BC needs to change its sad history of wolf management

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An open letter to Katrine Conroy, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, from Dr John and Mary Theberge, Canada’s senior wolf research biologists.

Originally published by Focus on Victoria on March 16, 2021

Dear Minister Conroy:

As Canada’s senior wolf biologists, we have a historical perspective on BC’s wolf management policies, which again have risen to public controversy. We applaud your apparent willingness to review this subject as reported in Focus on Victoria recently, although from considerable experience measuring wolf natality, we note your mistaken opinion that “they breed like rabbits.” Wolves breed only once per year and normally not until at least 2 years of age. Besides, natality is certainly not the only relevant parameter for evaluating the capability of population persistence or recovery after persecution. Multiple factors, especially early natural mortality, influence wolf recruitment, which varies widely according to environmental variables.

BC has had a very persistent history of government sponsored wolf killing, as much or possibly more than any other Canadian jurisdiction. Even back in the 1960s the Province had an enthusiastic predator control program that raised the ire and the pen of world-renowned wolf biologist and forester Douglas Pimlott for its “War on Wolves.” But ironically, despite several seemingly positive steps, notably game- and fur-bearer status and a policy against wolf killing to increase prey abundance for hunters, 60 years later, little on the ground has changed. In the past 15 years the Province has shot over 1,000 wolves from the air, has left most of the Province still without any hunter bag limits or any regulations whatsoever on trapping.

In the government’s partial defence, both data and its interpretation for making management decisions on wolves are hard to come by. It is both difficult and costly to conduct extensive surveys supplemented, as they must be especially in forested areas, with radio collaring, which together provide the only reasonably reliable technique. We know that from more than a decade of doing it just for relatively small Algonquin Provincial Park. And because this approach can be applied to only chosen blocks of land for logistic reasons, the last BC population figure (2014) of 8,200 is highly imprecise and unreliable, especially expressed as it was with no statistic estimate of sampling error.

Furthermore, predator/prey theory, necessary for interpretation of data, is exceedingly complex, leaving room for uncertainty that invites political miscalculation and manipulation. Few people realize that among various alternative models of possible wolf/prey relationships, one that operates commonly (though counterintuitively) describes wolf killing that does not decrease prey numbers in subsequent years. One cannot dismiss that model without acquiring very specific data including habitat evaluation, and capture and assessment of prey body condition. Both pre-existing bias and added costs of obtaining such data often deflect any effort to do so.

Despite these difficulties, the BC government has “soldiered-on” killing wolves as if it knew what it was doing. For example, in 1990 it was under criticism for planning extensive wolf killing on northern Vancouver Island. Wolves, the government said, were killing off black-tailed deer. To defuse public criticism, an advisory group was established, where John was an invited participant. The Province supplied all its information on predator, prey and habitat. Obtaining additional climate and snowfall data, John demonstrated a statistical correlation between deer decline and weather. Additionally, and uncomfortably similar to the situation today, there was an added land mismanagement component, in this case excessive clearcut logging. The issue was brought up in the context of BC’s wolf and wildlife mismanagement in a CBC Nature of Things program, with public comment invited. It was swamped with outraged letters. The national black-eye it gave the Province led to cancellation of the kill.

Since then, wolf killing has gone on across the province. For decades, perhaps no jurisdiction in North America sponsored as extensive aerial wolf killing as went on in the Fort St John region. Now, that level of killing has spread to other various places across the province, conveniently rationalized to increase caribou numbers. The validity of this rationale will soon be tested in court.

All this has given BC a poor reputation on the international stage. John served for many years as a Canadian representative on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Wolf Specialist Group. The Group included representatives from most countries in the world that had wolves and was charged with reviewing and giving direction on wolf conservation policies. Delegates from countries such as the United States, which were struggling to reintroduce and recover their wolf populations, found it difficult to understand BC’s excessive wolf killing. Biologists asked how much land is protected for wolf conservation? The answer for BC? None of sufficient size other than national parks.

Back in 1990, World Wildlife Fund Canada saw persecution and habitat loss as incrementally and ultimately shrinking the land base for our suite of archetypal large carnivores—wolves, bears, cougars. They proposed the establishment of a system of “large carnivore conservation areas,” which would be adjacent to large provincial parks where possible. There, wolf management would change from persecution to protection. BC did not support it.

In our recent decades of research, we have worked largely in Yellowstone National Park where, with overwhelming public support, wolves were successfully re-introduced in the mid 1990s. Studying wolves in open country has allowed us to understand them as a highly developed social species, one whose pack lives, division of labour and cooperation parallels early human societies in focal ways.

But understanding wolves that way is not why more than half a million people have signed Pacific Wild’s pro-wolf petition. Most of these people simply object to the senseless killing of animals that are part of Canada’s wild heritage—regardless of conservation status.

Granted there will always be conflicting viewpoints about the wolf, but a large segment of public opinion has shifted. In recognition of this fact, what sort of parallel shift has there been in government policy? What sort of attempt at balance?

What should the BC government do to amend its sad history of wolf management? 1) Stop its aerial wolf killing. 2) Protect wolves in its large provincial parks buffered, like Algonquin in Ontario, into land units of sufficient size. 3) Put more money into wolf censusing and scientific predator/prey evaluation. 4) Set hunting and trapping regulations accordingly. 5) Stop recreational trophy hunting of wolves.

After all, wolves are BC’s most controversial species and as such, demand a more pluralistic, sensitive, and data-sufficient approach to their management and well-being.

Dr. John and Mary Theberge

Dr. John and Mary Theberge have conducted more than five decades of wolf research based largely from the University of Waterloo. Their wolf studies have been conducted in Ontario, Yukon, Quebec, Labrador, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. They have written 2 books and numerous scientific paper and popular articles on wolves and related land management issue. They now live near Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island.