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Comment: Anecdotes, guesses no justification for killing wolves

As British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is proposing to extend wolf-killing season on Vancouver Island to 10 months from the current eight months, wolves on the Island could endure an additi

As British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is proposing to extend wolf-killing season on Vancouver Island to 10 months from the current eight months, wolves on the Island could endure an additional two months each year of needless suffering.

In B.C., hunters and trappers kill more than 1,200 wolves annually. Yet, the ministry admits “much of the information the province’s wildlife managers obtain regarding wolf populations is anecdotal, with a reliance on public sightings and observations.”

In other words, B.C.’s lethal exploitation of wolves is not based on science. Rather, the government relies on anachronistic seat-of-the-pants management rooted in an anti-predator ideology embedded in what its proponents ironically call the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”

In line with its capricious approach to wolf management, the ministry’s stated rationale for extending the trapping season is centred on anecdotal sightings and observations of an “increased wolf population and a lack of ungulates (primarily deer) in many northern and west coast management units on Vancouver Island.” The ministry says: “Regional staff have witnessed increased [wolf] sightings/scats/tracks while conducting aerial and ground-based ungulate inventory.” Anecdotes and guesswork, however, are not scientific data, and when substituted for sound science, they contribute to poor reasoning and stunningly bad decisions.

The ministry goes on to state: “There have been decreased trends in deer population index in northern management units since the increased wolf sightings/sign have been observed,” implying a causal fallacy that wolf predation is the ultimate cause of deer decline on Vancouver Island. In addition to blatantly violating the elementary statistical principle of “correlation does not imply causation,” the ministry’s reckless conjecture is contradicted by an abundance of scientific literature.

The actions of humans coupled with a suite of natural forces affect deer abundance. Predators are only one factor in this dynamic. In fact, predator-prey interactions are influenced overwhelmingly by the altered landscape we have created through decades of widespread clearcut logging and industrial forestry.

Forest fragmentation and associated habitat loss from clearcut logging adversely affect deer populations. Scientific studies by the U.S. Forest Service in the temperate rainforests of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska have shown that “short-rotation clearcut logging of old growth forests … will reduce habitat capability for Sitka black-tailed deer. This conclusion is supported by an extensive body of research spanning 30 years on forest succession following logging, silvicultural practices, deer habitat relations and nutritional ecology of deer.”

Although forage in early cutover areas might be temporarily abundant, typically it is of lesser nutritional value. In a few short years, when the second-growth plantation-forest canopy closes, there is next to no forage.

Some understory plant species never reappear in areas subjected to the kind of short-rotation and even-age management that is dominant on Vancouver Island.

What little forage persists is not available to deer during periods of deep snow because deer can neither travel efficiently nor access forage in snow that accumulates in clearcuts. Token “deer winter ranges” set amidst a sea of clearcuts provide a futile panacea.

From the Tongass study: “Within 30 years of clearcutting, regenerating conifers shade out most understory vegetation, creating poor habitat conditions for deer. These stands represent a serious problem for deer because the habitat is poor in all seasons, and these conditions persist for a long time (150 to 200 years).”

This, too, describes Vancouver Island, where most of the Island’s old-growth forests have been transformed by clearcut logging and converted into biologically simplified tree plantations that are logged on short rotations, doing little to provide productive habitat for wildlife.

Predation by wolves affects deer populations, just as all predators affect prey populations. If left alone, predation is nearly always self-regulating; native (i.e., not introduced) predators rarely over-exploit their prey. But once again, wolves are being unethically scapegoated and consequently persecuted for the damage done to deer habitat, and the capacity of that habitat to support deer, by decades of regressive forestry practices on Vancouver Island.

Conservation of wolves and other demanding carnivore species will always be inconvenient and forcefully opposed by some groups and organizations seeking to influence government policy, and therefore politically volatile. Traditionally, the province has been aligned philosophically with “special interest hunting” as a management tool, and has been too absorbed with assuaging these special interests to dependably assess the situation on Vancouver Island.

Moreover, decision-makers have consistently forgotten that professional standards of managing wildlife include ethics. Even the best scientific management of wildlife populations doesn’t give us permission to kill wolves gratuitously or do as we please.

Adherence to ethical standards is even more important when science is ignored and haphazard stories and groundless suppositions are the primary reasoning used to make decisions.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Paul C. Paquet, PhD, is Raincoast’s senior scientist and a large-carnivore expert.