Caribou, amongst many other species, are in rapid decline across the boreal forest and have become locally extinct in many areas (see Banff and Pukaskwa National Parks) or are likely to do so. The underlying reason for this decline is not disputed. Ecologists, the public and government alike agree that it’s a symptom of industrial habitat modification and loss. What is contentious is what, if any, our response should be.
Before wading into possible responses, it’s imperative to understand the reasons why caribou are declining. The #1 cited reason is “apparent competition”, which means that human modifications to the landscape are favouring other ungulates (deer), which aren’t problematically competing for resources (food, space) with the caribou but are supporting higher predator populations (wolves) which negatively affect caribou as well. The second mechanism is simpler. Roads built into formerly wild areas allow wolves to more efficiently access caribou refugia in the deep woods. Thus wolves become more efficient predators, particularly with regards to caribou which have low reproductive rates.
The core problem – industry – is indisputable but no one wants to curtail industry for fears that ecological preservation would come at the expensive of wealth. This is especially true because decision making parties (i.e. the Alberta government) are often some of the largest benefactors of industrial expansion (i.e. oil sands). Since the Canadian Species At Risk Act (SARA) mandates provincial governments not to allow species to go extinct, the popular “solution” is a wolf cull. Such a practice has been in place for several years in Alberta and the Yukon, and is being eminently considered in other areas (British Columbia). The lip service is that a wolf cull is a stop-gap measure while habitat is restored, but such restoration shows no signs of beginning, and would take decades. A good estimate is that large areas of forest would need to have the roads removed and allowed at least 50 years of recovery before caribou would have a positive growth rate (personal conversation with a wolf-caribou guru).
The ethics of a wolf cull are contentious, as wolves are either being shot inaccurately from a helicopter hovering over the thick forest or poisoned with strychnine, a truly undesirable way to go that involves hours of convulsions prior to death. Such poisoning is not species specific and has substantial side mortality on species ranging from ravens to endangered fishers to lynx. However, the logic of a wolf cull seems impeccable: less wolves = fewer caribou being eaten = larger caribou populations. But ecology is never that simple, as the folks who introduced the cane toad into Australia to combat beetles will surely tell you. Below are several reasons why a wolf cull is problematic.
1) The social structure of wolves typically involves one breeding pair per pack. As wolves are shot, packs become fragmented and form multiple, new, smaller groups. The outcome is that at up to 50% cull rates, wolf populations are capable of replenishing if not growing. Thus you get results like this paper, where wolf populations showed no decline despite an annual 50% cull. That’s why it took a truly fantastic effort to eradicate wolves from the lower 48.
2) If you do successfully reduce wolf populations, as the Yukon did with a 70% annual cull, then you hit several new problems. The first is commesurate a rise in other predators, such as the mesopredator release hypothesis. Mesopredator release is the phenomena where the removal of a top predator causes subordinate, secondary predators to increase in abundance. This is commonly seen by the proliferation of racoons in urban areas where apex predators are absent. For the woodland caribou, a drop in wolf populations would likely be offset by an increase in the populations of coyotes, which are equally adept at killing caribou since the vast majority of caribou kills in the boreal forest are on very young juveniles. Similarly, other competing apex predators like cougars would also experience reduced competition and would likely increase in number to maintain predation on caribou. Where there is an opportunity, someone is likely to fill it. Thus, a wolf cull may not generate the anticipated reduction in predation since they aren’t the only predators on the land.
3) If a wolf cull did successfully lead to a meaningful drop in predation on caribou, the next issue is an explosion of competing ungulates who would surely benefit as well. Other ungulates are already favoured in these modified landscapes and a drop in predation would enable even higher growth rates. Quite likely deer – with their high fecundity – but also moose and elk, would rise rapidly and begin to directly compete with caribou for food, breeding sites or overwintering habitat. As caribou have quite low fecundity, they are the least capable ungulate of exploiting a void in predation. Thus there is no reason to think that a void in predation would be a net positive for caribou. Furthermore, creating a landscape with a Smörgåsbord of ungulates would allow wolf populations to recover at amazing speeds if a successful culling program was halted.
