While wolves die, old-growth forest is decimated
This information is mostly focused on the Deep Snow Mountain Caribou of BC’s Interior Wetbelt, which is an Inland Temperate Rainforest ecosystem. No other kind of caribou in the world spends winter in subalpine forests where the snow is up to 10 meters deep. They need to descend in spring to low-elevation forest. A food that’s key to their survival is tree lichens; trees must be at least 140 years old to grow enough lichens to support caribou.
Moose, deer and elk prefer young forest caused by fires and other conditions, where they can eat abundant vegetation, including young trees. Clearcuts have vastly increased young forest and depleted old forest, drawing and multiplying moose, deer and elk. Wolves prefer to eat these larger animals, and follow the moose, deer and elk into clearcut areas. The caribou become isolated in patches of forest left between the clearcuts, which makes them easy for predators to find. The most urgently needed conservation actions are protection of remaining old growth forest, restoration of already-disturbed habitat, and exclusion of winter recreation from high-value winter caribou habitat. These actions serve as non-lethal wolf control. Scientists say that killing predators without protecting enough habitat will not save caribou. Research has also shown that there is no statistical basis for wolf control as a conservation method for caribou. Read more to find the following information:
1. VWS’s View on Predator Culling for Mountain Caribou
2. Kinds of Mountain Caribou
3. Failure of the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan
4. Misleading Government Rhetoric about Wolves and Caribou
5. VWS: 40 years working to protect caribou
VWS’s View on Predator Culling for Mountain Caribou
VWS opposes the killing of large predators, with the exception of supporting the killing of individual cougars in the vicinity of the 27-member Central Selkirk caribou herd. The Society opposes the wolf slaughter programs purported by the BC government to be necessary to save caribou, and objects to considerable misleading rhetoric and propaganda by the government to justify these “culls”.The following is our basis for this position:
- Mountain caribou are forest-dependent animals; in the case of the Deep Snow ecotype of the Interior Wetbelt, they are heavily dependent on old-growth Inland Temperate Rainforest, which is necessary to grow a key food source, the hair lichens that grow on trees.
- Scientists and the government long ago admitted that the primary cause of mountain caribou decline is the loss and fragmentation of their old-growth forest habitat.
- One mechanism of the decline is that clearcuts, roads, and pipelines facilitate wolf access to the caribou. Increased wolf predation is a secondary effect of habitat loss, but this is often obscured in government propaganda and rhetoric, which prefers to talk about “proximate cause of death”, which they claim is wolves. in reality increased wolf predation on caribou is a secondary effect of habitat loss, which increases the number of wolves and enhances their hunting success. But there are other, more direct impacts of habitat loss on caribou which government propaganda doesn’t mention. They include impacts to nutritional health, reproductive failures as a result, stress and energy loss, which in turn make caribou more vulnerable to predation.
- Statistical analysis by four biologists from three universities found “No statistical support for wolf control and maternal penning as conservation measures for endangered mountain caribou.” (Harding, et al, 2020) Their analysis suggested that effects of wolf culls on caribou populations may vary according to the ecotype of caribou, and the culls may be particularly ineffective on the Deep Snow Mountain Caribou. Harding et al. note that some predator culls have failed to increase the Deep Snow herds and cite several possible reasons:
- their dependency on forests old enough to grow sufficient quantities of tree lichens;
- their sensitivity to the depth and consistency of snowpack, which can be fatal in certain conditions;
- wolves are not the major source of predation on caribou, bears and cougars are;
- harassment and displacement from high-value habitat by snowmobiles and heli-skiing.
- Wolves play key roles in balancing ecosystems and protecting biodiversity. Wolf packs are known to increase the diversity of small wildlife by preying on and reducing mid-sized predators. Studies have shown that a major reduction of wolves causes other species to be eliminated from the ecosystem. BC wolf culls aim to reduce wolf populations by 80-100%, year after year.
