Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf - Wolf Week - Day 5

For months now, since I called for a tourism boycott of the Alaska Highway in response to a wolf kill contest going on in Fort St. John, British Columbia, I've been getting emails from people in northern British Columbia telling me just how bad their wolf problem is. According to some locals, the problem has gotten so bad that the wolves are decimating herds of native moose, elk, sheep, caribou, and deer, threatening human safety, and killing large numbers of livestock.

Being a wildlife photographer with a university degree in Wildlife Management and a deep, personal interest in wolf biology and behaviour, I was suprised and saddened to hear that their perceived wolf problem had led many members of the community to get together and sponsor a wolf kill contest to eliminate as many wolves as they could.

Every time a wild wolf gets killed, disrupting the pack dynamics, it leads to a host of problems from a human perspective

But before I spoke out initially back in November, I decided that I should do some research to see if there were any facts backing up their wolf overpopulation claims. Despite my wildlife background and beliefs, I felt that it could still be possible that there were simply too many wolves in northern British Columbia and that they were indeed causing havoc with the communities, with the game populations, and with the ranchers.

I began with a quick check of the Draft Management Plan for the Gray Wolf in British Columbia and discovered that they did not have current numbers, beyond wide-ranging estimates, for the population or population trends of wolves in northern B.C.  So I moved on to a trusted secondary resource and checked with a few friends/outdoorsmen living in northern B.C. (and in particular, in the Peace Region where the wolf kill contest is being run) to get their thoughts on whether or not there is currently an overpopulation of wolves in the north.  Each of them confirmed to me that there are indeed lots of wolves in the north and that it's a very healthy population. 

As far as I was concerned, that confirmed the first part of the northerners' plea: that there are lots of wolves in northern B.C.  The second part, however, the part that makes up the gist of their arguments in favour of indiscriminately killing wolves (as many as they can), is where their 'wolf problem' cries began to fall apart for me.

When I examined their arguments for going as far as offering up prizes for the biggest and smallest wolf killed in a much-publicized wolf kill contest, I began to find gaping holes in their logic.  There was no statistical evidence, there was no scientific argument, and worse yet, there was no ethical or moral stance behind the blatant need to kill more wolves.

Their first argument for killing wolves was that wolves up there are killing too much livestock.  As you read yesterday in Debunking the Wolf-Livestock Myth, that was an easy one to discredit. That's not to say that there aren't problem wolves up there killing some livestock, but as I'll explain later in this post, killing random wolves actually exacerbates the problem, it doesn't solve it.

[Editor's note: I believe that if wolf kills of livestock are verified on private land repeatedly, then the wolf pack should be targeted and removed entirely and the rancher should be fully compensated for his/her losses. However, if it's on public land, I believe the rancher should be fully reimbursed but that the pack should be left alone -- consider it to be the cost of doing business on public land]

The second argument put forth was that human safety is compromised with so many wolves on the prowl around their communities.  So I did an extensive search online for wolf attacks on humans in northern British Columbia and could not find one single verified report of an attack.  The statistical truth is that there have only been two fatal wolf attacks in North America in the past one hundred years.  There have not been any fatalities from a wolf attack in British Columbia over that period -- not a single fatality in the past century.

The third argument is perhaps the most sensitive of all, as it deals with one of the most prominent lobby groups in the country: sport hunters.  That argument is that the perceived "overpopulation" of wolves has lowered ungulate populations across the board in the north, killing too many moose, deer, elk, caribou, and sheep, effectively making it harder for said game hunters to find and kill meat for their kitchen tables.

However, even this argument is fairly easy to disprove on several counts.  For starters, wolves are an apex predator, which means they occupy the top rung of the food chain in most wilderness areas and share that spot with humans.  Countless wolf literature shows that wild wolves regulate their own population numbers, so if their prey base is shrinking, then so too does their own population.  As a rough example, in an area rich with prey, a wolf pack will likely have lots of pups, many of which survive to adulthood.  By contrast, in an area scarce with prey, a wolf pack may only have a few pups and may not see any reach adulthood.

Do wolves kill too much big game in the north?

So let's ask that question again: do wolves kill too much big game in the north?  From a biological perspective, as I've just explained, that isn't possible beyond a natural cyclical series of highs and lows (moose populations go down after wolf predation, then rebound when wolf numbers go down in response to the lower moose numbers, then the cycle repeats itself).

If wolves really were capable of depleting moose and elk and deer populations so readily, then why don't we see that effect in our national parks in Canada?  Why can I still drive down the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff and see deer and sheep and moose on a daily basis? Why haven't the wolves killed them all and why aren't there wolves everywhere?  Why are there even any moose and deer and so on left on earth if wolves are so capable of killing too many of them? 

For a real answer as to what's going on, let's turn to the WildEarth Guardian document I shared with all of you in yesterday's post, Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves: A Public Policy Process Failure -- How Two Special Interest Groups Hijacked Wolf Conservation in America.

They asked the same question about elk in Montana:

"Do wolves kill too many elk? 

No, despite the claims of some sportsmen’s organizations. Human hunters have much greater negative effects on elk populations than wolves, according to a host of biologists, who published their findings in peer-reviewed science journals.

In fact, the level of human off-take of elk populations is considered “super additive” – that is, human-hunting pressures on elk far exceed the levels of mortality that would otherwise occur naturally. Further, human hunters generally kill prime-age, breeding animals, whereas wolves prey upon older, non-breeding elk. Wolves do hold elk populations at levels that mediate starvation, weather, and other stochastic events."

Again, the science simply does not back up the claim that "too many wolves" is leading to "too few ungulates."

So why then does British Columbia (and Alberta) allow an open season on hunting for wolves.  Why are things like this wolf kill contest legal?  Why are there not buffer zones around our parks so that wolf families can grow and stay intact?  And why are our governments listening to two bipartisan lobby groups when neither has a real argument in favour of indiscriminately killing random wolves.

Here's the real kicker.  Every time a wolf hunter goes out and randomly kills an alpha wolf, like Wolf #832F in Yellowstone, thinking that they have just lowered the wolf population by one, what they've actually done is potentially increased it ten-fold.  In the case of the Lamar Valley pack that Wolf #832F was a leading member of, that family has now disintegrated and the adult wolves have all dispersed/ different females and one male; all could potentially find mates and have pups this spring.  So within a few months, the hunter that shot #832F could actually find not just one pack of wolves on the landscape, but EIGHT different packs!

Every time a wolf hunter kills a random wolf in a pack, they risk disrupting the social structure of a pack that may have lived in harmony with livestock and with game populations.  They risk throwing that family of wolves into a state of flux -- suddenly a wolf family that only preyed on moose may have lost one of its best hunters, so they turn to easier prey and begin targeting livestock.

So when will we figure this out?  Killing wolves for sport is not acceptable anymore.  It does not do any good, it does not breed tolerance or acceptance of wolves among wolf hunters.

Simply put, hunting and the big bad wolf no longer belong in the same sentence.  There is no big bad wolf, and they should not be hunted indiscriminately any longer.


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