Human predators, not wolves, decimated South Selkirk caribou

Biologists say not to expect the killing of the wolves will save the caribou

Submitted by Valhalla Wilderness Watch

“Kill the wolves, save the caribou!” says the BC government, as an excuse for the brutality of killing wolves from helicopters. The South Selkirk herd is being held up as an example of the big appetite of wolves: only 18 caribou left. However, the government is not admitting the human causes of caribou disappearance; it is not doing remotely enough to correct the human causes, but is instead waging a propaganda campaign to blame wolves.

“It amounts to a huge cover-up”, says Craig Pettitt, a director of Valhalla Wilderness Watch. “We’re not saying that wolves don’t eat caribou, but they lived in balance with their prey species for thousands of years. We predict that if the government gets by with blaming wolves, every caribou herd in the province will be decimated the way the South Selkirk herd has been. Biologists that we’ve consulted have told us not to expect the killing of the wolves will save the caribou. Much more needs to be done to provide the animals with secure and secluded habitat.”

The real truth is that the South Selkirk herd crashed to 25-30 animals in the early 1970s, when wolves were virtually extirpated from the area. For forty years the herd was never over 51 animals. When BC and Idaho began to talk about recovering the herd in the mid-1980s, it had an estimated 13 animals, and there was no mention by either government of wolves being the cause. Despite receiving transplants of over 100 caribou, the population boost didn’t last.

Government biologists said the main predators were cougars. Even BC’s 2008 Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan mentioned only “cougar management” as predator control for the area. Cougars were killed, but it wasn’t very long after the plan was implemented that biologists noted that wolves had “settled” in the area (if killing the cougars led to an increase in deer, no wonder!)

Historically, the South Selkirk caribou decline has been attributed to settlements, logging and mining, a major highway and, more recently, snowmobiles. Climate change over the last century has brought an increase in fires, and this is probably a major factor, since caribou depend upon old-growth forest.

“Even while knowing that the loss of old-growth was a major factor, the government refused to stop the logging,” says Pettitt. “As late as 2001 I inspected a large, fresh clearcut of old-growth spruce forest — prime caribou winter range right in the herd’s core area next to Stagleap Park. The government boasts about how much habitat it has protected for this herd, but it doesn’t tell you that much of it is in patches between the clearcuts — conditions that caribou cannot tolerate.”

In 2009, three South Selkirk caribou, including a calf and pregnant female, were killed on the highway, on Kootenay Pass. Historically many South Selkirk caribou have been killed on that highway. The speed limit over the pass was at one time 90 km/hr, but the government had raised it to 100. The environmental groups begged the government to reduce it to 60.“One would think the government was in a hurry to wipe them out, says Pettitt.

The government claims that a ‘significant’ amount of the core habitat has been closed to snowmobiles.  “Why isn’t all of its core habitat closed to snowmobiling?” asks Pettitt. “Anyone visiting Kootenay Pass on Highway 3 this winter can see snowmobile trailers parked alongside caribou winter habitat, some of them with U.S. and Alberta license plates — and logging roads hard-packed by snowmobile tracks going off into the forest.” The 2014 census report for the South Selkirk caribou also shows significant snowmobile use in or near closure zones. Numerous scientific studies have documented that packed snowmobile tracks bring wolves into caribou winter habitat, and that the presence of snowmobiles can cause stress to caribou that can affect their reproductive rate.

“Other herds in BC have more habitat left, but the same mistake is being made,” says Anne Sherrod, a director of VWW. “Logging, mining, drilling, road-building, snowmobiling, heli-skiing go on in caribou habitat today, even while the government that signs the permits cries that the caribou must be saved by killing wolves. It’s a sham. The causes that are never admitted will also never be corrected.”

Valhalla Wilderness Watch is a non-profit organization, with similar goals as the Valhalla Wilderness Society, but without charitable status.