Since 2005, Alberta, Canada's government has killed 1,360 wolves, mostly shooting them down from helicopters. Aerial shooting caused 84 percent of deaths during that timespan, according to Dave Hervieux, the province's caribou management specialist. Poisoning by strychnine-tainted meat accounted for the remainder. Because wolves are objectively the fucking coolest furry animals aside from Ewoks, the situation has devolved into quite the controversy, with many environmental organizations arguing that wolves are being scapegoated and murdered for the destructive byproducts of industrial activities. The reason for the ongoing massacre circles back, most predictably, to the province's encouragement of hyper-accelerated resource development over the last decade.
Unfortunately, such capitalist frivolities have come at the expense of many woodland caribou, especially in the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges, located in west-central Alberta near Jasper National Park. And the rapid demise of the reindeer relatives—with the Little Smoky range's caribou population annually declining by between 10 and 20 percent from the late 1990s to mid-2000s—is very much a holy-fuck-our-pet-canary-just-died-from-carbon-monoxide-poisoning moment.
"The Little Smoky features wetter and higher altitude forests, which means it's a good refuge from climate change," says Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. "If we were to manage this habitat better for caribou survival and recovery, many other species would benefit: migratory birds, Athabasca rainbow trout, fur-bearing animals. The caribou are genetically and ecologically really important because they're indicators of the health of forests and wetlands."
Government scientists have been issuing warnings about the caribou's decline since the 1970s. Woodland caribou were officially designated as "threatened" by the federal government in 2000. The federal caribou recovery strategy was finally released in October 2012. It mandated that 65 percent of the habitat in a caribou range must remain undisturbed, expecting the result that 60 percent of the herd would possibly become self-sustaining. (Campbell quips that "if that was a medical condition, most of us wouldn't be totally enthusiastic about that.")
But it seems that Alberta didn't give many fucks about environmental concerns and completely ignored the advice of such experts. Now, habitat disturbance in Little Smoky is estimated at 95 percent, a full 60 percent above the maximum levels, according to Alison Ronson, the executive director at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta. This rampant destruction has also reduced the natural carbon sequestration abilities that boreal forests have historically served.
Seismic lines, roads, clearcuts, and drilling rigs have decimated the range, encouraging moose and deer to pop by for grazing in what is normally caribou territory. This change in behavior has inevitably drawn the attention of wolves, which have discovered quite a taste for juicy caribou flesh. Hervieux argues the "predator management" program has been necessary to keep the Little Smoky caribou population (between 70 and 100 animals) from local extinction, which animal nerds call "extirpation." But while critics agree the program—which recently spread to British Columbia—has allowed the population to stabilize, they seriously dispute the long-term desirability of it.
"It's a bad situation that's made worse by what may be viewed as an essential step in the short term to preserve some herds that might otherwise become extirpated," says Jason Unger, staff counsel at the Edmonton-based Environmental Law Center. "It's a bad way of treating symptoms without dealing with the bigger causes of habitat degradation."
Hervieux stresses the government would prefer not to have to kill wolves at all, but he notes "in the near-term, we need to do this or there would be no caribou left." Between 50 and 80 percent of the wolves in Little Smoky are "removed" every year. He fears the woodland caribou—which have resided in Alberta since the last ice age—may die off within his lifetime. In 2009, an avalanche killed the last five caribou in the Banff herd, leading to an official extirpation in the range. Only four of the 16 remaining caribou populations are "stable." Two of those were sustained because of the "predator management" program. The other two are OK for now because they're in "wild country," far from industrial development.
But the Cold Lake and East Side of Athabasca River herds, located in the heart of tar sands country, are facing near-term extirpation: "Their time on the planet is very short," says Hervieux. In recent years, there have been between zero and four calves [surviving] per 100 caribou cows in those spots. There's no plan to introduce a wolf cull in such regions, perhaps because of the political implications.
To be sure, there have been some recent improvements. As of the end of July, there haven't been any new energy leases sold in any of Alberta's caribou ranges. It's something Campbell describes as a "huge psychological shift" that's "really overdue." Ronson adds the new provincial government has indicated a greater willingness to engage with indigenous and environmental groups (which the previous government shut out of negotiations when it established a ministerial task force in 2012). A mediator has been brought in to try find a reasonable compromise. The province's energy department is "thoroughly reviewing all land sales in caribou ranges." Plus, the economic downturn has gutted the sale of tenures.
But serious problems persist. Between 2005 and 2015, the province auctioned off over 15,000 square miles of terrain within caribou ranges to energy companies, which continue to build new well sites, pipelines, and roadways. Over $3 billion [$2.2 billion USD] worth of land, mostly in western Alberta, was sold off in 2012. The usage of recreational vehicles such as ATVs and snowmobilers, something Albertans are inexplicably obsessed with, only exacerbates such damages. Such activities increase potential access for wolves that results in even more caribou being threatened.
Patching up that habitat takes many decades to occur naturally (Campbell notes there could be many job opportunities in intense restoration). And unless a permanent moratorium is implemented, economic pressures such as the growing deficit and potential ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could potentially boost forestry exports, may cause the provincial government to ease up on the hiatus. If that happens, the caribou in Little Smoky might be completely fucked.
A federal recovery strategy for the Little Smoky range was meant to be published last spring, but government is apparently stacked with people who used to hand in school assignment months late. Unger says a cabinet order from the federal government could mandate that critical habitat of specific ranges be protected in a particular way. But that would require locking antlers with the natural resource companies, something both the provincial and federal government has seemed entirely unwilling to do so far. Unger notes that it "becomes a political decision at a certain stage."
But until such issues are addressed, wolves will continue to be slaughtered in order to allow natural resource development to thrive. It appears to come back to a question of allegiance: Is the role of the provincial government to abide by federal environmental regulations, or bow to the pressures of private industry? If a verdict can't be arrived at soon, perhaps a cage match between a bunch of oil execs and a pack of surviving wolves is in order.
"We have caused this problem," Hervieux says. "The choice is on us whether we attempt to address it and make it right or walk away. That's a societal question. It is an age of consequences. Are we willing to accept addressing those consequences or not?"
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