Human modifications of the boreal forest have reached a threshold were caribou are no longer competitive. If we are okay with this, we can simply let them go locally extinct and accept the new deer ecosystem we have created. If we aren’t okay with this, we must begin substantial restoration efforts to start the long process of recreating viable caribou habitat. As most caribou populations aren’t on track to persist long enough to see this come to fruition, some intervention would be required to slow their decline. Massive wolf culls (~70% of the population annually) are a viable short term solution (1-5 years) but their efficacy will decline over the medium term due to rising populations of other predators and competitors. A more effective approach would be a simultaneous culling of both wolves and the competing ungulates that are supporting the wolf’s rise, followed by sustained culling of the other ungulates, and wolves as needed, to prevent wolf populations from rebounding and other predators from increasing. This could potentially work in the medium term (5 years to a few decades) but the complexities of ecology likely include many subtle reasons why this won’t work in the longer term and thus true restoration of the land is still required. The real question is are we serious about achieving this? Or are wolf culls just a token gesture as the caribou are on their way out?
My personal opinion is that there are a slew of reasons why we would should conserve large, functional examples of all habitat types including the boreal forest. The value provided by caribou (tourism, hunting, intrinsic value) is one such reason, but also important are the substantial ecosystem services (i.e. clean air, clean water, food, C02 sequestration) and recreation opportunities the boreal forest provides to humanity. By setting clear limits on our industrial activities in the boreal forest, we can preserve and restore functional examples and reap many benefits including the persistence of woodland caribou.
Nice essay, Dan. Its always interesting to see how humans like to take the easy route out and blame others instead of taking a hard look at our own actions. Its hard for people to admit what they’re doing is part of the problem.
I remember reading a related story in Farley Mowat’s book, Never Cry Wolf. The local population (I don’t remember where specifically but somewhere in northern Canada) was upset that caribou numbers were going down. The locals blamed it all on the wolves. So the govt. sent out a survey asking how many caribou each person took that year. Most mentioned a low number. When Farley was up in the area, he noticed how there were hundreds of caribou carcasses around the living areas and was initially astounded because he thought it was the wolves. He eventually realized that the locals had been killing way more caribou than they had reported. Furthermore, he found that the wolves diet, in that area, consisted almost entirely of field mice. And unfortunately the govt. didn’t do a detailed investigation and pursued with a wolf culling program for a number of years.
I find it ironic that people are always talking about how the wolves are too plentiful and they are at fault, when in reality it’s us humans who have overpopulated the earth and caused a great deal of ecological distress/damage.
P.S. I’ve been meaning to tell you thanks. I used your instructions to mount my ski bindings successfully. A few tiny errors on my part but it worked out alright.
Thanks for the comment Jack. Interesting stuff.
I’ve worked in the arctic a bit (Nunavut) and had a chance to witness the awesome migration of the Bathurst Herd. I’ve spoken with quite a few locals and been quite surprised/disappointed at how the caribou resources are being managed. Many natives have told me first hand accounts of egregious waste. The power of modern technology (snowmobiles, guns) appears to have led to a large reduction in animal utilization. With a sled you can easily follow a herd and pick off as many as you’d like. While technically illegal, the ability to sell caribou pelts to non-natives is also promoting over harvesting.
The challenges facing the arctic herds (overharvesting) seem quite different than the woodland situation (habitat loss).
Nice to hear you got the skis mounted up. Hopefully you’ve got some snow this winter. I only have 3 days on my newest pair.
It always bothered me that no one ever brings up that calf-retention haven’t rose after the culls in Yukon or Alberta. Yes, adults are more likely to survive on a year to year basis, but that is kind of like putting a dying person on life-support.
For the governments to be active, they would need to encourage population growth rather than being satisfied with static.
Turns out the BC government just admitted pretty much everything I wrote here (i.e. the killing of other ungulates is probably a necessary measure if this stop gap is to continue). They are proposing doing this via encouraging trophy hunting:
Excellent blog – well written, thoughtful, well-reasoned, and ecologically literate. Here is a link to a recent commentary in Huffpost that might be of interest.
As an aside, I hiked the entire Pacific Crest in 1971, so apparently we are bonded at another level.