Wolves are elusive animals. Occupying public imagination as well as vast terrain, their story has been writ large for centuries through song, ceremony, children’s literature, visual arts, and public policy. But ‘the story’ of wolves is far from singular or straightforward. Their lives continue to unfold in complex ways throughout Turtle Island, what is otherwise recognized as North America, as they navigate the space between ‘reviled and revered’ in a rapidly changing world.
We can see this complexity playing out in the way wolves in some regions are caught in the paradox of adapting to anthropocentric change while contributing to the demise of caribou herds, at risk of extinction in multiple jurisdictions throughout Canada and the United States. In response, the B.C. government has expanded wolf culls as a way of managing growing threats of extinction while negating responsibility for addressing the deeper issues behind alarming rates of wildlife habitat loss in these same jurisdictions. Both criticized and upheld as an imperfect solution, wolf culls are in fact not a new practice and part of a well-worn colonial management approach that harkens back to its first appearance on this continent in 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Almost 400 years later, what has changed? Amid growing concerns from scientists, First Nations, ranchers, conservationists, hunters, animal rights activists and citizens on all sides of the debate, governments continue to overwhelmingly reach toward this expensive and controversial management approach for a solution to the threat of extinction. Have we stopped to consider the value placed on holding some creatures in the world and not others? In a recent in-depth report, journalist Sarah Cox revealed the B.C. government spent upwards of $2 million last winter on initiatives to kill 432 wolves, the most expensive of which was in the Kootenay region where, according to the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development, they spent $100,000 to kill 10 wolves. Perhaps we need to step back from the zero-sum game of ‘yes versus no’ to think more deeply about who bears the true cost of turning away from the deeper issues behind our current crisis of wildlife extinction? More importantly, what we are willing to do about it as a society?
What often gets missed in the perpetual loop of applying wolf culls as so-called short-term solutions, is the long story of failed policy mechanisms that were supposed to prevent us from getting here in the first place. One of these is the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM), which positions wildlife as a resource to be managed on behalf of what is referred to as the public trust. Whose voices are taken seriously as constituting members of the public trust is a question that needs greater attention? Who do governments manage wildlife for and who gets consulted in the process?
Figure 1: Wolf track in snow. Photo taken during carnivore surveys, Salmo, B.C., Selkirk mountains. January, 2017. Credit: Rhiannon Kirton
While competition between caribou and other cervids (e.g., moose or deer) can lead to increased caribou predation by wolves, this is simply the most recent proximate cause of declines. Historically, caribou decline has been attributed not only to predation as a result of habitat augmentation and apparent competition, but also to high levels of legal and illegal harvest in the 1960s and 70s and adverse weather, amongst other factors (Environment Canada). While predator and moose reductions have been shown to increase caribou numbers in the short term, at best they have been shown to be a band aid solution versus a viable long-term strategy for success. As awareness of the ultimate driver of dangerous levels of caribou decline grows, there is an increasing recognition of the central issue being one of habitat loss, by those both for and against the wolf cull (Fig 1; Bridger, 2019). Although conservation and other advocacy groups continue to push for protection of old growth caribou habitat, the question of why government decision makers continue to drag their heels along such an ineffectual path gets harder to ignore. Why continue to allow habitats to be degraded and logged at the expense of both caribou and wolves? Whose voices do governments prioritize in the process of continued failure to protect caribou habitat? (Palm et al., 2020; MCRI, 2009). Is failing to do so a breach of NAM’s principle of acting on behalf of the public trust? What, if any, mechanisms exist to hold those in power accountable?
