Killing predators is now a standard prescription by both provincial and federal government biologists for saving caribou. But the federal government admits that predator killing must be combined with adequate habitat protection. If not, the destruction of habitat will reach levels where it is impossible to ever achieve a self-sustaining caribou herd. The existence of the herd will then be dependent upon permanent extermination of large carnivores and maternity pens, both of which are very expensive. To call this “recovery” is misleading to say the least. The federal government has warned that, without adequate habitat, if the predator killing and maternity pens ever stop, the caribou will simply continue to decline and die out.
The BC government didn’t tell this to the public when, in September 2019, it announced its refusal to increase habitat protection for Mountain Caribou other than in the Peace River region. At the same time, the environmental community received a leaked document sent by the BC government to “selected stakeholders” in a secret consultation process. It’s to expand helicopter wolf culls for the Hart Ranges caribou herd at the northern end of the Interior Wetbelt, and the Itcha-Ilgachuz and Tweedsmuir-Entiako herds of the west Chilcotin region. The Valhalla Wilderness Society (VWS) and numerous other environmental groups strongly oppose these wolf culls. They point out that the document did not disclose how much habitat has already been destroyed in these areas, and how much further destruction is planned in the future.
The reality is that BC is logging, and building roads and pipelines, at a level that is driving caribou and many other species extinct — and it knows it. Government and industry adamantly refuse to make any significant sacrifices to stem the loss of species. Faced with Canada’s Species at Risk Act and citizen protest, their refusal is figuratively pointing a gun at everyone’s head, demanding that we must give up either our predators or our caribou. But the reality is that through ongoing habitat loss we are losing both our large carnivores and our predators.
The Central Selkirk Situation
The government is planning to shoot all wolves and cougars around the Central Selkirk herd. VWS is outraged that the dire state of the caribou is considered an emergency when it comes to killing predators, but when it comes to allowing snowmobiles and heli-skiers to swarm their critical winter habit, or to proposed clearcutting in their habitat, suddenly there is no emergency. The public is told these actions are not necessary, or that they do not work.
It is true that a number of cougar kills helped to bring the Central Selkirk herd down to 24. With cougars it is possible to kill individuals from the vicinity of caribou, whereas with wolves we are talking about mass slaughter from helicopters going on year after. So VWS has not opposed the cougar killing directly in the vicinity of the Central Selkirk herd, but does oppose the wolf culls, especially because there is no record of wolf predation on the Central Selkirk herd. All wolf culls aim to kill most or all of the wolves over a very large area for numerous years. As habitat loss continues, predator extermination becomes long-term, and VWS cannot support this.
Habitat protection and wolf killing are NOT interchangeable solutions to caribou decline
Every time caribou recovery plans are started in BC, huge forces go to work to divert the energies and funds of the recovery effort away from habitat protection and towards killing predators and penning up pregnant caribou. They mislead the public to believe that predator control and habitat protection are interchangeable; that to recover caribou we have a choice of whether to kill wolves or protect habitat, and that killing wolves can offset the caribou decline caused by logging the habitat; or that killing more wolves means we can save caribou while protecting less forest. Habitat protection and predator killing are NOT equivalent in terms of protecting caribou.
Environment Canada reports cite many scientific studies showing that caribou populations decrease proportionately as the degree of habitat disturbance increases. In part this is because habitat disturbance actually causes increased predation; but habitat loss also has other life-threatening impacts on caribou. Old-growth forest alone has enough tree lichens to feed caribou. Gentle slopes make it less energy-expensive to get around. But these areas are exactly where the timber industry wants to log. So logging is removing their highest quality feeding grounds and safest terrain. In winter, the Deep-snow Caribou require subalpine forests on gentle to moderate slopes. But this is what snowmobilers want, so the caribou are driven from their highest quality, safest feeding grounds onto steep slopes where the food is marginal and there is a risk of avalanches. BC biologists are only just recently starting to admit that these are factors in the decline of the caribou, and without habitat protection these human impacts will continue, no matter how many wolves are killed.
Habitat protection and winter recreation closures as wolf control
Saving old-growth forest is a non-lethal means of suppressing moose, elk, deer and wolves, because the old-growth has few foods for them. Intact old-growth forest acts as a shield between caribou and the moose-elk-deer-wolf habitat. By clearcutting and making linear corridors, we are stripping the caribous’ protection away. Environment Canada has recommended “reducing the amount of disturbed habitat” as a means of keeping wolf populations low.
Closing caribou winter habitat to snowmobiles is another non-lethal form of wolf control that could have immediate effects in terms of protecting caribou. The case of the Deep-snow Caribou in winter differs from that of the more northerly herds, because caribou are more or less safe from predators in the deep snow at high elevations. Access by wolves is increased by snow-packed trails and slopes created by machines and even skis and snowshoes.
Long-term predator extermination does very serious damage to ecosystems
There are detailed records of what happened to Yellowstone Park after it lost its cougars and wolves: the elk population exploded and stripped the park of their favoured foods, especially young trees. Over the next 60 years the park lost an estimated 80-85% of its aspen trees, 50-95% of its willows, and almost all cottonwood seedlings. The loss of vegetation caused soil erosion that destabilized stream beds. Researchers believe that the numbers and species of songbirds were likely reduced due to habitat loss. The loss of willows and aspens all but wiped out the beaver population. With the return of the wolves, some willows and beavers have returned, but due to hydrological damage, much of the wetlands that were lost can never be recovered, thus the willows and beavers cannot fully recover.