- Non-lethal predator control is possible for caribou by preserving the remaining old-growth and mature forest around their herds; this is recognized as such by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). Preserving forests that are not old-growth, but are old enough to be of little use to moose, deer and elk will also block predators. For Deep Snow Caribou, another key form of non-lethal predator contol is keeping snowmobiles and heli-skiing out of their winter caribou habitat. Thirdly, deconstructing roads is known to be effective.
- It is now widely recognized by scientists that there is a threshold to habitat disturbance, beyond which it will become impossible to achieve self-sustaining caribou herds, if indeed they can be saved at all. Years of scientific research have shown that caribou populations decline in proportion to the percent of their range that’s disturbed. The ECCC has also clearly stated that killing predators without protecting sufficient habitat will cause the caribou to continue declining if the wolf slaughters are ever stopped.
- Claims by the government that the helicopter wolf slaughters are “working” to increase caribou neglect to mention that while the caribou numbers are being propped up by this means, their habitat is being increasingly destroyed, indicating that these “successes” would be short-lived if the wolf slaughters ever stop
Kinds of Mountain Caribou
The Mountain Caribou are divided into the Southern, Central and Northern Mountain Populations of Woodland Caribou. Their names are commonly shortened as follows:
- Northern Group — has thousands of animals across a vast area in BC, Yukon and Northwest Territories. This group is listed as Threatened. We are very concerned about several Northern Group herds in the Chilcotin that need habitat protection.
- Central Group — Caribou of the South Peace region in BC and Alberta, where they number less than 500 animals, suffer from massive habitat disturbance, and are Endangered. In 2018 the BC and federal governments negotiated an agreement with two First Nations that included some habitat protection, as well as wolf culls and maternity pens.
- Southern Group (aka “Deep Snow Mountain Caribou”) — This is an iconic inhabitant of Inland Temperate Rainforest. They are totally dependent on old-growth forest and live nowhere else but in BC, with a few exceptions of herds that cross into Alberta. They are the only caribou in the world that spend winter at high elevation in rugged mountains, in snow up to 10 metres deep. They have been classified as unique, irreplaceable and Endangered. There are only about 1,250 animals in 16 herds. Three Deep-Snow herds are proprosed for renewal of predator cull permits and one herd is proposed for a new permit, representing an enlargement of the area where wolves will be slaughtered. These are the Hart Ranges, North Cariboo Mountains, North Columbia and Central Selkirk herds.
Failure of the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan
After two decades in which carefully formulated strategies were shelved and planning committees disbanded, the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan (MCRIP) was finally created in 2009 and set aside some habitat for each herd in BC’s Interior Wetbelt. The habitat protection contained very little of the low- and mid-elevation forest that the caribou were losing to industry; in fact, a lot of it wasn’t fit for caribou at all due to steep slopes, fragmentation by logging, or fires. So habitat destruction continued, and when the caribou continued to decline, no additional habitat protection has been provided since for the Deep Snow ecotype.
In 2018 the federal Environment Ministry intervened under the Species at Risk Act. By then it determined that the Southern and Central Group Mountain Caribou, and some of the Norhtern Group, are under Imminent Threat to their recovery. In the media it urged IMMEDIATE action including more predator reduction and new habitat protection, but this had no legal teeth: the province ignored it and the federal government has done nothing to address the imminent threat on the ground.
The only new habitat protection that ensued was in the area of several small herds in the South Peace region. The remaining 50+ herds have received no new habitat protection, nor have the provincial or federal governments committed to providing any. Instead BC issued draft “herd plans”. Three years later we have neither habitat protection nor herd plans.
What we do have, just recently, is tentative old-growth logging deferrals pending negotiations with First Nations. As stated at the beginning, VWS’s three park proposals have some old-growth deferrals proposed, ranging in size from a couple of cutblockes to 17,000 hectares.
