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Jack Knox: Does killing animals to save animals make sense?

Buck didn’t knock, of course. Just barged into the house as usual. He was out of breath, though. All four legs were shaking and foliage dangled from his antlers as though he had fled his Beacon Hill Park home in a hurry.
A cougar that was spotted in a Saanich neighbourhood at Thistlewood Drive and Donwood Drive in 2015.

Buck didn’t knock, of course. Just barged into the house as usual.

He was out of breath, though. All four legs were shaking and foliage dangled from his antlers as though he had fled his Beacon Hill Park home in a hurry.

“This city isn’t safe anymore,” he pronounced. “Who’d have thought there’d be a wolf in James Bay? It’s like finding a pipeline supporter in Fernwood.”

Those who recognize Buck from previous columns will recall he is given to both hyperbole and skittishness, but on this occasion, it must be recognized that he wasn’t the only one rattled when The Littlest Lobo wandered into James Bay on the weekend.

It’s our standard reaction: The closer wildlife gets to the centre of town, the more we freak out. When a cougar follows the Galloping Goose into Metchosin or Colwood, no one is particularly perturbed. Yet let one prowl around the legislature, as happened in 2015, and the cameras pursue it like Prince Harry and Meghan.

Among other legendary downtownish encounters:

• In 1992, a big tom cougar had to be tranquillized after wandering into the parkade under The Empress. So did the Times Colonist’s Mike Devlin, who at the time was a youthful parking attendant whom no one had thought to warn of the danger.

Devlin was blissfully ignorant until a bunch of gun-toting guys piled into the car he was parking and yelled “Drive!” The cougar flashed past his eyes, as did the entirety of his all-too-short life.

• One morning in 1989, as a 24-year-old woman combed her hair in front of the mirror of her James Bay basement suite, a cougar burst through the window, followed by tracking dogs and a couple of animal-control officers.

It was mayhem: broken glass, busted furniture, flashing fangs, snarls of rage, just like Parcheesi night at Les Leyne’s house.

The woman did the logical thing: She jumped in a closet and slammed the door, poking her head out only after the cougar was shot dead in her bedroom.

These are the tales we remember — while a less dramatic but more serious story is playing out beyond our sight.

For even as wild animals show up in urban areas in increasing numbers, helping themselves to our gardens (and occasionally our pets) without so much as a thanks-for-the-cat, their numbers in the wilderness itself are falling.

The B.C. Wildlife Federation has been sounding this alarm for years, warning about vanishing mountain caribou herds, plunging moose populations in the central Interior, the disappearance of the legendary Thompson River steelhead trout, the loss of mountain goats in the Okanagan, and on and on. Urban deer might be so numerous that they’re demanding their own HOV lane into Victoria, but it’s a different story for the black-tailed deer and elk up-Island.

It’s also a different story for the wolves. While Victorians clamoured for authorities to catch but not kill the James Bay wolf, on Vancouver Island as a whole, there has been an increase in the number of wolves killed by trappers in the past couple of years — 16 in 2019 and 29 in 2018, an increase from a historical average of seven a year, according to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. (There’s also a separate wolf hunt.)

The rise coincided with the lengthening of the wolf-trapping season by 51 days a year, a decision the ministry says was made to allow trappers “more sustainable trapping opportunities” — basically, more time outside of freeze and thaw cycles, when traps don’t work as well.

The government doesn’t say it was a goal, but a consequence of trapping more wolves could be an increase in deer and elk numbers. That tiptoes into controversial territory, though: The idea of predator control, of killing animals of one species to save those of another, makes many people nervous and outrages others.

Others go the opposite direction: Some B.C. hunting groups, arguing there’s a predator-prey imbalance, have staged “wolf-whacking” tournaments.

The B.C. Wildlife Federation’s position, as stated on its website, is carefully worded: “When predator control is conducted to achieve specific measurable objectives, such as to reduce the mortality of specific wildlife species or reduce depuration of domestic livestock, it needs to be done across defined landscapes that are co-ordinated, scientifically monitored and evaluated. The [federation] does not support predator control conducted through financial contests as they do not meet the above tests and they may do more harm than good by breaking up wolf pack structures.”

No one said wildlife management is easy, particularly when dealing with numbers that are harder to pin down in the wild than in James Bay. Two years ago, the ministry estimated the Island’s wolf population at 250 and rising, though it’s not as though the animals fill out census forms.

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