Summary: On December 15, 2020 several animal rights groups wrote to the Canadian government asking for a “special review” under the federal Health Act of several poisons (including strychnine) used by the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments to kill wolves. The animal rights supporters argue that not only do the wolves suffer an agonizing death, but other animals also eat the poison or the dead wolves. The wolf cull is, in part, used to support the recovery of regional caribou populations.
Interview with Eric Denhoff, former deputy minister for Alberta Environment, who was involved in the negotiations leading the current regulations. He provides an interesting insight into the competing interests at the negotiating table and the compromises involved.
Interview with Kaitlyn Mitchell, staff lawyer for Animal Justice, about the letter sent to Health Canada asking for a “specific review” of the poisons used on wolves. A good summary of the legal issues involved.
Press release issued by Animal Justice and Wolf Awareness, with a link to a summary of the requests.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Markham Hislop: We’re going to talk about a little different subject today, and that is the Wolf call that is being undertaken by the provinces of BC and Alberta in order to support caribou population recovery. It’s how they do it and who’s funding it as part of the problem. So to talk to us about this, I’d like to welcome Lisa Dahlseide to the interview. You’re a conservationist now and you’ve been involved with an organization that is lobbying and trying to educate British Colombians and Albertans about this issue. Could you give me just a brief overview of what the problem is?
Lisa Dahlseide: We know that wolves play a very critical role in ecological stability, contributing to biodiversity. Their presence in the environment is critical. And the problem is that we are intentionally trying to extricate them from the ecosystem, which will have cascading effects on the environment. So we want to draw awareness towards this so that it can stop.
Markham Hislop: My understanding is that they’re being culled in a couple of different ways. One of them is with poison, in Alberta, which is outlawed in BC, but the other, and it’s a little bit disturbing I have to admit is this idea of shooting wolves from helicopters, which seems a little extreme. Why are governments funding these kinds of cull programs?
Lisa Dahlseide: I think that the reason why it is being funded is simply because they do have a legal obligation to respond to the caribou decline in population, and this seems to be the chosen one. I don’t know why that was the chosen method, but it seems to be the one. It’s very expensive, so I’m not sure why aerial killing and strychnine poisoning would be the choice.
Markham Hislop: I think everybody who’s watching this can probably agree that having the caribou population recover and, it’s under pressure from oil and gas in Alberta…is there a better way to do this so that the caribou’s population can recover without shooting and poisoning a bunch of wolves. What are the alternatives?
Lisa Dahlseide: Well the caribou population in both Alberta and BC is quite fragmented very much in decline from past population estimates. We’re always pointing towards habitat protection. That’s the basic elementary, every grade one student in the country knows that caribou would need habitat to recover. But of course, that does infringe on some of the industry applications or whatnot.
So there are options, though. We could just protect certain habitats and allow exploitation of other habitats that are critical caribou habitat. We could also move around working with their movements, even working with recreation in an effective way. Perhaps it’s getting snowmobiles to draw wolves away from where the critical caribou habitat is. Allowing them to still utilize the landscape allowing the industry to continue the use of the landscape, but just in a more responsible and reflective way to ensure that they’re not increasing access of wolves to caribou habitat.
Markham Hislop: I’m sure you’d be in agreement with the idea of supporting caribou population recovery. And of course industrial activity is going to continue in these areas, but you’d like, if I understand this correctly, to see a strategy put in place that would accommodate all three – wolves, caribou and industrial development – and you think that that’s possible?
Lisa Dahlseide: I do, I believe strongly it’s entirely possible. There’s been a lot of research already put into this. Dr. Gilbert Perreault has put considerable research into what alternatives could be made. And he’s even worked with the forestry industry, who would agree with a lot of his decisions. However, they still have to meet their annual allowable cut, which doesn’t allow for not cutting and clear cutting all of these different habitats. But if we can modify some of these regulations and we can modify the way that we’re doing things, we can definitely address caribou recovery in a non-lethal management way.
Markham Hislop: What other non-lethal options are there? I mean like live trapping, and then relocating, is that an option? What kind of options have we got?
Lisa Dahlseide: That could be an option to consider. I haven’t really put much thought into that, but definitely in the United States, there are several states that are reintroducing wolves, as well as just discussing the re-introduction possibilities because they have had extrication of wolves on a local scale and it’s impacted their ecosystem greatly. So they want the wolves back. So that could be potentially something. We’re disrupting the pack structure of wolves so significantly that we’re potentially actually increasing predation as a result and also potentially in small areas temporarily increasing the population of wolves because we’re removing the one breeding pair, the alpha pair, and now you remove them and you open it up to all the other individuals in the pack to now be breeding individuals. Without the direction of that hierarchy structure, there may be taking more cattle for example, or whatnot, things like that are being disrupted.
So by leaving wolves alone, not killing them, we actually encourage a stable population as a result, as well as very significantly defined territories that they can work within. We can identify where these territories are and work around that to ensure that they’re not getting to the caribou.
Another potential idea would be caribou shepherding. It’s used in nine countries around the world, thousands of reindeer herders even exist today. So this has been going on for thousands of years as well. So it’s not something new. We have the expertise available to us and we could potentially employ indigenous caribou shepherds to just be with these caribou herds, which would definitely decrease predation on those caribou. And it would also open up opportunities for research. So by having somebody constantly with these herds, we can be researching not only the caribou themselves, but also the forest habitats and working to gain more research.
Markham Hislop: I don’t know this issue well so I’m kind of getting up to speed here, but my take on this so far is that there are options, but you know, kind of inertia governs a lot of what governments do and industry does. And nobody really wants to step outside the box and think innovatively and maybe spend a little extra money than they have in the past. Is that kind of what we’ve got going on here?
Lisa Dahlseide: Possibly for sure. and I think a lot of it is Alberta’s been doing the wolf cull program since 2004, 2005, that winter. So this has been going on for a long time and they’re like, “this is the way we do things”. And so potentially stepping out of that box is an issue for the government decision-makers. However, I think that it’s about time that they do, because we don’t have any public support on this initiative. It’s also not effective. We now have 15 years of data to prove without a doubt that the caribou population has not recovered in response to killing over 2,500 wolves in the province of Alberta. And in BC, we killed just over 700 wolves. And again, the population’s not improving as a result. So we do need to step outside the box and we do need to explore their options because this is a critical time. We need those populations to recover for many different reasons.