdotal information and records of the number of wolves killed. "Trends in the wolf population are estimated primarily from changes in reported harvest, along with observational reports from ministry staff, First Nations, stakeholders, and the general public," it said. "These indicators suggest that B.C.'s wolf population is currently stable to increasing throughout their range."
Nor is it known whether reducing wolf numbers will help mountain caribou recovery, the plan said. "The ultimate reason that caribou have declined is likely habitat fragmentation and loss, but proximate factors such as predation continue to limit population recovery even where suitable habitat is extensive and secure, relative to the size of the caribou herd," it said.
"To date, B.C.'s wolf management actions have not been successful in meeting Mountain Caribou recovery objectives," it added. "A recent review by the Mountain Caribou Science Team indicated that current predator control efforts were not sufficiently intense to be effective, and that an aerial reduction program for wolves that threaten caribou herds of fewer than 50 animals should be implemented."
That's despite past failures to connect decreasing wolf numbers with caribou recovery. A pilot project started in 2001 in the Cariboo succeeded in reducing wolf densities, "however, a correlation between reduced wolf densities and caribou recovery could not be substantiated," it said.
Another project had the government paying trappers to kill wolves in and near the caribou range in the Kootenay region. "Although some wolves were removed, most caribou herds continued to decline," the plan noted.
The plan also expressed government support for controlling wolves where they pose a significant risk to livestock. Wolves killing livestock is a growing concern, particularly in the Cariboo and Peace regions, it said.
Step backward, says advocate
The largest unknown, however, is what happens when you remove wolves from an ecosystem that also includes other large predators like cougars and bears, it said.
A chart included in the management plan shows that in 2009 and 2010 the number of wolves recorded as killed in the province approached 1,400, the highest since record-keeping began in 1976 and about double the annual average over that period.
The plan also noted the public is deeply divided about what, if anything, to do about wolf numbers. "Actions also need to be aligned with public expectations, although this is challenging given the polarized nature of the wolf management debate," it said. "Under these circumstances, the most prudent approach is to be as transparent as possible regarding management decisions and to ensure that outcomes are monitored, management results are assessed objectively, and actions adjusted accordingly."
Norm Macdonald, the NDP critic for Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and the MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke, said it was interesting to see the plan acknowledging that the province has a poor grasp on the size of the province's wolf population. "The science isn't there," he said. "It undermines any argument the population can be managed sustainably, or with science as its basis."
Similar criticism can be made of the government's data on moose, caribou and the land base in general, he said. "It is disappointing, but it seems to be where we are with management."
The failure will be concerning to British Columbians, but there is also international interest in how the province is managing iconic species like wolves, he said. "We're not doing the job we should be doing."
Parr said she is glad the plan has finally been released. "Now we know what we're up against and what we're working with." The report finds several threats to wolves pose a low or negligible risk. However, Parr said, it fails to look at the cumulative impact of all the various threats. "When you combine them, there's definitely a different story happening," she said.
The plan replaces a version written in 1979 that Parr said put more emphasis on the need to create large protected areas, minimize cattle grazing on Crown land, and put more value on protecting wolves for their own sake.
On first reading, the new plan seems like a step backward, she said.
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