North

N.W.T. starts aerial wolf cull to preserve caribou

The Northwest Territories government started its aerial wolf management program to reduce the population of predators on the winter range of the Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou herds.

Government plans to remove up to 80 per cent of wolves in winter ranges

A file photo of two wolves. Wolves are a key caribou predator, and can consume between 23 and 29 caribou per year. (Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock)

The Northwest Territories government will start its aerial wolf cull this week as part of a five year plan to remove up to 80 per cent of wolves from the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou winter range. 

In the last couple of years, fewer cows and calves have survived than are needed to keep the herds healthy, said Brett Elkin, acting assistant deputy minister for the N.W.T. Department of Environment.

"What we hope we'll see as we get rid of some of those things that decrease the survival of caribou — human harvest and wolves — we hope we'll see a response which will lead to an overall population recovery," he said in an interview.

Wolves are a key caribou predator, and can consume between 23 and 29 caribou per year. 

The plan was agreed upon by co-management partners, including the Tłı̨chǫ Government, as well as harvesters and residents who say management is needed to recover the herd, said Elkin. 

"What we heard in the last rounds of caribou public hearings, was that given the dire situation of the caribou, we needed to do more about wolves," he said. 

The wolf management strategy includes more support for harvesters to take wolves. However, fewer wolves were harvested than expected, prompting the territorial government to use the aerial cull to meet wolf reduction targets. 

Harvesters have taken an estimated 25 wolves so far, compared to 60 last year, said Elkin, adding that the program is not finished for the year, and there is still time for hunters to turn in wolf carcasses. 

The government plans to remove 27 to 37 wolves from the Bathurst herd's winter range and 66 to 90 wolves from the Bluenose-East winter range under the aerial wolf cull. 

The cull ends once the herds move into Nunavut, where they stay until the fall. 

Wolf cull must come with caribou habitat protection

The government said it will take time to know how successful the wolf cull has been in protecting the herd.

The cull is approved as a "pilot project" by the Wek'èezhìi Renewable Resources Board, states a March 13 letter from the board's chair, Joseph Judas, to N.W.T. Environment Minister Shane Thompson and Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie. 

The board will, at a later date, review the proposed wolf management project which is proposed to run from 2021 to 2025. 

The N.W.T. government will use harvester knowledge and satellite collars to measure their efforts, and make yearly evaluations of whether the program should continue.

A biologist involved in B.C.'s aerial wolf cull told the CBC that aerial shooting should only be a temporary measure to support caribou recovery, until they address issues including habitat loss. 

The Bathurst Caribou Range Plan addresses habitat, but CPAWS NWT executive director Kris Brekke said the government needs to aggressively protect migratory corridors and the calving grounds. 

"If you're going to do wolf culls as a last resort, there needs to be appropriate habitat protections that go with it," he said.

He said that as the Northwest Territories government considers developments, like an all-weather road to promote mineral development in the Slave Geological Province, it should ramp up its conservation measures and focus on habitat protection.

The Bathurst Caribou Range Plan is not binding, but lays out tools for managing overall disturbances to caribou habitat. 

Brekke said there "hasn't been anything proactive" on habitat protection in the N.W.T. and that he hopes there will be progress on that in the N.W.T. species at risk recovery strategy for the Bathurst herd, slated for July.

Calving grounds, as "the cradle of the nursery for caribou, should just simply be a no-go zone," he said.

The calving grounds of the Bluenose East are located west of Kugluktuk, Nunavut. A management plan for the herd proposed by the N.W.T. and Tłı̨chǫ governments last year, asks for the protection of the calving grounds

The N.W.T. and Nunavut environment ministers met last April to plan more rigorous caribou management.

At the time, Nunavut's Environment Minister Joe Savikataaq acknowledged there was pressure from HTOs (Hunter and Trapper Organizations) to protect the calving grounds. 

He said such protections have to be done on a case-by-case basis and that without a permanently defined calving ground, it is difficult to decide what should be protected.

now