Column: Wolf cull raises questions

Here we are 40 years later still thinking it’s a good idea to shoot wolves as a conservation measure. Is that a good idea?

In 1973, the first working meeting of wolf specialists met at the first International Conference on the Conservation of the Wolf hosted by IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund in Stockholm, Sweden.

Among many recommendations, the group stated that “Where wolf control measures are necessary, they should be imposed under strict scientific management, and the methods used must be selective, highly discriminatory, of limited time duration, and have minimum side-effects on other animals in the ecosystem.”

So here we are 40 years later still thinking it’s a good idea to shoot wolves as a conservation measure, this time to protect caribou.

Is that a good idea?

Two regions are targeted and they include the South Peace which supports seven distinct caribou herds with a combined population of approximately 970 animals and the South Selkirk region where a single herd has declined to a population of only 18 as at March 2014. Wolf numbers in the province, though, are at a healthy level with a median population of 8,500. The goal is to increase the South Peace caribou to over 1,200 animals and increase the Selkirk population which ranges across the U.S. border into Washington and Idaho.

Yes, evidence points to wolf predation on these endangered herds. They are predators. That’s what they do. But habitat fragmentation and multi-use by industry (logging and road-building) and recreation (snowmobiling and backcountry ski-ing) have also contributed to stresses on the vulnerable herds. Now the Ministry of Forestry, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations plans to shoot 120 to 160 wolves from a helicopter in the South Peace and 24 wolves in the South Selkirk regions before snow melt. The humane optics have many people cringing.

But do culls actually work?

Some fascinating research at Washington State University on the impact of wolf culls and livestock has shown that the practice can actually be counter-productive and result in more livestock kills. According to wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus and his colleague data analyst Kaylie Peebles lethal control has been a “widely accepted but untested hypothesis.” For each wolf killed, the odds of more livestock depredations increase significantly. Their study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Their study is the largest of its kind, analyzing 25 years of lethal control data from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Interagency Annual Wolf Reports in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. They found that killing one wolf increases the odds of depredations 4 per cent for sheep and 5 to 6 per cent for cattle the following year. If 20 wolves are killed, livestock deaths double.

Wielgus said the wolf killings likely disrupt the social cohesion of the pack. Their complex social structure is composed of the alpha breeding pair, their pups, and subordinates adults that were the pups from previous years. While an intact breeding pair will keep young offspring from mating, disruption such as the shooting of the alpha animals can set sexually mature wolves free to breed, leading to an increase in breeding pairs. As they all have pups, each family unit is more bound to one place where they must hunt opportunistically. In Wielgus and Peebles’ study, those hunts included occasionally taking more livestock.

So would the cascade effect of the current cull in British Columbia mean more wolf packs could take more caribou?

Previous studies of Wielgus found that lethal controls of cougars also backfire, disrupting populations so much that younger, less disciplined cougars attack more livestock.

Ongoing studies in Washington include various methods of non-lethal wolf control as they relate to livestock protection.

Here, more research is needed to find effective non-lethal wolf control methods to manage vulnerable wildlife species.