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CA NWT: N.W.T. bush pilot makes plea to end ‘fruitless’ aerial wolf cull

‘I have real concerns about the wisdom, the efficiency, and … the fruitless outcome of this’

Sara Minogue · CBC News 

A file photo of two North American grey wolves. The N.W.T. and Tłı̨chǫ governments are planning to kill wolves by air again next spring in order to help rescue the Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou herds from ‘dire’ population levels. (Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock)

A bush pilot with more than 35 years of experience ferrying wildlife researchers over the N.W.T. barrenlands says a plan to kill wolves by air is “an utter waste of time, money and professional careers.” 

Dave Olesen made the comment in a nine-page letter to the Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board (WRRB) on Friday, the last day for the public to submit comments on the N.W.T. and Tłı̨chǫ governments’ joint wolf management plan

The plan calls for killing 60 to 80 per cent of wolves that prey on the Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou herds every year for the next four years. On-the-ground harvesters will be given the first chance to take out the wolves, followed by marksmen in a helicopter in late March if on-the-ground kills aren’t sufficient. 

“I have real concerns about the wisdom, the efficiency and what I predict will ultimately be the fruitless outcome of this program,” Olesen wrote. 

Pilot project results

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) has said killing wolves, which can kill and eat 23 to 29 caribou per year, is necessary to address a dire situation. Populations of both caribou herds have plummeted to the point where N.W.T. harvesters were banned from hunting any Bathurst caribou in 2016, and harvesters are only allowed 173 bulls from the Bluenose East herd per year. 

Similar restrictions are in place in Nunavut, where the animals migrate each summer.  

A pilot project that ran this past April and May gave a taste of how successful an aerial wolf cull might be.

In 10 days during those two months, a total of 36 wolves were shot by marksmen in helicopters, according to a draft report posted to the WRRB public registry. 

Olesen compared the effort to starting in Wekweeti, flying around the entire planet at the 64th parallel, and arriving back in Wekweeti having killed 36 wolves. He condemned the project as “difficult and dangerous” as well as “incredibly expensive.” 

He also raised the possibility that there are fewer wolves on the barrenlands than the department believes. ENR estimated there were 49 wolves in the Bathurst caribou range and 121 in the Bluenose East range. 

Olesen said he flew over the area in 2018, 2019 and February and March of this year, and didn’t see any wolf or kill site, which he says are unmistakable in wintertime. 

“The absence of wolves on the Bathurst caribou range has, since about 2012, been nothing short of astounding,” he wrote.

COVID-19 disruption

The draft report on this year’s hunt notes that bad weather and COVID-19 were both factors in the low kill rate. The pandemic meant that aircraft had to be based in Yellowknife rather than other communities, which meant time was wasted ferrying to starting points. 

The pandemic also meant that lab tests to determine whether the kills were humane had to be postponed. 

In an emailed statement to CBC, an ENR spokesperson said, “We have heard loud and clear from our communities and co-management partners that more needs to be done to manage predators to support declining caribou herds.”

One other letter submitted to the Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board acknowledged that the desire for a cull is real, but said that’s not a good reason to do it. 

“The easiest purported solutions, in this case a cull, are often done to appease people by offering some solution without knowing that it is the best solution,” wrote Garth L. Wallbridge, who identified himself as an environmentalist and Indigenous person who hunts. 

The board will begin reviewing the materials it’s received next week, and will issue its decision on Jan. 8.