Should wolves be eliminated to save the caribou?
A recently implemented plan by British Columbia wildlife authorities to cull wolf packs that are preying on a thin caribou herd in the Selkirk Mountain Range has drawn fire from the Ktunaxa Nation. But faced with a growing wolf population and declining caribou numbers, wildlife authorities along the border between Washington, Idaho and British Columbia feel they have no choice.
Such a decision wasn’t taken lightly, said Wayne Wakkinen, a regional wildlife manager in northern Idaho who previously studied grizzlies and woodland caribou in the region as a research biologist.
“It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s go out and kill some wolves and hope it works,’ ” Wakkinen told Indian Country Today Media Network. “If you look at what would probably be the result of no action, it’s that we’re going to lose caribou. That’s the bottom line. Some people don’t like the idea of wolf control, but given the option of wolf control or do nothing and watch caribou go extinct in the Selkirks, you’ve got to do something or face the consequences.”
The Ktunaxa Nation does not agree, even though the plan also includes measures they favor, such as protecting 2.5 million hectares from logging and road building in this area, in order to promote healthy habitat and enable mountain caribou recovery.
“The Ktunaxa Nation is deeply concerned,” the tribe said in a statement. “We are concerned this approach to conservation is extremely hasty. Management efforts should focus on increasing the population of caribou. Killing one species of animal to benefit another species is contrary to Ktunaxa stewardship values.”
Caribou historically occupied this area, according to Wakkinen, though their numbers declined greatly in the late 1900s. For three years in the early 1990s Idaho even imported caribou from British Columbia to try and reestablish its population. Washington State did the same thing in the late 1990s. However, at this time, there are no caribou to speak of in Idaho, he said.
“Six or seven years ago it seemed the population had stabilized around 45 or 50 in the whole Selkirk range,” Wakkinen said. Even then, no more than four were seen in the U.S., he added. Records from four or five years ago in British Columbia show a rapid drop in population. Last year just 18 caribou were counted, and wolves were nearby. Authorities believe it’s likely not a coincidence that wolves became established here at about the time caribou numbers went into decline. Now there are three known packs in the Selkirk Mountains, and wolf numbers could be as high as 24.
British Columbia presently has radio collars on wolves in two of the three packs. Last year wildlife authorities collared six caribou, and in the past year they have documented two losses to wolf predation in the herd. Management agencies in the states and province have concluded that total elimination of wolves within this population is the answer. British Columbia has also been given permission to fly up to 12 miles into Idaho for wolf control if needed.
A more multifaceted approach is needed to boost caribou numbers, the Ktunaxa said, including restriction of access to key habitat, decreasing vehicle mortality and establishing breeding programs. While the tribe supports monitoring predation impacts, it called the wolf-killing plan a narrow, short-term approach.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations finalized its Grey Wolf Management Plan last April, with the fundamental goal being to maintain self-sustaining wolf populations. The plan allows for wolf removal in targeted locations such as the Selkirk Range to protect the very small population of caribou. With a provincial population of about 8,500, wolves are not a species of concern in British Columbia as they are in much of the U.S. The Canadian wolf plan is based on the premise that the risk of removing wolves in this particular location is very low, where the risk to caribou populations of doing nothing is very high.
This combination of facts is what led the British Columbia government to opt for total elimination of the three packs. The first helicopter flight to kill wolves was made in mid-January, though none were killed; wolves were seen on that flight, but in heavy timber where they couldn’t be approached.