Tracking the Issues

By: Dr. Gilbert Proulx

In my previous blog issue, in January 2016, I indicated that 2015 had been a difficult year for wildlife in Canada. Using Alberta as an example, I showed that an ineffective provincial caribou management program, and unjustified wolf and coyote bounties supported by many rural municipalities, were proof that some wildlife biologists provided a smoke screen to irresponsible industrial activities. Without data to support their allegations, these biologists conveniently accommodated political agendas at the expense of professional and ethical wildlife management. I ended my blog by wishing that 2016 would be a better year for wildlife conservation in Canada.

I waited all of 2016 and 2017 to see changes in the attitude of the Alberta Government and the actions of its Fish & Wildlife Division regarding some very controversial programs such as the killing of wolves with strychnine, creating an enclosure to raise naïve caribou, and the use of killing neck snares to remove predators and their prey, and domestic animals, across the province. I waited because I was hoping to write a positive blog about wildlife conservation in Alberta. My wait is over and such a positive message will not happen.

In fall 2016, 18 scientists from Canada, USA, Denmark, and Australia joined their voices to mine in an Open Letter to Premier Rachel Notley in the magazine Nature Alberta. In our letter, we argued that caribou recovery should proceed through habitat conservation, restoration and connectivity over a 5-year period, and the wolf killing and caribou fencing programs should be stopped. Premier Notley deferred to Brian Makowecki, Director of Land and Environmental Planning North for Alberta Environment and Parks, to respond to our proposed solution. In a November 2016 letter, Makowecki stated that they had the conservation of caribou under control, even though “the predator and alternate prey management program alone will not save caribou from extinction.”

The response of the Alberta Government was soon followed by an Open Letter in the Nature Alberta 2017 winter issue by Stan Boutin from the University of Alberta. He defended the Alberta Government’s ineffective program to which he was an important contributor. In his arguments, Boutin stated that there were too many wolves in Alberta, and the wolf culling program and caribou fencing project were vital to the survival of caribou. This time, I responded with 14 colleagues from around the world and we used scientific evidence to demonstrate that the number of wolves in Alberta was unknown. This had also been confirmed to me in a meeting that I had with Matt Besko, Director of Wildlife Management for the Province of Alberta. In our letter, we showed that the wolf culling program had failed to stabilize or increase caribou numbers. After killing nearly 1,000 wolves over a 7-year period, the program was a failure. Finally, we explained why the proposed caribou fencing program would be a failure based on the results of previous fencing programs in Alberta and elsewhere. In 2017, I also published a paper in the journal Science with Dr. Roger Powell from North Carolina State University entitled “Build habitats, not fences, for caribou,” and a review with Dr. Ryan Brook from the University of Saskatoon on the ineffectiveness of fencing caribou and killing all predators to save the Little Smoky caribou population of Alberta.

Finally, in 2018, I published a paper demonstrating that there was no scientific evidence that showed that wolves were the proximal cause for the decline of boreal caribou populations ̶the wolf killing program conducted in Alberta was simply unjustified.

It appears to me that the Alberta Government and its Wildlife Agency did not want to hear about alternative programs. They claimed that their program would save caribou (sic) and Albertan jobs. However, our alternative caribou conservation program to Premier Notley also aimed to save caribou, wolves, and Albertan jobs. It was different because it focused on the loss of habitat, the ultimate factor responsible for the decline in caribou numbers. Nowhere in our letters and scientific papers did we claim that Alberta jobs would be lost. In fact, our alternative habitat conservation program would have probably created new jobs while
maintaining industrial activities.

After all this, the Alberta Government deposited a draft caribou conservation document to Environment Canada encompassing a wolf culling and caribou fencing program. None of my colleagues or me were able to meet with the Minister of Environment or the caribou biologists who are responsible for this document. What a shame! In years to come, the Fish & Wildlife Division will undoubtedly claim that their program was successful, and some researchers will likely produce untested models supporting the Government’s allegations. They did it in the past, they will do it again – same old, same old!

I am terribly sorry to admit that I am not a very productive blogger – In the past years, my attention was engulfed in my scientific studies and publications. This year, however, I took the resolution to be more productive. Stay tuned, I will soon be working on another instalment!

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