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Canada is killing wolves to save endangered caribou. The real problem? Tar sands development.

Is it ever OK to kill native animals in the name of conservation? What if controlling one wildlife population could mean saving another? And what if the animals that die are wolves—one of the most fiercely debated species in North America?

These are some of the difficult questions swirling around Alberta, Canada, right now. 

Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), which are in crisis across their Canadian range, were declared endangered in the province in 2010. In recent decades, tar sands development, timber companies, and fracking have been fragmenting the species’ habitat across northern Alberta, making the boreal forest there more appealing to moose, deer, and elk. As more of those tasty hooved species have moved into these woods, more gray wolves, their primary predator, have followed.

Even though wolves don’t eat much caribou—they make up just around 4.7 percent of the carnivore’s diet—death-by-wolf has still become the leading cause of caribou mortality in western Alberta.

“The food webs have changed,” says Dave Hervieux, regional resource manager for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. “The number of wolves there now might be an order of magnitude or two greater than what is natural for the area.”

Hervieux’s department within the Albertan government has been killing about 100 wolves per year—via poison bait and helicopter gunmen—since December 2005. In November, he was the lead author of a controversial article in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, arguing that, if the Canadian government wants to stop the regional extinction of woodland caribou, it’ll have to keep killing wolves for the foreseeable future.

Whatever your opinion about killing wildlife—charismatic megafauna in particular—there are currently no conservation concerns regarding wolves in western Canada. Aerial surveys and information gathered from hunter and trapper harvests, Hervieux cites in his article, show populations in the Little Smoky range study area were “among the higher reported wolf density estimates in North America.” 

Woodland caribou populations, on the other hand, are in free fall. Hervieux explains that the animals live a low-productivity lifestyle, with females beginning to reproduce at two and a half years of age (late bloomers in most of the animal world). They then give birth to only a single calf, whereas other members of the deer family can have twins or triplets. This subspecies of caribou also live in small groups, spread out from one another within typically vast old-growth forests. All these factors make it difficult for them to bounce back from a sudden population decline.

Photo: Giant Ginkgo

Killing the caribou’s predators, however, hasn’t quite had the effect the Albertan government had hoped. The original thought was that limiting the wolves would bump up caribou numbers. But after 12 years, Hervieux found that even when they killed 40 percent to 50 percent of the wolves in the Little Smoky range each year, the woodland caribou population merely stabilized.

Stabilization, of course, is better than extirpation. Had Hervieux’s department not culled the wolves, he says, the Little Smoky caribou would probably be kaput by now. Over the same period, the government didn’t remove any wolves from another area of Alberta called Red Rock Prairie Creek, and woodland caribou saw a population decline of 4.7 percent.

But here’s the thing: If Canada really wants to save its woodland caribou, it needs to address the underlying problem of the tar sands, fracking and timber operations that are ripping up the land. 

Every new well brings more roads, well pads, and seismic lines, leading to more open space and fragmented forests. This transforms boreal forests into a new kind of habitat—one that allows wolves to travel faster, hunt more efficiently, and expand their territories deeper into the woods.

“It’s sort of grotesque that the focus is on wildlife that are symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself,” says Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

For its part, Campbell says the AWA has tried to be pragmatic and propose ways the province could benefit from industry while allowing its forest to recover. For instance, by pooling their leases and employing long-distance directional drilling, energy companies could shrink the industrial footprints they leave on the land.

[UPDATE: Sarah Palin told a group of oil and gas executives yesterday that she already has this problem figured out. When it comes to energy development hurting wildlife, she said the caribou just need to “take one for the team.”]

A few years ago, the AWA gave its reluctant support to the idea of killing wolves for the sake of the caribou. But after watching the Alberta government do nothing to rein in development as well, the group has changed its mind.

“We don’t support the current approach of letting the landscape worsen while killing off wolves,” says Campbell.

Photo: Julia Kilpatrick/The Pembina InstituteBoreal forest is cleared for tar sands development in Alberta, Canada.

The AWA is not alone. Matt Skoglund, director of NRDC’s North Rockies office (disclosure), also has his doubts about Canada’s save-the-caribou strategy. He works on wolf-elk issues in the United States and warns that reducing predator populations is tricky business. Predator-prey relationships are dynamic and complex, he explains, and several factors might be at play in the decline of woodland, such as competition from new ungulates moving into the forest or changes in climate, precipitation, and wildfires. 

Only one thing is certain: The caribou’s fate comes down to preserving their thick, old-growth forests.

“Without good habitat, the future is bleak,” says Skoglund.

And while controlling the wolf population is in Hervieux’s job description, he is also very clear about how killing those predators is no silver bullet to saving caribou. 

“It’s just a stopgap,” he says. “At some point we need to be getting the habitat back on course in a reasonable way.”

Unfortunately, the government has been less than enthusiastic about tackling the root of the problem—no surprise, considering Canada has stuck by its tar sands despite overwhelming evidence that the industry is poisoning its air and water.

According to the AWA, the government has auctioned off new oil and gas leases totaling more than 1.3 million acres—that’s about the size of Prince Edward Island, another Canadian province—in just over two years. The AWA also notes that as of 2011, bitumen leases covered more than 80 percent of the caribou range in northeastern Alberta.

It gets worse.

Even if we could magically stop all tar sands development tomorrow, Hervieux estimates that it would take around 30 years for these northern forests to return to to their natural, caribou-conducive states. And more wolves, and their endangered prey, will continue to fall in the meantime. 


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