Figure 2: Caribou habitat. South Selkirk mountain range close to White Water Ski. Resort photo taken during aerial caribou survey. February 2017. Credit: Rhiannon Kirton
NAM denotes a public ownership of wildlife resources which “is held in trust for the benefit of present and future generations by government”, although in real terms, this public often is rarely inclusive of First Nations and Native American peoples, a problem unto itself that we cannot do justice here (Eichler and Baumeister, 2018). The prospect of such entitlement being translated into a meaningful, productive public stewardship is uncertain, given “governance model for wildlife conservation decision making is typically at the (elected) ministerial level”, while boards and commissions exert limited impact. Despite governments admitting the need to modify the model for a greater participatory decision making, the caribou case manifests minimal progress in this respect. Unfortunately, caribou being federally listed as a Species At Risk in Canada has not translated into provincial habitat protection outside of federally owned lands. Why? Part of the reason is that voices of those outside of the decision-making structure might not only be ignored, but also be rendered silent. What does it say about our society in a time of ecological crisis to prioritize industry stakeholders above the value of a functioning ecosystem, which contains intact guilds of predators and ungulates alike? How, why and on whose terms is this discrepancy allowed to continue?
In discussing the future of the North American Model (NAM), this statement is overwhelmingly instrumentalist: “the maintenance and fostering of landscapes that can sustain viable populations of all wildlife to ensure conservation of biodiversity and human use and enjoyment are of paramount concern”. Among recommendations of applying and upgrading the model, citizen engagement in the conservation of biodiversity is stressed with grand and empty guidance. Why bend the goal of wildlife conservation to benefit industry stakeholders for short-term economic gain, if doing so erodes understandings of, and possibilities for, biodiversity as an integral component for our collective survival and prosperity? Given everything we now know about the importance of biodiversity in maintaining a healthy and sustainable world, shouldn’t we be promoting interdependency and reciprocity with nature as ultimate goals in public policy, for example, NAM’s wildlife management policy frameworks and application? The model does not need to stress the paramount importance of “the maintenance and fostering landscapes that can sustain viable populations of all wildlife to ensure conservation of biodiversity” and “human use and enjoyment”, because once the former is secured, it enables the latter. There do not exist two natural worlds, an abstract one that is servile to profit-driven human needs and a real one with lives we’ve never been familiar with. The problem of the model, nevertheless, further entrenches a rupture between humans and nature.
Figure 3: Wolf tracks. Simonette River, Municipal District of Greenview, AB. August 2020. Credit: Narda Nelson.
At such a precarious juncture for many creatures and habitats on the brink of extinction, can the story of contemporary wolves be rewritten beyond polarizing figures of either hero or villain? More than simply an inflammatory topic of debate, wolf culls point to the deeper problem of a collective refusal to step back from polarizing debates to better understand and take responsibility for contributing to the very issues that define these challenging times. To restore and safeguard the ecosystems that our existence depends on, it seems increasingly obvious that we should look to Indigenous peoples who have successfully protected the land for millennia. Perhaps the NAM’s failing is in its application and exclusion of Indigenous voices and the centering of colonial forms of management. There are varied approaches and opinions regarding wolf culls within First Nations across Turtle Island. Some, like the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations, are already succeeding in holding caribou populations in the world where governments have failed. Perhaps it’s time to seriously reconsider alternatives to continuing to implement the NAM and instead follow their lead.
This article is part of our March 2021 Western Student Editorial Series – a series that showcases the works of students in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability program. Read more articles from this series here!
Brook, R.K., Cattet, M., Darimont, C.T., Paquet, P.C., & Proulx, G. (2015). Maintaining ethical standards during conservation crises. Canadian Wildlife Biology and Management (4), 72-79.
Lavoie, J. (2018, April 5). Seeking the Science Behind B.C.’s Wolf Cull. The Narwhal. https://thenarwhal.ca/seeking-science-behind-b-c-s-wolf-cull/
Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan. (2009) http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/speciesconservation/mc/files/progress_board_update20090213.pdf
Palm, E. C., Fluker, S., Nesbitt, H. K., Jacob, A. L., & Hebblewhite, M. (2020). The long road to protecting critical habitat for species at risk: The case of southern mountain woodland caribou. Conservation Science and Practice, 2(7), e219.
Rhiannon Kirton is an MSc candidate at Western University in the department of Geography studying spatial interactions between white-tail deer and hunters. She has a BSc in Zoology from the University of Manchester, UK and has worked on wildlife projects internationally and in Canada.
Junyu Ke is a PhD student in Theory and Criticism and a participant in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability at Western University. She has a MA in Cultural Studies from Queen’s University. Her research focuses on embodiment, environmental philosophy, and ecological consciousness.