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Caribou herds in B.C., Alberta, growing due to wolf culls: study

Fresh research suggests Western Canada’s once-dwindling caribou numbers are finally growing.

But the same paper concludes the biggest reason for the rebound is the slaughter of hundreds of wolves, a policy that will likely have to continue for decades.

“If we don’t shoot wolves, given the state of the habitat that industry and government have allowed, we will lose caribou,” said Clayton Lamb, one of 34 co-authors of a newly published study in the journal Ecological Applications.

“It’s not the wolves’ fault.”

Caribou conservation is considered one of the toughest wildlife management problems on the continent.

The animals, depicted on the back of the Canadian quarter since 1937, require undisturbed stretches of hard-to-reach old-growth boreal forest.

Those same forests tend to be logged or drilled, creating roads and cutlines that invite in deer and moose — along with the wolves that eat anything with hooves.

Between 1991 and 2023, caribou populations dropped by half. More than a third of the herds disappeared.

Governments, scientists and First Nations have been trying for years to find ways to bring them back.

Lamb and his colleagues looked at 40 herds in British Columbia and Alberta to see if anything has worked.

Caribou numbers rebound

The paper suggests caribou numbers have risen by 52 per cent since about 2020 compared with what would have occurred if nothing had been done. There are now 4,500 in the two provinces, about 1,500 more than there would have been.

“There could be some actual good news,” Lamb said. “It was surprising, in a good way.”

A caribou in a green forest
Boreal caribou depend on undisturbed land, including mature and old-growth forests, for foods like grasses and lichens. Caribou like this one pictured in Alaska are considered an indicator of an ecosystem’s health. (Rashah McChesney/The Associated Press)

The ranges of some herds are nearly 90 per cent disturbed by industry, and habitat restoration is the preferred solution.

But it takes decades for a clear-cut or a cutline to return to anything like old-growth status, so various stopgaps have been used.

Because different measures were used on different herds, the researchers could link population trends to interventions.

Wolf sterilization didn’t work because it couldn’t be done on enough of the predators. Same with reducing the moose and deer populations that draw wolves into caribou habitat.

Nearly all those populations would have to be killed, an unpopular move in rural and First Nations communities where hunting is both a pastime and necessity.

“Moose reduction is incredibly controversial,” said Lamb.

Moving animals from large herds to small helped only for a season or two. What worked, he said, was killing wolves.

“Wolf reductions alone increased the growth rate of southern mountain caribou subpopulations by [about] 11 per cent,” the report states.

That growth rate increased when wolf culls were combined with other measures such as feeding and penning and protecting pregnant cows.

“Wolf reduction was the only recovery action that consistently increased population growth when applied in isolation,” says the report.

“Combinations of wolf reductions with maternal penning or supplemental feeding provided rapid growth.”

The finding puts wildlife managers in a tough spot, Lamb said.

“Shooting wolves to save another species is an incredibly difficult decision.”

Almost 2,000 wolves killed since 2015

Documents obtained through a freedom of information request showed the B.C. government has spent more than $10 million and a total of 1,944 wolves had been killed since the province’s cull was launched in 2015, CBC News revealed in December.

Wolves are killed by shooters in helicopters who use semi-automatic rifles with red-dot scopes to target areas that will result in a quick death, according to the documents, which added that followup shots are sometimes required.

The practice has been described as “cruel” and “inhumane” by conservation groups.

“It is just illogical to believe that these killings result in the immediate death without any suffering at all,” lawyer Rebeka Breder, who works with Pacific Wild, told CBC News in December.

Conservation groups say the primary issue facing caribou is human activity and development, and efforts should be directed at habitat conservation rather than killing another wild animal.

A survey completed by more than 15,000 B.C. residents in 2021 found 59 per cent of respondents were opposed to predator reduction for caribou recovery, while 37 per cent were in support, according to results published online.

The wolf cull is expected to continue through 2026 with an annual budget of up to $1.8 million and an expected 244 wolves killed every year, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship.

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