‘If we don’t shoot wolves, we will lose caribou’: the dilemma of saving endangered deer

Last Updated: June 20, 2024By

Saving Canada’s Mountain Caribou: A Controversial Solution

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Canada’s mountain caribou, once teetering on the edge of extinction, are now showing signs of a surprising resurgence, overturning years of decline. However, this revival comes with a tough choice: to rescue these majestic creatures, thousands of wolves may need to be culled in the coming years, illustrating the daunting task faced by wildlife managers in balancing complex ecosystems.

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Decades of catastrophic decline have plagued mountain caribou, a type of woodland caribou that once roamed from Alaska to Montana and Idaho. Habitat degradation and increased predation from wolves have long been cited as the primary culprits behind their dwindling numbers.

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But for researchers, pointing fingers solely at wolves misses the mark. Logging has inflicted far greater harm, stripping caribou of their havens and food sources. The newfound open spaces attract moose, drawing in wolves as well – savvy predators quick to realize the easier prey presented by caribou.

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However, the toll of this predation is severe: southern mountain caribou populations plummeted by nearly half between 1991 and 2023, with one-third of subpopulations vanishing. Despite efforts by governments and First Nations groups to halt the decline, success has been inconsistent.

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In a quest to identify effective strategies, researchers have delved into over 50 years of data on the 40 herds across British Columbia and Alberta. Their findings, published in the Ecological Applications journal, reveal that culling wolves consistently boosts mountain caribou population growth. When coupled with measures like maternal penning or supplemental feeding, the results improve even further.

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These findings offer a glimmer of hope: by 2023, recovery efforts have boosted southern mountain caribou numbers by 52% compared to simulations without interventions. Reductions in wolf predation have led to “rapid” population growth, resulting in 4,500 caribou in the two provinces, a number 1,500 higher than without interventions.

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Yet, these results, seemingly contradictory to prior studies questioning the efficacy of wolf culls, underscore the complexities of managing caribou populations within intricate ecosystems.

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Governments have designated protected areas for caribou, acknowledging that restoring the woodland ecosystem to its former glory – dense forests of towering old growth trees – would greatly aid recovery efforts. However, this endeavor would span decades, a luxury the caribou can ill afford. In the meantime, culling wolves is viewed as the most viable solution.

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“If we don’t intervene by targeting wolves, the state of our habitat, damaged by industry and government, spells doom for the caribou,” remarked Clayton Lamb, a co-author of the report.

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The wolf culls remain contentious. Alberta eradicated 824 wolves in 2020 and 2021, while British Columbia has culled 1,944 since 2015, at a cost exceeding C$10m.

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“Choosing to shoot wolves to safeguard another species is an agonizing decision,” admitted Lamb.

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