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Save caribou, kill wolves?

On August 26, the Federal Government released its proposed Woodland Caribou Recovery Strategy under the Endangered Species Act. The foremost threats to caribou are habitat alteration (including loss, degradation and fragmentation) from human activities, and predation, mostly by wolves. In the short run, it is cheaper and quicker to kill wolves (“predator population reduction”) than to protect and restore habitat. Environment Minister Peter Kent is reported to be contemplating killing large numbers of wolves in Alberta to “protect” the province’s fragile caribou herds.

The official goals of the recovery plan are to:

o Maintain the current status of the 17 existing self-sustaining local caribou populations;

o Achieve self-sustaining status for 12 local populations that are not self-sustaining, to ensure representivity of ecological conditions and maintain connectivity across Canada; and,

o “Stabilize” the remaining 28 local populations that are not self-sustaining.

In other words, no effort will be made to restore half the caribou herds to “self-sustaining” status. These twenty-eight herds “were not identified as essential for connectivity and representative of ecological conditions across the distribution of the species.” Instead, they will be “stabilized” at existing population size estimates. Local populations with fewer than 100 animals will be brought up to at least 100. The strategy implies that this may be achieved by killing the local wolves, their natural predators, instead of by protecting their habitat.

This may work in the short run, but seems doomed to failure in the longer run. For one thing, will wolves be culled forever? For another, caribou evolved with constant wolf predation; it is wolf predation that keeps caribou herds and their grazing lands healthy, by weeding out the weak and the sick, and by moving the animals from place to place in tight groups. Removing keystone predators may be convenient for humans, but I do not know how it can produce a healthy ecosystem.

The consultation period on the draft recovery strategy runs until October 25, 2011.

Meredith James and Dianne Saxe

 

 

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