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LETTER: Oversimplification on caribou-wolf plan a dangerous weapon

“Prey populations are just as sensitive to food availability as they are to predation”
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We offer this rebuttal to Terra Hatch’s letter to the editor (April 21) upon the request of concerned residents of the Cariboo-Chilcotin who do not share the author’s view that killing wolves is an acceptable solution to a complex environmental problem. We feel that it is crucial to offer an alternate perspective rooted in ecology and a broader view on the history of post-colonial manipulation of nature in North America.

As the author of the letter stressed, timely inclusion of local knowledge is an essential component of any broad-scale environmental management plan. Local knowledge from those who have spent their lives on the land holds great value in shedding light on trends in landscape and wildlife population changes. However, it is crucial to analyze information presented in order to understand the big picture, including unseen intricacies that are at play, before deciding on harmful management actions such as killing wolves. The ecological processes involved here have occurred within complex systems that stretch back much farther than the author’s offered perspective of three post-colonial generations. While stakeholders in any management plan should listen to a variety of perspectives, we must be careful not to confuse opinions with truth.

Related: Controlling the wolf population does make a difference

The main flaw in the argument provided is the oversimplification of an intricate environmental issue into a battle of predator vs. prey, namely wolf vs. caribou. The author herself points out that there are likely many other factors contributing to the decline in caribou (and moose) populations, yet she has chosen predators to be the only variable of any significance. A simplification like this is driven by what one’s bias has chosen to see and can be reflected in observations made in the field.

A danger with the simplified rationale provided is that it fails to differentiate between correlation and causation. Correlation refers to trends that occur at the same time, coinciding with one another and they can be just that, coincidental. Or, it can mean that both factors are responding to some other influence. Causation on the other hand, indicates that one factor is the cause of another. Distinguishing the two is not always straightforward, and a personal bias can easily misconstrue reality. The author claims that because she has noticed a decrease in ungulate species while at the same time, she believes there to be an increase in predators, it must be that predators are the cause for the ungulate decline. Yet she has no proof that, if her observations ring true, they do not indicate mere correlation and that other variables, of which there are many, are in fact the cause of the issue. The author states that it is hard not to understand the math, yet no data or mathematical analysis of the multi-factored components involved in this conservation dilemma are provided.

Since the author dismissed factors leading to caribou decline other than predation, it is important to point out just a few of the big ones: food and habitat availability, resource competition, and human-caused disturbances.

Prey populations are just as sensitive to food availability as they are to predation. Massive destruction of primary habitat and food resources in the form of unsustainable logging practices, human sprawl and developments are obvious contributors to the decline in ungulates and many other native species. Competition for space is a factor for all wildlife, and humans and domesticated animals fall in the heavyweight category here. Open-range cattle farming has interfered with natural landscapes, drastically reducing access and availability of wild forage for native species. Poaching and mismanaged hunting practices affect both ungulate and carnivore population dynamics. Mining, urban and suburban development, dam-building, and roads are all major contributors to habitat fragmentation and depletion of preferred wildlife habitat. The list goes on, with plenty of sound research to back it.

The author states that wolves require control programs in order for ungulate populations to “flourish”, a concept created by those who view wolves as a threat to their own monetary success. This notion ran strong in traditional ranching culture in the 20th century and led to the extirpation of wolves and other carnivores in much of North America. But how far back in history have wolves been so heavily “controlled”? It is well-documented that white people set to work obliterating wolves and a great many other species that had existed in balance for millennia after arriving on the continent. Before this, indigenous peoples did not implement wide-scale systematic killing of carnivores. So a question for the author becomes: if historically wolves existed across North American without being controlled, then why were prey populations so abundant at the time of colonial contact? If wolves were left uncontrolled for thousands of years, according to the author’s logic, there should have been no members of the deer family alive by the time Europeans got here, right? This reasoning clearly lacks a basic understanding of evolutionary predator-prey relationships and ecosystem dynamics.

Related: B.C. and feds engage public on caribou recovery plan in Williams Lake

Ethics aside, even in the face of major landscape changes, predator control has further thrown off the natural balance. Wolves have a disproportionately important role through top-down effects that shape and stabilize entire ecosystems. Direct and indirect influences on herbivores and smaller animals trickle down to stabilize vegetation structure, maintain diversity, prevent the spread of disease and mediate large-scale processes like carbon sequestration. Removing the wolf from an ecosystem has proven to cause drastic negative effects on the entire web of life, including ungulate populations.

Can a “bleeding heart” support the horror of prolonged pain and suffering inflicted on wolves, sentient animals, when they are killed with neck snares and aerial gunning? We may be pressed for time to save what’s left of the natural world, but this does not give us the right to systematically destroy other species as a Band-Aid fix.

It is tempting to cling to reasoning such as was presented in the April 21 letter because it provides a simple way to make sense of an overwhelming problem. The author makes it seem like a problem with an obvious solution. Being good-intentioned for the most part, we humans want to solve the problems we’ve created. What we must recognize, however, is that a problem this complex requires an equally complex solution. As a start, our main focus should be habitat conservation. This is not a simple fix and will require ingenuity, collaboration and patience. The claim that the damage has already been done and that it’s too late for habitat protection and restoration is a cop out. If we do not change our land use practices, there is little hope for species that depend on intact ecosystems. The “good ol’ days” are gone, and with them should be archaic practices reminiscent of bounty hunting. We are in a new and dire era of environmental management and are proud to be working with ranchers, guides and sustenance hunters who celebrate and practice a wholistic land ethic. We cannot allow those who destroyed most of the natural world in a mere three generations to hold the reins anymore.

Editor’s note: This letter has been edited for length.

Sadie Parr and Elke van Breemen

Wolf Awareness Inc.

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About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

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