Monday, February 16, 2015

Livestock producers complain of #wolf ‘epidemic’

By Morgan Modjeski, For The StarPhoenix  
February 8, 2015
Livestock producers complain of wolf ‘epidemic’

A photo from a rancher in the Weekes, Sask., area shows the remains of cattle which he says was killed by an animal that’s part of a larger wolf population causing problems in the area. (PHOTO: Contributed/Derek Denham)

Livestock producers in northeast Saskatchewan say they’re dealing with a problematic wolf-population that’s killing off their animals and threatening their livelihood.

Norman Belchamber, a grain farmer who operates roughly 40 kilometres outside the small community of Hudson Bay, said he has experienced first-hand the effect of the prairie predators on his community and he’s trying to regulate the population.

Belchamber, who has a trapper’s licence, said he’s killed more than 150 wolves over the last two years, including nine near his home one recent month. He said the animals have a minimal impact on his operations, but other wildlife and neighbouring producers take a hit. “We don’t want them exterminated,” he said. “We want them at a balance where the wildlife can sustain them. Once the wildlife balance gets out of adjustment with the wolf population, what do they turn to? Well, a wolf being a wolf, it’s going to turn to livestock.”

Derek Denham, who maintains a herd of about 450 cattle on his land on the Porcupine and Hudson Bay RM line, said he has found his livestock killed and mutilated by the wolves. He has lost thousands of dollars due to wolf attacks, he said. “If I lost 40 calves, and they’re all steer calves, right now they’re worth $1,800 apiece,” Denham said. “That’s just this calving season, so you’re looking at $70,000 right there.”

Dead livestock is only the beginning.

Denham said due to the wolves’ presence, cattle get nervous and stressed — and with so many wolves in the area, letting his herd graze through parts of the winter is not an option, leading to additional feeding expenses and other costs. “The last two years my cows have been home, and in the last 15 years (before that) they’ve never been at home — they’re always out in the field and I’d take hay out there,” Denham said. “I can’t do that anymore.”

According to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment’s fur and problem wildlife specialist, Mike Gollop, numbers collected voluntarily by about 100 trappers annually over the last 10 years indicate the wolf population has remained “flat,” but the specifics of current populations are unknown. “You can’t come up with a population estimate from this,” he said of the current method. “You can only come up with a trend. It’s what’s called an index survey, and it’s not a terribly statistically robust index survey. You’ve got a small sample size spread over a large area and the reports coming in to it are all qualitative.”

Models used to determine populations based on habitable range and prey base were calculated a decade ago, pegging the population at 3,000 to 4,000 wolves. Now, with current data collected through a small sample size, Gollop said results can be “quite variable.”

While current numbers are unknown, the province’s wolf range has grown; the animals seem to be moving south from Saskatchewan’s provincial forests onto the plains. With their range expanding, Gollop said it’s possible the province’s population is higher now than 10 years ago, but he stressed the increase would likely be a small one. “Some of their range has increased, but as a percentage of the total range, it’s a very small amount,” he said. “It’s maybe increased by five per cent … so I don’t think we’re talking about a substantial population increase.”
Gollop said the reason wolves go for livestock in certain areas could be the string of harsh winters in recent years reducing the populations of deer, elk and other hoofed animals. “This mortality can be quite exaggerated, because you’ve got a lack of diversity of habitats and, unfortunately, if (prey) can’t reach farmland or sources around farms, often times, mortality is even higher.”

In an effort to address the issue, the government has launched a pilot wolf hunt in Wild Life Management Zone (WMZ) 49, releasing 100 specialized big game licences to the public for a wolf hunting season running from Sept. 15, 2014, to March 31, 2015.

The licenses, roughly 75 of which were purchased by mid-December, enable hunters to kill the animals without a trapper’s licence in the zone, which runs from Carrot River to Hudson Bay near the Manitoba border. “Although the ministry supports licensed trapping as the primary control method for managing wolf populations, we hope the wolf hunt pilot will help address and alleviate the problem in this specific area,” Environment Minister Scott Moe said in September when the plan was announced.

Wildlife biologist John Polson said the pilot wolf hunt is only a temporary solution to a problem the government can’t yet fully understand. The killing of wolves could influence a population in unpredictable ways, he said. “You can’t impact populations that way. When a population like a coyote or a fox or wolf is impacted for one reason or another, what happens is they either produce more kits or more kits survive ... If you’re putting a force on (the population), they’re putting a force back.”

Polson, who has more than 30 years of experience in Saskatchewan, said he suspects the wolf population is growing. He said the government should be asking for the public’s help in tracking and identifying wolf populations across Saskatchewan. He said the best way to deal with a problematic population is through taste aversion, a method of deterrent in which targeted animals are baited with an odourless and tasteless chemical — usually lithium chloride — that makes the predator violently ill. The theory is the animal will then avoid the bait due to risk of illness.

However, Saskatchewan used the method in an attempt to address a problem coyote population in the 1970s and ’80s using sheep as bait, but the problem continued, Gollop said. While certain communities on Saskatchewan’s forest fringe may be seeing an increase in wolf populations, the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation (SCIC) says the number of wolf claims has been steady since its predation program started in 2010. “To date, the number of predator losses to wolves is about six per cent of our total losses,” said SCIC executive director, Darby Warner. “And we’re trending on exactly that same line for 2014-15.”

According to the SCIC’s 2012-13 annual report, the Crown corporation paid out more than $1.53 million for predation compensation that fiscal year, roughly $92,000 of which was for wolves, only $3,000 more than in 2010-11. Warner said the SCIC has wolf predation specialists who reduce problem animal populations to address issues in communities like Hudson Bay.
With specialists travelling throughout Saskatchewan, the SCIC feels the issue is under control, Warner said. “Our piece is to deal with the problem predators in the area, and I think we’ve been quite effective in that. We have predation specialists that do work for us, and in those cases where the wolf attacks do occur, we’ll get somebody into those areas and help to get rid of those problem animals.”

Gollop said the pilot wolf hunt is underway now and a full evaluation, which includes talking to licence holders about their experiences, will be conducted to find out if the hunt was effective. “Is it useful? Does it need modifications? Is it the way we want to go, or could there be alternatives?” Gollop said. “We intend to do a lot of talking to folks and have a look at what was accomplished and go from there.”

As animals in the Hudson Bay area become braver and less timid around people, Belchamber said human safety is becoming a concern. “They are getting more bolder,” he said. “They’re coming into the small towns; they’re coming into yard sites, and sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt.”
Gollop said while the ministry is always looking for new advancements in predation deterrents and methods, there are no plans to create — or increase — the province’s surveying efforts around wolf populations.