• A wolf next to British Columbia's Columbia River. (Photo: Domenico Battaglia/CG Photo Club)
    A wolf next to British Columbia's Columbia River. (Photo: Domenico Battaglia/CG Photo Club)

In January, British Columbia ordered a controversial cull of about 180 wolves, to be shot from helicopters, in the South Selkirk Mountains and South Peace regions. The cull is part of a five-year effort to protect the recovering populations of endangered mountain caribou in the areas.

In the South Selkirk Mountains, located in the southeastern part of the province, the caribou population numbered 18 as of March 2014, down from 46 in 2009 and 27 in 2012. In the South Peace region, located in the northeast, seven herds totaled about 960 caribou, based on 2009 census data.

Some conservation groups, however, have been protesting the cull. The Toronto-based Animal Alliance of Canada, for instance, is against the idea of selectively killing members of one species to protect another and blames the caribou’s endangered status on human encroachment. “You can’t just shoot everything around these animals just to maintain this tiny bubble of a herd but continue on with all the activities that drove them to these populations to begin with,” says Liz White, the organization’s director.

White says those activities include practices such as clear-cutting forests, which creates clear pathways that make it easier for wolves to hunt.

According to British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, there are currently about 8,500 wolves in the province. The government plans to remove about two per cent of the population — 24 wolves (two to three packs) from the South Selkirk Mountains and 160 (12 to 17 packs) from the South Peace region. It expects to do this before the snow melts in spring (as there is less cover available to the wolves in winter and the snow makes it easier for them to be tracked from the air). The ministry also says “the province is overseeing the project to ensure the wolf removal is conducted humanely.”

But Ian McAllister, conservation director of the British Columbia-based organization Pacific Wild, disagrees and says that the province’s actions are “against its own humane standards,” as cited in the Canadian Council on Animal Care’s wildlife use and care guidelines, which the province follows.

“What they’ve done is actually radio-collared many wolves within these packs, and they use the radio-collared wolves to lead the hunters to the pack, where they’re shot from the air,” he says. “By the provincial government’s own humane standards, it’s unacceptable because it clearly states that if animals are to be killed, they should be shot at close distance — in the brain — and they should be inspected afterward to see if they actually are killed.”

The guidelines state that a shot to the brain of an animal “produces a quick and humane death,” but that this is “best attempted when the when the animal is immobilized by injury or physical restraint.” The guidelines go on to say that in “free ranging situations,” shooting the animal in “the heart and lung area may be more appropriate.”

Sharon Dean, the ministry’s communications manager, confirmed in an email that radio collars are used to help hunters track the wolves, adding that while not all wolves are radio-collared, the ones that are will be killed last, after the other kills are confirmed. Dean also said that according to Helen Schwantje, the provincial wildlife veterinarian who co-authored the guidelines, the government’s plans “fall within these parameters.”

This cull is not the first time the province has attempted to save endangered caribou by killing wolves. A plan published by the ministry in April 2014 says that “wolf reduction occurred through removals and sterilization of dominant pairs” in the Cariboo region, and that trappers were hired to “remove wolves from within, and adjacent to, endangered caribou range in the Kootenay region.” (The terms “removals” and “remove” in the report mean the wolves were killed, not physically removed to another location.) The report says that there was no conclusive evidence that suggested that either of these efforts helped the local caribou population. In the latter case, “most caribou herds continued to decline,” despite intervention.

McAllister echoes White when he says that the government should instead try to protect caribou by restricting human activity that has fragmented the animal’s habitat, such as oil and gas operations and snowmobile use. “The province would rather shift blame onto wolves,” he says. “It’s government negligence and government inaction that has caused this decline.”