Return of the Pack – Grey Wolves in the Peace Region

Lynsey Kitching

We’ve tried to poison them. We’ve tried to sterilize them. We’ve flown around in helicopters and shot them en masse.
Who is this group that has been targeted as being at fault for an abundant loss of cattle and for being the main culprit of the caribou decline across BC?
As many people know, it’s the grey wolf.
After a few years of rest from human attempts to keep down their population, wolves again have proven their resilience and are stronger than ever, travelling in abnormally large packs of 25 animals.
Why the large packs?
Chris Addison, Director of Resource Management of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has a theory. He says, “When wolves are happy and naturally existing they are in reasonably small packs, between six to ten animals. As that pack grows, it spills off. They may come back together during the year, but they would largely be two separate packs over time. What’s happened because the population is so high, where that pack would split off, there are already wolves there, so there is no opportunity and they have to stay together. The large packs are an indicator that we are full with wolves. I don’t have any hard information to back that up; it’s just my own thoughts.”
Due to the feedback government is getting from cattleman, First Nations, industry and communities, they have decided to once again focus on the wolf and what measures the province is willing to take to try and cut down on their population through the Wolf Management Plan (WMP).
The plan is still in the works and the government is asking for feedback from the public until Dec. 5, 2012.
Addison says, “Locally we think the population has increased over the last 30 years.”
Though, within the WMP it states, “Wolf populations in Regions 5, 6, 7a, and 7b appear to be stable. Harvest has been variable but no longer-term trend has emerged. The overall B.C. wolf population has likely increased since earlier estimates in 1979 and 1991 although not substantially, because most of the increase has occurred in the south and densities there are still likely well below those in the north.”
Region 7b is the Peace Region.
Humans since the 1950s have been trying to cut down on the number of wolves through all different means. Addison says, “In the 1980s and 90s in the area, we had quite a wolf control program going on; some of it through government and some of it through personal stakeholders. In the middle of the 80s, the population of wolves because of this action, was very low and it has increased since then.”
In the 90s there was still a low population due to aerial gunning going on in an official capacity. There were also reports of individuals who were poisoning wolves.
Addison says this not something that government took part in on a large scale, but he says, “We did do poisoning a long time ago to protect cattle in specific cases. That was in the 50s, 60s, 70s we would have poisoned.”
He continues, “There were certainly stakeholder involvement in poisoning programs ongoing throughout the 80s and 90s as well.”
The efforts to try and suppress wolf populations changed again with a pilot project of sterilization in the early 2000s. Addison says, “It was more as a pilot project, not really so much as a robust control program. We did try in the mid 2000s to see if it would work. Broad answer is it doesn’t work. It is remarkably expensive and it’s hard to do. If the wolf population is increasing anyway, your efforts just get swamped by that increase. In order for sterilization to be effective, you have to do fairly broad areas of ground.”
The WMP states, “Attempting to control wolves to reduce predation risk on caribou has been a provincial priority since 2001 with the initiation of a pilot reduction program in the Cariboo region (Roorda and Wright 2004, 2007, 2010). Wolf reduction has occurred through removals and sterilization of dominant pairs. Wolf densities have been reduced, however at this time, a correlation between reduced wolf densities and caribou recovery cannot be substantiated. An additional two to four years of wolf sterilizations and reductions is required in conjunction with caribou inventories to adequately assess the long term benefits of this program (R. Wright, pers. comm. 2011).”
So if all of these efforts have been made to try and control the wolf population, why has it again grown?
Addison has theory saying, “I think it has a lot to do with the historic predator program. When you start to push the wolves down the ungulate populations inflate. So when we stopped the predator program, there are more ungulates that supported a higher population of wolves. Where we are now, the ungulates populations are coming down, because they can’t sustain this level of predation anymore. We’re starting to see these enormous packs of wolves that are killing moose, elk, caribou and cattle.”
So why did the previous efforts to control the wolf population stop?
Addison says, “They stopped largely because the social license to use poison certainly is not there anymore. Poison is not something I would support today, largely because the poisons we have are difficult to use and they cause a very painful death and their non-specific in terms of who they target.”
Addison explains they would take a dead horse or cow and lace it with poison and put it in the middle of a frozen lake. This was not the most effective way to kill strictly wolves. “Well it also kills bears and ravens and other birds,” he says. “That’s largely why the poisoning program is no longer supported and is illegal.”
More recently, the aerial gunning in the 80s and 90s stopped because the funding stopped. He says, “Aerial gunning certainly did work. It’s effective and the most humane way to do it, but it’s also quite costly and the program was halted several years before I got here, largely because it lost funding support and man power within government to do it. It is certainly something I am open to considering.”
Aerial gunning seems to be the direction government is leaning for the next WMP, though the effectiveness of this method seems very costly and disruptive. The proposed WMP says for the wolf population to be effected by aerial gunning, we would have to kill about 80 percent of the population over a five year period. Even then, if the gunning stops, the number of wolves could rebound quickly. Addison says, “The 80 percent comes from the maximum growth rate of a population. They can grow very quickly in a year and at 80 percent a year. A population of wolves that are 100 animals could become 180 in a year if they have the habitat to support them. We have to knock them back to that degree in order to have any impact on the population at all.”
Other options for predator control do exist and the WMP is aligned with the Caribou Protection Plan.
One of the big issues for the caribou is that due to industrial development, the wolves are able to hunt much more efficiently. Note: this is the fault of humans, not of wolves.
Wouldn’t it be the best for both animals if we were to focus our energy on re-establishing barriers between the two?
Addison says this would almost never be possible. He says, “On a broad scale, it takes a long time to rebuild habitat. There is little we can do to accelerate the growth of a forest. We can do things like de-activating roads. There is a question about how effective that is for predator travel. We can de-activate a road to the point where you can’t drive a vehicle on it, but it’s more difficult to de-activate a road to the point where wolves can’t travel on it. Our objective with a lot of that is to cost them more energy, but they can still get up there. I would also support a predator program to support recruitment of non-endangered ungulates as well because we are in an unnatural state of predator abundance. They are higher than they ought to be and it’s a value judgement call.”