photos: Photo by Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild

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Is the province killing wolves because it won't clamp down on the forest industry?

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Now in its second year, B.C.’s controversial wolf cull continues to draw ire, and action, from local wildlife conservation organizations. Pacific Wild and Valhalla Wilderness Society challenged the province with court action in January, while the Wilderness Committee has gone public with provincial documents linking the forest industry's influence to the province’s plan.

During the first year of the cull, the provincial government made international headlines as scientists, environmentalists, and celebrities alike publicly condemned the legitimacy, morality, and effectiveness of shooting wolves from helicopters as a means of restoring dwindling Forest Caribou populations.

Last winter, 84 wolves were killed during the first of five years of the cull. Eleven wolves were killed in the South Selkirk region, where the South Selkirk Caribou herd has diminished to 14 members, according to a 2015 census conducted by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations—a 22 per cent drop from the previous year. In the South Peace region, 73 wolves were killed in an effort to protect seven caribou herds, the lowest population being the Scott herd, numbered at 18 as of 2014.

The province intended to exterminate between 164 to 184 wolves in the first year.

In Alberta, a 10-year wolf cull led to 1,000 wolves being terminated until the Little Smoky caribou herd’s population stabilized.

The 2014 Wolf Management Plan is the most recent of three major initiatives brought forth by the B.C. government to protect the Forest Caribou. The first is the Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP), initiated in 2007, claiming to protect 2.2 million hectares of “high suitability Mountain Caribou habitat from logging and road building,” according to the ministry. This plan covers areas of B.C.’s eastern boundary with Alberta, from the United States to the south, up to and around Prince George in the north.

The second initiative is the Peace Northern Caribou Plan (PNCP), endorsed by the province in 2012, claiming to “protect 90 per cent (approximately 400,000 hectares) of identified high elevation winter caribou habitat across the South Peace through a combination of existing and new habitat protections.”

According to Pacific Wild and the Valhalla Wilderness Society, habitat restoration and conservation are the imperative elements required for proper protection, and population recovery for B.C.’s Woodland Caribou.

‘No evidence’
The province does have jurisdiction to issue permits to kill wildlife as part of the Wildlife Act “if the regional manager considers it necessary for the proper management of the wildlife resource.” Pacific Wild and the Valhalla Wilderness Society’s court action against the province claims the government is acting outside its legal jurisdiction because killing wolves does not qualify as “proper management.”

“We are very much an industrial growth society here in B.C., and until the people in charge sit down and decide how many caribou they want to have left, and how much land they’re willing to put aside for them in real terms, I don’t think anything is going to change,” says Krista Roessingh, Pacific Wild spokesperson. “I think scapegoating wolves is abhorrent when they’re still allowing resource access to critical habitat of these very endangered herds.

“It’s supposed to be a multi-pronged approach to restoring those populations, but two of those prongs are habitat restoration and habitat protection, and I don’t think [the government] really has a leg to stand on ... I think it’s pretty disingenuous to pretend to the public … that doing the wolf cull is a quick fix, and that it’s going to result in those populations stabilizing in the long run, because there is no evidence, no evidence, that that is the case.”

In an overview paper submitted to the ministry on Dec. 28, Roessingh reported on the findings of various scientific studies that not only indicate habitat recovery and conservation are the way to go, but that culling wolves can have detrimental, widespread, and unforeseen impacts on local ecology.

Sadie Parr, of Wolf Awareness, explains B.C.’s Grey Wolf species is a keystone species—meaning they perform an integral role in an ecosystem—and that removing them causes detrimental impacts echoing down the food chain.

“The key phrase that goes along with keystone species is trophic cascade. So this is something that is most often caused by removing the top predator, or disrupting them by ongoing exploitation, which cascades through every layer of an ecosystem,” says Parr. “Pretty much everything is affected, so again, it is important to recognize that the mere presence of wolves on a landscape is enough to exert a very strong and vital influence.

“It sounds like a fairy tale, and I do not want to make wolves into unicorns, but it’s just amazing their role in nature. Simply being on the landscape changes the behaviour of ungulates and many other species ... It shifts how vegetation grows, patterns where it grows.”

With this in mind, why did the province decide to initiate a wolf cull program?

Culling for profit?
According to the Wilderness Committee, based on 64 pages of documents they received through a Freedom of Information request received in late 2015, the plan to engage in a wolf cull program was a hand-in-hand decision between the province and B.C.’s forest industry.

