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Fear and Loathing in the Northern Rockies

Having recently attended the 20th annual North American Wolf Conference in Pray, Montana, it has been particularly dismaying to learn that literally days after the gray wolf was de-listed from the Endangered Species Act in the United States, trophy hunters in Wyoming had already shot numerous wolves.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the recovery program for the gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies was “complete,” the power to manage gray wolves in the Northern Rockies was transferred from the federal government to state wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The de-listing has thrown open a dark door for states in the region to apply their preferred old- school “big game” approach to managing wolves; the trophy-hunting-as-legitimate-management-tool stance essentially serves to mask a thinly veiled, irrational fear and loathing of these predators.

Hearing about the struggles at the wolf conference regarding the oft-times desperate attempts in the lower 48 to save certain populations–such as the Mexican wolf–from extinction, and the uphill battle combating the disproportionate influence of special interests in the ranching industry, our British Columbian delegation couldn’t help but contrast the status of wolves in Canada’s two western-most provinces with that of their brethren in the contiguous USA.

Should we feel fortunate we have wolf populations that are in relatively far better shape than those in the lower 48? Yes, but with some significant qualifications. B.C. and Alberta have none of the legislative mechanisms in place the U.S. has to protect species and their habitat and both provinces have virtually no prohibitions on the trophy hunting of wolves–and in fact regularly encourage the recreational killing of wolves. Demonized and scapegoated for the decline of everything from marmots to mountain caribou, it is official government policy to cull, sterilize and otherwise persecute these animals.

This persecution is often carried out for the purpose of managing for ungulates, which is designed to increase trophy-hunting opportunities.

Witness the current controversy surrounding the Alberta government’s proposed “experiment” to control wolves (by capture, euthanasia and sterilization) along the central east slopes of the province, in order to, in great part, bolster elk numbers for humans to trophy hunt.

And in many areas of B.C. and Alberta where wolves live, the habitat of their prey continues to be degraded by logging and other industrial activity, which has a cascading negative impact on the wolf population; a perfect example of this is Vancouver Island.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment estimates that 150 wolves remain–a 50 percent drop from 20 years ago. Black-tailed deer are the primary prey of the Island’s wolf population, but according to MoE the deer population has dropped from 200,000 to about 55,000 in last 20 years.

Black-tailed deer need old-growth forests, but out of 91 primary watersheds over 5,000 hectares, only six are left intact here on the Island; not one watershed on eastern Vancouver Island remains intact or is protected, and 75 percent of the Island’s productive ancient forests have been logged.

So why, at least from a province-wide perspective, are B.C. and Alberta in a comparatively more advantageous situation when it comes to wolves when contrasted with their neighbors to the south? It certainly isn’t due to any enlightened provincial government policy; nor is it due to any advanced laws or regulations–particularly given the absence of substantive legislation to protect species in B.C. and Alberta. The conclusion one inevitably comes to is that we have been spared simply because of the favorable ratio of people to land mass; in other words, the wild country in B.C. and Alberta is big enough that our relatively moderate human population hasn’t been able to despoil it all or hunt down all the wolves . . . yet.

British Columbians and Albertans should not be lured into one-dimensional, artificial and strictly numerical arguments about how many wolves should be allowed to be killed for “sport” or “management.” B.C.-based conservation biologist and wolf researcher Dr. Chris Darimont has written that “wolves have complex social traits . . . they are keenly sensitive and caring animals and are known to mourn for extended periods when a group member is killed. Hunting of wolves by humans likely has severe ecological effects that are difficult for scientists to study and may take generations to become evident.”

A Raincoast Conservation report on wolves authored by Darimont and internationally recognized large-carnivore expert Dr. Paul Paquet points out that “the provincial government allows an annual limit of three wolves to be killed for sport by resident hunters. There is no limit for wolves killed on guided hunts, nor is there a kill limit for trappers. Adults and pups can be legally killed. Wolves are granted immunity from hunting during only part of their reproductive period. When wolves with dependent young are killed, the transfer of information between generations is disrupted. This may ultimately be the same as killing the pups directly.”

On average, approximately 800 (out of an unknown number) wolves are legally killed each year in B.C.; that mortality figure is most likely a conservative estimate given the almost non-existent reporting requirements. A laissez faire approach is taken in managing the hunting of wolves in B.C. and is simply based on the reproductive potential of the species.

There is a consensus among scientists that top predators serve an important role in the ecosystem and their removal often has negative consequences for the ecosystem. The removal of a large proportion (i.e., more than 20 percent) of individuals from a population with a low effective breeding size can lead to severe reductions in genetic variability, especially within an insular landscape such as Vancouver Island.

Maybe one day British Columbians’ and Albertans’ generosity of spirit and willingness to peacefully coexist with the wolf will evolve to be as expansive as the physical landscape of both provinces. But if the current level of intolerance toward these iconic large carnivores continues unabated, then just look south to take a peek into the possible future for canis lupus in the Canadian far west.

CHRIS GENOVALI is the executive director of Raincoast Conservation Society. He can be reached at: chris@raincoast.org

 

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