Killing wolves ‘biologically wrong’

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Biologist Bob Hayes condemns predator control program

By Ed Struzik, Edmonton Journal June 12, 2011

Biologist Bob Hayes has killed 851 wolves and sterilized many others in the name of science and conservation biology. For nearly two decades, he thought he was doing what needed to be done to protect caribou, moose and other prey species in the Yukon Territory.

But two years ago, when Hayes was asked by a wildlife management organization whether killing wolves should be considered as a way of stopping the decline of one of the great caribou herds of the world, his answer was an emphatic “No.”

More recently, when he was asked whether there are circumstances in which predator control might be acceptable, Hayes answered in a similar way.

“I spent 18 years studying the effects of lethal wolf control on prey populations, says Hayes, whose self-published book, Wolves of the Yukon, is getting a lot of attention these days now that Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon are looking more and more to wolf control as a wildlife management tool.

“The science clearly shows killing wolves is biologically wrong.”

For more than a century, wolves have been blamed for decline of caribou, moose, elk and other animals in North America. But over time, biologists began to appreciate that the predator-prey relationship was a lot more complex and that removing wolves from the landscape was only a short-term solution to a much bigger environmental problem.

Many things other than wolves are responsible for the decline of caribou and other animals. Bears and cougars are responsible. So are humans. Cars and trucks kill them, so does disease. Too little or too much rain and snow can be factors. So are roads, clear-cuts and cutlines that favour moose, elk and deer and the predators that follow them.

A major turning point in attitudes toward wolves took place in 1996 when five animals from west-central Alberta were released into the Soda Butte Creek area of Yellowstone National Park in the United States where wolves were eliminated in the 1920s.

Within a few short years, the re-introduction of these and other wolves put the wild back into a wilderness that had been overtaken by moose, elk and deer.

Now, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way. In recent years, several wolves from Yellowstone and other western states have been illegally shot or poisoned by people who want to rid the landscape of wolves.

Faced with declining caribou populations, the Alberta government began poisoning and shooting wolves in west central Alberta in 2006. Both British Columbia and the Yukon have proposed or discussed doing the same thing.

Being a hunter, Hayes does not allow sentiment to clutter his train of thought about wolves. He does, however, acknowledge that killing so many wolves was emotionally stressful. But he insists that this is not the reason why he opposes using wolf control as a wildlife management tool. Eighteen years of research and a pile of scientific papers, he says, is what changed his mind.

Biologist John Theberge was perhaps more surprised than anyone when he saw Hayes’ book, which is much more than a manifesto for saving wolves. Both he and Hayes were high-profile members of the International Union on the Conservation of Nature wolf specialist group and they had many heated debates over the subject of wolf control.

Now living in British Columbia, Theberge and his wife Mary spent a good part of their careers studying wolves in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. Hard as it is for them to say, they believe caribou habitat in the southern parts of British Columbia and parts of Alberta have been so grossly fragmented by forestry and oil and gas developments that it may be time for conservationists to accept the fact that their days are numbered in these places.

Like Hayes, they point out that once the killing stops, caribou and moose populations inevitably spiral back downward, making wolf control an expensive and ineffective exercise.

The Theberges, however, believe that there are other reasons why we shouldn’t be killing wolves.

“When you see wolves as individuals and as remarkable social animals, not merely as predators, then it becomes as abhorrent to kill them as it would be your own dog.”

Three years ago, a team of scientists came up with a blueprint to save the animals. Although they acknowledge that wolf control is only a short-term solution to a much bigger problem, they believe it needs to be done for the next five, 10 or more years if we want caribou to be part of the Alberta landscape. They believe that caribou can be saved. The key to recovery, they insist, is habitat restoration.

“It’s a story that’s not likely going to go away so long as there are caribou on the landscape that we want to conserve,” says Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta scientist who has spent more than 20 years trying to prevent the species from becoming extinct in this province.

“Wolf control can be an effective way of reducing kills. But the province is kidding itself if it thinks that wolf control alone is the answer. It’s not.”

estruzik@edmontonjournal.com

via Killing wolves ‘biologically wrong’.

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