It's been argued that man is the only species in history to make the transition from prey to predator. Unfortunately for grey wolves inhabiting the Pacific Northwest, they're proving capable of achieving the opposite: these apex predators are now the ones being hunted.
"There are helicopters taking off every single morning," conservationist Ian McAllister told VICE. "They're targeting packs of wolves that the government has identified as expendable. They're being shot from the air. We don't know how many every day—or exactly where—but it's happening right now."
A highly divisive wolf cull is being carried out quietly, yet systematically, in British Columbia's Peace and Selkirk Regions—along the border with Washington State and Idaho. Government officials concede as many as 184 wolves, comprising two separate packs, have been marked for death in an effort to save the province's dwindling woodland caribou population. But those numbers are conservative, to say the least.
"They plan on continuing this for at least 20 years," McAllister, director and co-founder of conservation organization Pacific Wild, pointed out. "Unless we stop this cull now, thousands of wolves will be killed in order to protect caribou that don't have a fighting chance of survival in the absence of habitat protection."
Caribou, as a species, are not necessarily endangered. But certain subpopulations in Canada and the United States are struggling to survive. Mountain and boreal caribou—collectively referred to as woodland caribou—are on an inevitable and irreversible slide to extinction.
The Selkirk Region's lone herd has just 18 caribou left—down from 46 in 2009. They fare considerably better in the South Peace Region, which boasts seven herds totaling roughly 950 caribou. Still, government officials want to see that number flourish to a population of more than 1200 within two decades.
"[Caribou] populations are decreasing, and wolves are a key factor," Greig Bethel, spokesperson for British Columbia's Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations told VICE. "There are those that will be strongly opposed to wolf control, but for these declining herds it's the only remaining option with any likelihood of success."
Polarizing as the debate over a long-term, sustainable solution to their slow demise may be, the catalyst of the caribou's plight is virtually universally agreed upon. Habitat destruction and human encroachment—from oil and gas companies, mining and logging, seismic testing, and even recreational activity—have pushed these ancient ungulates to the brink of extinction. The same terrain which once offered caribou refuge from its predators now renders them exposed, vulnerable and defenceless.
"Wolves just don't operate well in deep snow, they're at a disability," McAllister explained. "But every time a snowmobile goes zooming into critical caribou habitat, they leave a perfect highway for a pack of wolves to access previously inaccessible herds. And they don't stand a chance."
Conservationists point to decades of government inaction—not wolves—as the culprit. Many maintain that, had road construction, snowmobile operators, and mining prospectors simply been banned from forested areas during winter months, woodland caribou would be faring reasonably well today. Instead, permits were routinely issued to all of these industries, among others—and it's resulted in what critics view as a stopgap solution that's scapegoating wolves.
"The truth is, wolf populations can rebound—even after heavy persecution," Chris Darimont, a conservation scientist who teaches at the University of Victoria, said to VICE. "But that's not the point. You could use aerial gunning to 'cull' fifty percent of people named Chris—and people named Chris would eventually rebound at the population level. But we'd never consider imposing suffering and death in this context. Why would we consider it for animals, who are just as capable as feeling pain as we are?"
Much like its distant cousin, the domestic dog, the wolf is a highly intuitive and social creature—only with an ancestry rooted much deeper in history. Scientists estimate the first grey wolf (also referred to as the timber wolf or western wolf) appeared in Eurasia more than a million years ago; some 250,000 years later, it migrated to North America.
By nature, wolves are fiercely territorial animals. They typically move in packs with a social fabric not dissimilar to that of humans: most consist of a pair of adult wolves accompanied by their pups and older offspring. In some cases, depending on the size of a pack, its territory can span 1,300 square kilometers—or, roughly 260,000 football fields. But in spite of—or, perhaps, because of—their impenetrable reign in the wild, wolves have been historically targeted by humans.
"The bottom line is that decades of unbridled development has created a 'caribou debt' that we are asking wolves to pay for with their lives," Darimont said. "If society seriously wants caribou to survive, we need immediate and drastic changes to oil and gas activity."
Wolves aren't the only canines paying the ultimate price for manmade conundrums. Across North America, coyotes are increasingly showing up in metropolitan areas—like New York City—as their natural habitat is irreversibly encroached upon. Many eventually end up displaced or destroyed—casualties of a modern day phenomenon transforming wild animals into urban refugees and public enemies.
"It wasn't long ago that we had guns mounted on the front of coast guard vessels that were killing whales, sea lions and seagulls—all because we thought they were the cause of the decline in salmon," McAllister recalled. "There are countless examples of humans trying to take out one species to support another, and none of them have produced the results that we hoped. They've caused huge imbalances."
Indeed, similar culls in both Canada and the United states have proved largely ineffective. A seven-year cull in northwestern Alberta—beginning in 2007 and ending in 2012—eliminated 841 grey wolves by way of poisoning or gunfire, but did little to bolster the caribou's population. In America, upwards of 3,000 grey wolves have been slaughtered in the lower 48 states since 2011—the year they were suddenly stripped of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"Killing wolves is not a one time solution," biologist Paul Paquet told VICE. Paquet—a senior scientist at Raincoast Conservation Foundation who has dedicated more than four decades to behavioural research on wolves and bears—says culls rarely work as intended, but often leave devastating ecological damage in their wake. "Wolf culls involve killing hundreds of wolves, and, over the longer term, likely thousands of wolves."
Critics call the cull an exhaustive, cruel and fruitless attempt to sacrifice one species in favour of another. And conservations stress that—while the process itself will be over in a matter of months—the aerial gunning process in which individual wolves are selected and slaughtered is by no means swift, or without suffering.
"Shooting moving animals from a flying helicopter—which moves and vibrates in all directions—cannot possibly kill quickly," Darimont mused. "If it's anything but a bloodbath, I would be surprised."
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