The Wilderness Committee has stated to the media that while it is no surprise the government is being lobbied by forestry companies, they are obligated by the federal government to engage in a recovery plan based solely on scientific research, without interference from socio-economic factors. What they are referring to is the 2002 federal Species at Risk Act, which lists Woodland Caribou as an endangered species, and requires the provincial government to create a recovery strategy based off scientific evidence.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the wolf cull, the provincial government has put aside millions of hectares of land to be protected from logging and road building. But, what exactly does the term “protected” mean?

Peter Wood, environmentalist and terrestrial campaigns manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, was surprised to find out the extent of the logging operations allowed within the 2.2 million hectares of protected land as set aside by MCRIP, and the apparent lack of progress it has accomplished in protecting Woodland Caribou.

The 2.2 million hectares of protected land are broken down into nine Ungulate Winter Ranges (UWR). (Ungulates are a term for hoofed mammals.) An audit published in December 2015 by the Forest Practices Board investigated the industrial practices taking place within one of these UWRs and found that the forestry, hydroelectric, and adventure tourism industries have been diligent in following the guidelines set out in MCRIP. The problem, according to them, is that it doesn’t appear to be helping the dwindling caribou populations.

While the board found all licensees complied with the order, investigators also observed fragmentation in the caribou habitat, and that it was “unclear” if it will be effective in the recovery of the caribou population. “This is troubling because the population of the two caribou herds that frequent this area has been steadily declining over the last three decades, and the population is now fewer than 150 mature animals, less than 40 per cent of the 1995 inventory levels.”

The Government Actions Regulation order covering the range audited by the Forest Practices Board not only allows for timber harvesting and road construction within the range, but even sets out guidelines where industry is allowed to perform these actions within the designated “no harvest zone.”

The order stipulates that “Timber harvesting and road construction must not occur within the no harvest zone.”

However, there are examples of how this rule has been and can be bypassed, which has allowed logging and road building to continue in this “protected” area.

Dwindling habitat
“That’s what I’m finding out about this 2 million hectares, is that protections doesn’t mean protected area, it doesn’t mean absolute protection,” says Wood. “It’s one of those situations where everything is going according to plan, but you know the patient is still dying, the herd populations are declining rapidly. But this audit by the Forest Practices Board reports that everything is going according to plan.

“The report basically says that all the logging companies are complying with the Ungulate Winter Ranges, but it also says that these herds are plummeting. So, it’s clear that those rules that guide what companies can and can’t do in those areas is not working ... they’re still allowing logging in critical habitat.”

The ministry declined to provide an interview for this article, and did not answer questions regarding how effective the protections are for caribou where logging and road building are still occurring.

According to Craig Pettitt, a director with the Valhalla Wilderness Society, even reduced logging and road building within the protected areas cause havoc for the caribou for multiple reasons.

For instance, the survival tactic for these mountain caribou is predator avoidance. He said their hoofs act like snowshoes, allowing them to populate areas in the winter with deep snowpack. Wolves are unable to traverse large distances of snowpack the way caribou can, which usually protects them. But by crisscrossing caribou habitat with roads and incursions, it’s providing wolves the access they once lacked. He said the roads and incursions also bring the wolves primary prey, moose, elk and deer into the caribou habitat.

“They aren’t considering what brings the alternate prey in there, and brings the wolves. A wolf trots at 10 kilometres an hour, and can do it all day long,” says Pettitt. “So it can cover 100 km of road just at a relaxing trot in a day. So you’ve given them this highway or sidewalk and all [the wolf ] has to do is go along until it catches a scent.”

To make matters worse, according to Pettitt, when old-growth forests are logged, the land becomes populated with brush species, which are attractive habitats for moose, elk, and deer— creating an evermore attractive smorgasbord of prey for the wolves.

“What we’ve done in our aggressive clear-cut logging, we’ve converted largely old growth dominant landscape, which was conducive to caribou, to … brush species” says Pettitt. “So because there’s lots of these prey species, the wolves have moved in after them and increased in numbers because there is so much food.”

Despite those in charge being aware of this situation, logging continues to happen, Wood says.

“We’ve known for some time that this is a species at risk, this is on the red list provincially, and you know from around 2002 to around 2012 when there was some protections added, we knew this was a species in trouble and we were actively issuing logging permits in critical habitat,” Wood says. “There were people involved that were doing that, and they are professional foresters, they’re district managers, they’re forestry professionals involved in this.”

The predators responsible for our current caribou situation aren’t walking around on four feet, but rather two. “These people have names, and addresses,” Wood adds.

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