Misleading Government Rhetoric about Wolves and Caribou
The BC government engagement website on new wolf cull permits (the deadline for public comments has expired but the website remains online) presents fairly extensive information about wolf culls and caribou. Some of it is accurate and expert but it is marred by biased and misleading statements.
Biased: “The main threat to most caribou populations is a high rate of predation by wolves, bears and cougars that is out of balance from the natural cycle.”
VWS response: This sentence is seriously misleading. Human activities are the main threat to caribou. The government’s own website shows clearly that habitat disturbance by humans is the initiating cause of elevated predation rates. Government biologists may carefully explain that forest removal increases wolf culls, but then they switch to talking about “proximate cause”, by which they mean the means of death of caribou, and they blame wolves. They may admit that forest removal is the “ultimate cause”, but they then put all the focus on killing wolves and little or none on protecting habitat, as if the ultimate cause doesn’t really matter. In fact some government biologists have told the public for years that mountain caribou don’t need anymore habitat protection, they mainly need wolves to be killed. Many biologists have refuted this.
Government claim: They have made “significant efforts” and spent loads of taxpayer dollars to recover caribou, but it hasn’t worked.
VWS Response: It hasn’t worked because it didn’t protect enough habitat. A major part of the money and effort are spent on collaring wolves and shooting them from helicopters; maternity pens; moose reductions and other population management techniques. In 2017, when the government was carrying out wolf culls for only two herds, the federal and provincial government’s Protection Study showed that 54% of caribou expenditures were for these purposes. (7) The engagement material states that in 2020-21, 237 wolves were killed at a cost of $1.4 million; and that wolf culls cost $100,000-$175,000 per caribou herd. Wouldn’t it have been better to leave a buffer of old forest around each herd to keep out wolves? Investing funds into permanent habitat protection would give the caribou their best chance to survive, and if they don’t survive, it would provide a legacy for the future that would help protect many other species and mitigate climate change. Investing millions of dollars in predator control leaves the public with nothing to show for it if the caribou cannot survive.
Claim: “Although wolves are not new to British Columbia, their numbers have increased. The increase can be attributed to discontinuation of large-scale predator eradication programs in the 1980s and to landscape changes in caribou habitat.”
VWS response: This is a lie, which can be seen because it is directly contradictory to other statements of government caribou biologists, in which they explain that loss and fragmentation of forest habitat is the cause of increased wolves. In the 1950s through the 1980s, in great human ignorance and avarice, the government dropped poisoned baits from airplanes over a large part of BC, killing wolves and many other species besides. (8) Hundreds of wolves were slaughtered from helicopters in the Muskwa-Kechika region to create more game for hunters. This ended in disgrace in 2006 when a scandal hit the Vancouver Sun (9), which reported that thousands of taxpayer dollars had been spent on helicopter wolf shooting sprees, creating a large number of moose and other prey animals, which provided a rich food supply that enabled the wolves to bounce back almost immediately. The Vancouver Sun article fumed that there were more wolves at the end of the project than when it began.
Misleading: The decline of the caribou is an EMERGENCY situation requiring immediate SHORT-TERM intervention in the form of predator killing, whereas habitat protection is a LONG-TERM solution.
VWS Response: The engagement website does say that caribou need both long term and short term solutions. The text and illustrations are laudable in that they include habitat protection as one of the “multiple levers” that are necessary to recover caribou. But what does this mean when there hasn’t been new habitat protection for most herds for at least 13 years, and the government’s website can’t even cite a commitment to protect habitat? When these predator culls are characterized as an “emergency” requiring immediate action, versus habitat protection that “takes a long time”, which solution is going to get the action and the money? Which solution is any uninformed person going to choose? For how many years should predation be called an “emergency”? When does the “long term” solution arrive if it never gets started because the “short term” “emergency” actions must keep taking priority? Obviously never, because the “short term” solutions allow the habitat to be logged until there’s nothing left to protect. Logging of old-growth and mature forests is not slow, it is imminent in the vicinity of our caribou herds and occurs every year. Why isn’t the government telling us that THAT is an emergency?
