B.C. caribou herds stabilizing where wolves are culled, forest ministry says

A biologist who has studied caribou herds and predator management says the long-term survival of caribou may depend on the culls. But does the public have appetite for such actions?

B.C. must decide if it wants to continue with cull

The wolf cull in B.C. has been a lightning rod for controversy over the years. (Dawn Villella/The Associated Press)

With one year remaining for British Columbia's controversial wolf cull, some caribou herds appear to be stabilizing in the province's northeast.

Wolves are being killed near four caribou herds in the Peace region. Three of those areas have had active wolf management since 2015.

Since then, 480 wolves have been shot by contractors hired by the province, according to the B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

The province initiated a five-year plan to cull wolves in 2015. It's aimed at saving the province's endangered herds of mountain caribou by reducing the number of predators that feed off them.

But the cull was controversial from the outset, even drawing the ire of pop star Miley Cyrus.

Critics have argued that habitat loss and human encroachment are to blame for the decline of the caribou, and say there is little evidence to back up the theory that wolves are the problem.

University of Alberta scientist Stan Boutin believes B.C.’s caribou numbers are encouraging but can only continue if the wolf cull does. (Robert Serrouya)

Since the launch of the wolf cull, caribou deaths have slowed. A herd south of Chetwynd, in northeastern B.C., was down to about 100 animals before the cull and is now increasing annually by nine per cent.

Another herd near MacKenzie in the same region was at 50 animals, but has increased by seven to 14 per cent annually. The Klinse-Za herd (formerly known as the Moberly herd) west of Hudson's Hope is up about 15 per cent annually and now has over 60 animals.

University of Alberta biologist Stan Boutin has studied caribou herds and predator management, including a 10-year wolf cull around Alberta's Little Smoky herd of 80 animals west of Edmonton. 

He believes B.C.'s numbers are encouraging, but can only continue if the wolf cull continues.

"The sad part of it all is that if we're going to do a wolf cull to keep caribou populations around, we're in this for the long haul," said Boutin. "As soon as you stop the cull, wolf numbers come right back up to what they were before, and caribou populations decline again."

Wolves were also being killed around the South Selkirk herd in B.C.'s Kootenay area, but that cull has ended, as just two caribou remain and are being moved to a maternity pen north of Revelstoke.

Boutin says he believes appetite for a long-term cull is low, but the public will need to decide just how much it wants to still have caribou around.

"It's a societal choice, and it's the same thing as why should we value polar bears or grizzly bears?" said Boutin. "Many people in society feel an obligation that we should be conducting our business only in a fashion that allows these other species on the planet to co-exist with us."

Caribou are threatened across Canada, with years of habitat loss and human-caused disruption as key reasons for their decline.  

B.C. now needs to decide if it wants to continue with the cull, after planning to re-evaluate after five winters of wolf kills.

First Nations are heavily involved, and have used a maternity pen to help the Klinse-Za herd.

The government expects to finish a new conservation plan by the end of this year.