We’ve all heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood, a fairy tale that likely served the purpose to teaching children to be wary of wolves in the forest. It makes sense that we would impart our children with a wariness of finding themselves alone in the woods where a predator could end their precious lives. [There’s also the additionally dark likelihood of warning our kids away from predatory humans too—those that put on the face of friends but are actually foes. But I digress for the purposes of this post…]
It serves the purpose of setting up wolves to be mistrusted, even though the vast majority of us will never have the experience of seeing a wolf in the wild. They’re smart, beautiful animals that aren’t too different from our beloved pets—interestingly, they are the same species even though we gave them different genus names to generate some separation from our canine companions. But by making them things to be feared, by giving them different names, we keep them as “other“—and keep them vilified, especially where they pose a threat to our interests.
And so now that our interests have finally come to include the endangered caribou, it isn’t much of a surprise that the narrative is now set up as a caribou vs. wolves story. Surely the wolves are the villains in this tale, because they eat the poor, bedraggled caribou. Of course, this is a convenient and overly simplistic story where the fault for caribou decline rests on the backs of those snarling, villainous wolves—rather than on us for the habitat destruction that underlies caribou declines.
We have created linear features all over the boreal forest in our search for oil & gas, through the creation of seismic lines. Any one seismic line isn’t a problem, but we’ve put down so many that it has become an issue for species like caribou. The habitat lost in the creation of those lines isn’t the problem—the problem is that each of those seismic lines acts like a highway for wolves, allowing them to travel distances 2X faster than a wooded area.
Once those seismic lines are cut, it allows plants to grow that can establish quickly—what’s known as early seral vegetation. This new early seral growth is what moose & deer love to eat, and so we’ve created a “buffet grid” for them. This supports larger numbers of moose and deer, and the predators that in turn eat them. More wolves using those seismic line highways means that wolves can encounter caribou more often. And a hungry wolf won’t pass up a caribou that’s walking across its path.
It takes a long time to regenerate seismic lines back to old growth—to a state where it’s no longer a buffet for moose and deer, and where wolves can’t keep using them as travel highways. And it’s very costly (~$10,000 per km!). So it’s “simpler” to just get rid of the wolves that are killing the caribou—even though it’s really just putting calamine lotion on measles rather than actually vaccinating against the virus in the first place. It’s just treating the symptom, not the cause.
The ethics of wolf culls has recently been on the minds of many. Researchers need to apply for and follow strict animal ethical care protocols, as overseen by Animal Care Committees (ACC). However, Provincial governments do not have to apply for ACC permits, they can undertake any wildlife management action they deem appropriate, irrespective of any ethical oversight. It’s not research, so it’s not held to the same standard. But if a cull is being done, it does allow the opportunity to research the effects. It allows researchers to ask questions like: Does culling actually relieve predation on caribou? How long does it take wolves to rebound from a cull? Do culls change within-pack social dynamics? And many, many more.
One paper by Rob Serrouya and colleagues found that when done in conjunction with other management actions, wolf culls can help to conserve caribou in the interim while habitat is restored. If culls were halted due to ethical reasons, then the caribou would vanish from the landscape before the seismic line restoration was complete—because it takes decades to create old growth forest. Is it more ethical to allow one species to go extinct to keep from culling another? Some researchers feel that any research on culls should never be published in peer reviewed literature because culling isn’t ACC approved.
However, the researchers aren’t doing the culls themselves, so criticizing the researchers for the cull becomes a straw man argument.
Personally, I would like to see the end of culls—they’re not an effective long term strategy, and need to be done annually to have any effect. But I also feel that we need to do something to retain caribou on the landscape while those seismic lines are restored back to old growth. No matter which way you look at it, it’s pitting the lives of one species against the lives of another species. But I also feel that it’s also unethical to just let culls happen without actually studying their effects. If culls are going to happen whether we study them or not, why not at least take advantage of this management “treatment” to study its effectiveness? If we can’t study it, we can’t prove that other alternatives may be more effective, both functionally as well as ethically. At least this way we can arm decision-makers with scientific information to make better management choices in future.
What do you think about the wolf vs caribou dilemma?