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CA: Alberta’s ‘big bad wolves’ mere scapegoats

By Dick Dekker, Edmonton Journal

Albertans love their dogs. They are becoming more and more part of the family, and mistreatment of pets is severely frowned upon. The shooting of surplus sleigh dogs after the Vancouver Winter Olympics created an international scandal. Recently, an Ottawa woman who allowed her dog to starve to death was sentenced to 10 months in jail.

So why the apparent lack of reaction after local news media repeatedly reported that more than 500 wolves had been shotgunned from the air in the foothills northwest of Hinton? When the remaining wolves became too shy, government biologists resorted to the use of poison baits, which are non-selective and known to kill many non-target carnivores and scavengers, birds as well as mammals.

The purported reason for the Alberta wolf cull is that another animal – the woodland caribou – has been declining, mainly because its formerly closed forest habitat has been carved up by industrial activity and opened up to hunters and poachers, while clearcuts have improved foraging for deer and moose, which in turn attract more predators.

So what has Alberta’s Department of Sustainable Resource Development done to rectify the problem? Has it restricted industrial activity in the forests? Has it blocked unused oil roads and seismic cutlines to all-terrain vehicles? Hardly. Instead, provincial biologists have zeroed in on a scapegoat of old: the big, bad wolf.

The government has actually aggravated the ecological crisis of habitat destruction by seriously disrupting the dynamic balance between prey and predators.

In a Journal article back in June about the wolf kill – entitled Senseless Slaughter – reporter Ed Struzik included interviews with several university biologists, who were unanimous in their belief that the wolf cull alone would not be effective in halting the caribou decline.

Dr. Gordon Haber, an independent wolf scientist who read 70 official documents and interviewed more than 35 guide-outfitters and native hunters, compared the B.C. wolf cull to a bad Alfred Hitchcock movie. As fast as the Wildlife Branch would clean them out, more wolves came flooding in.

The caribou crisis is far from new. In 1986, the Alberta Restoration Plan for Woodland Caribou warned of major declines and included a proposal for a large-scale wolf cull. Leaked to the news media, it sparked an immediate reaction. Organized by the local affiliate of the Sierra Club, a public protest meeting in Calgary attracted a capacity crowd of 1,200. They were addressed by hard-hitting Canadian author Farley Mowat, world-famous for his book Never Cry Wolf.

In May of 1988, the University of British Columbia, in co-operation with the B.C. Wildlife Branch and several environmental groups, hosted a scientific symposium on wolf predation. In the meantime, Greenpeace activist Paul Watson had succeeded in calling international media attention to the province’s aerial kills. Assaulted from all sides, B.C.’s environment minister capitulated, declaring he had received 12,000 letters on the issue, more than on any other subject.

On March 29, the University of Alberta invited Paul Watson to explain his views. His courageous stance in the face of a two-hour grilling was a catalyst in bringing the controversy home to Albertans.

Understandably, the province’s hunters and outfitters were of a different opinion and became increasingly irritated by government inaction on the wolves.

In March 1989, on behalf of local big game hunters, the Alberta Fish and Game Association took matters in its own hands and issued a press release offering a bounty of $150 for any wolf killed. On average, the province’s trappers caught about 500 wolves annually out of an estimated provincial population of 3,500 to 5,000 animals. The hunting group wanted to boost the trapper “harvest” to 1,200.

The announcement elicited a passionate response from the Canadian Wolf Defenders, headquartered in Edmonton. On Feb. 8, 1990, they organized a public forum on the wolf issue in the provincial museum. Hosted by its curator of mammals, the panel of invited experts included the deputy minister of wildlife and the dean of the university’s department of zoology, as well as executive members of the local hunting and conservation groups.

A diverse crowd of wolf lovers, hunters and trappers attended and nobody, declared support for large-scale, government-sponsored wolf kills. So how to explain today’s deafening silence?

Dick Dekker is an independent wildlife researcher. He has published several books and research papers on wolves and other wildlife in Jasper National Park.