Updated: Environmental groups criticize new mountain caribou recovery proposals
A new report that recommends killing wolves and expanding hunting of deer and mountain lions in order to protect southern mountain caribou in the North Columbia region is under attack from environmental groups.
"The proposal to expand culling and hunting is a misguided attempt to recover caribou herds in the Revelstoke-Shuswap region," says a news release issued by a coalition of 20 environmental organizations. "Gunning wolves from helicopters and using strangling snares on the ground have been the main tools used in an ongoing experiment to recover caribou herds protected by federal law.
"These herds were pushed to the brink of extinction not because of wolves, but due to continued destruction and fragmentation of their habitat by logging, resource extraction and motorized recreation."
The 12-page report, Next steps for Southern Mountain Caribou recovery in planning Unit 3A, the Revelstoke Shuswap Region, was authored by Bruce McLellan, the province's lead researcher on mountain caribou, and Robert Serrouya, a Revelstoke-based scientist with the Columbia Mountains Caribou Research Project, and published in October 2016.
Serrouya provided the Review a copy of the report after the environmental groups issued a news release criticizing its findings. You can read the report and the news release at the end of the article.
Mountain caribou are listed as threatened by the federal Species at Risk Act and a recommendation has been made to consider them endangered. Populations have dropped dramatically in the past century and the B.C. Ministry of the Environment's goal is to restore the population across the province to 2,500 – it's pre-1995 level – by 2027.
The report looks at recovery strategies to date and make recommendations going forward. Of three herds in the area, two are on the verge of extirpation. The Columbia South herd, which ranges from Mount Revelstoke National Park to the Keystone area north of Revelstoke, is down to only four animals. The Frisby/Queest herd, which ranges from Frisby Ridge near Revelstoke to Queest Mountain near Sicamous, has less than 10 animals left.
The third herd in the area, the Columbia North, has 123 to 152 animals left, but the last census was conducted in 2013. Several recovery strategies have been targeted to increase its numbers. A moose cull, which was undertaken to reduce wolf numbers, helped stabilize the caribou population, the report says.
Photo: A female caribou and her calf inside the maternity pen north of Revelstoke. ~ By Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild
Likewise, the maternity pen north of Revelstoke has seen mixed results due to calf deaths both in and out of the pen, but has overall seen an increase in calf survival. They say it should be continued due to the success of the Klinsa-Ze pen in the Peace region, which was launched in conjunction with a wolf cull, resulting in the doubling of local caribou populations.
The report also looks at habitat protection, noting 40 per cent of core caribou habitat is protected and large areas have been closed for snowmobiling, but not heli-skiing.
The efforts helped stabilize the Columbia North herd, but have not reversed the decline in the other two.
"These results have led several researchers (including an independent review conducted for B.C.) to conclude that multiple population‐based levers must be initiated simultaneously to achieve growth," write the authors.
They make several recommendations to help the populations recover including keeping deer populations low, continuing the moose hunt to keep the population at about 300 animals, killing cougars that hunt in caribou habitat, continuing the maternity pen, protecting more low-elevation habitat, and killing targeted wolf packs.
"Habitat protection alone cannot prevent extinction of mountain caribou in the short term, at least until the currently disturbed habitat has had time to recover, so direct and indirect management of predators is needed in the short term to avoid further population decline," the authors write.
The environmental groups are critical of the report on several fronts. They decry the recommendation to kill wolf packs from the air, saying the technique leads to wolves experiencing "a slow and excruciatingly painful death."
"Those involved in planning the expanded wolf and cougar kill disregard the considerable damage that scientists understand happens in ecosystems when top predators are removed, and callously exhibit an indifference to the suffering experienced by wolf families as pack members are killed," said Chris Genovali, the executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Wolf culls were conducted in the Kootenays and in the Peace region in 2015 and 2016.
They also say the government must do more to protect mountain caribou habitat.
"Attempting to recover caribou herds that have dipped well below the critical threshold for short-term survival in habitat that can't support much growth is like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," said Sadie Parr, the executive director of Wolf Awareness Inc. "It cannot be done! Killing predators, no matter how many, will not change this."
The recommendations in the report are still being considered by the province, said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations in an e-mail.
"The province recognizes that recovery of caribou is a complex task," wrote the spokesperson. "Complex relationships between habitat, alternate prey, predators, land management and caribou ecology make this a challenging task.
"Multiple actions are needed to effectively reverse these downward population trends. These include the Revelstoke maternity pen project and managing snowmobile use through Wildlife Act seasonal closures in key locations and habitat protection."
The ministry's response did not mention the wolf cull.