Wolf Culls Boost Threatened Caribou Populations in Canada, Study Finds

Wolf culls have helped boost threatened Southern mountain caribou populations in western Canada, but this controversial tactic may be necessary for years until habitat can be restored, according to a new study.

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Sakchi Khandelwal
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Wolf Culls Boost Threatened Caribou Populations in Canada, Study Finds

Wolf Culls Boost Threatened Caribou Populations in Canada, Study Finds

A new study suggests that wolf culls have helped boost threatened Southern mountain caribou populations in western Canada. The study, published in the journal Ecological Applications, found that caribou numbers have risen by 52% since 2020, with around 1,500 more caribou than there would have been without intervention.

The study's authors, a team of 34 researchers, concluded that the slaughter of hundreds of wolves has been the biggest reason for the rebound in caribou numbers. "If we don't shoot wolves, given the state of the habitat that industry and government have allowed, we will lose caribou," said lead author Clayton Lamb.

Caribou conservation is considered one of the toughest wildlife management problems in North America, as the animals require undisturbed stretches of old-growth boreal forest. However, much of this habitat has been degraded by logging and drilling, leading to a 51% decline in caribou populations between 1991 and 2023.

Why this matters: The findings put wildlife managers in a difficult position, as they must balance the need to protect caribou with the ethical concerns around culling wolves. The study suggests that these controversial tactics may be necessary for many more years until the habitat can be restored.

The researchers analyzed 51 years of demographic data from 40 caribou herds in British Columbia and Alberta. They found that wolf reduction was the only recovery action that consistently increased caribou population growth when applied in isolation, boosting growth rates by about 11%. Combinations of wolf reductions with other measures like maternal penning or supplemental feeding provided even more rapid growth, up to 16% annually.

However, the study authors acknowledge that killing wolves is an "incredibly difficult decision" as it involves "shooting wolves to save another species." While habitat restoration is the preferred long-term solution, it takes decades for clear-cuts and cutlines to return to old-growth status. In the meantime, various stopgap measures have been used, including wolf sterilization and reducing moose and deer populations.

The wolf cull is expected to continue in British Columbia through 2026, with an annual budget of up to $1.8 million and an expected 244 wolves killed every year. Conservation groups have criticized the practice as cruel and inhumane, arguing that human activity and development are the primary issues facing caribou.

The study's findings suggest that wolf culls, combined with other interventions, have been effective in boosting caribou numbers in the short term. However, the authors warn that these heavy-handed tactics will likely be necessary for many more years until the trends of habitat loss and disturbance can be reversed. "Caribou conservation is one of the toughest wildlife management problems on the continent," Lamb said. "The habitat has been degraded by industry and government. It's not the wolves' fault."

Key Takeaways

  • Wolf culls have boosted threatened Southern mountain caribou populations by 52% since 2020.
  • Habitat degradation from logging and drilling led to a 51% caribou population decline since 1991.
  • Wolf reduction is the only recovery action that consistently increased caribou population growth.
  • Wolf culls are expected to continue in BC through 2026, with up to 244 wolves killed annually.
  • Habitat restoration is the preferred long-term solution, but takes decades for clear-cuts to recover.