False: Slaughtering wolf packs from helicopters is the most humane way to kill them. It is really “euthanization”.
VWS Response: Euthanasia means a relatively painless death. The reader can be the judge whether chasing wolves down with helicopters and spraying them with bullets from automatic weapons is humane and painless to the wolves.
Misleading: You can’t permanently get rid of the wolves. Every year they come back and you have to go out in helicopters and shoot them again.
VWS Response: Persistent slaughter of wolves annihilated them over much of the US. The ecological damage that was done was devastating. This is why some US parks and states have imported wolves from Canada, to reestablish them. BC also eliminated wolves from a large part of BC some decades ago. But even if that doesn’t happen, with the aim to kill 80-100% of wolves per year, ecosystem functions of the predators are largely lost. Today conservation biologists speak of the “extinction of ecosystem functions”. It means that a species might still be present, but not in enough numbers to keep the ecosystem in balance. For instance, a disastrous, fatal disease of deer and other hooved animals, called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), is spreading across Canada but has not yet reached BC. Studies have shown that cougars and wolves are capable of early detection of prey animals with CWD. Cougars have been shown to prey selectively on infected animals. (13) These large carnivores are the protection network for BC big-game animals, yet the net is being weakened by massive reductions of predator propulations.
VWS: 40 years working to protect caribou
The Valhalla Wilderness Society (VWS) has been involved in mountain caribou conservation for over 30 years. In 1979 VWS director Wayne McCrory, in his capacity as a wildlife biologist, submitted to Glacier National Park a report on the critical state of endangerment of the Central Selkirk caribou. According to a history of mountain caribou by Graham A. MacDonald, Caribou and Human Agency in the Columbia Mountains, McCrory’s report “helped to inaugurate joint inter-agency studies among federal, provincial and state authorities.”
In 1994 VWS successfully advocated the creation of the Goat Range Provincial Park and the Hamling Lakes Wildlife Management Area. Both are used by the dwindling Central Selkirk herd today.
Beginning in 1998 VWS sponsored GIS forest cover mapping, caribou habitat mapping, and a Conservation Area Design covering the entire Interior Wetbelt. The mapping was requested by the BC Government and used in their Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan process.
In 2017 VWS was one of four petitioners who convinced Environment and Climate Change Canada to declare the mountain caribou in Imminent Threat of Recovery.
The main need and top priority for protecting mountain caribou is to protect large, intact areas with old-growth forest from low-elevation to the subalpine. The Society designed two park proposals for mountain caribou and old-growth Inland Temperate Rainforest:
- The Selkirk Mountain Caribou Park Proposal would connect the Goat Range PP with Glacier National Park and Bugaboo Provincial Park. The 2009 Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan designated 46% of this proposal as no-logging caribou Ungulate Winter Range (UWR). An additional 40,000 hectares of the proposal, outside the UWR, was tentatively deferred from logging in 2020. An additional 7,789.32 hectares of old-growth was deferred in 2021.
- The proposed Quesnel Lake Wilderness for the Quesnel Highlands caribou herd. 72% of the Quesnel Lake proposal was designated for no logging, as a Wildlife Habitat Area, in 2009. An additional 17,000 hectares was tentatively deferred in 2021.
- A third park proposal, the Rainbow-Jordan Wilderness, is in the habitat of the now more-or-less extirpated Columbia South caribou herd. Proposed for protection of biodiversity-rich, ancient Inland Temperate Rainforest, it also received a small deferral in 2021.
The deferrals, partly in 2020 and partly in 2021, are encouraging but it is far from certain that they will be protected. The government has not provided maps of the deferrals of an appropriate scale to allow us to assess the value of the deferrals to caribou, and the deferrals are still subject to negotiations with First Nations.