Analysis: study on caribou misinterprets cause, confuses zoos with wildlife recovery

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The internet is aflame with a study that purports the only solution to woodland caribou in British Columbia and Alberta is to continue killing wolves – but analysis shows significant issues with the study.

Saving endangered species using adaptive management was published online March 11, 2019 (received for review October 2, 2018) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Funded in part by the governments of Alberta and British Columbia, where mountain caribou are considered endangered – in 2018, Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stated that British Columbia’s mountain caribou are under imminent threat.

The study referenced above has several major flaws that were not addressed in media coverage or in any part of the authors’ notes on the study.

  1. The study has no ethics certificate. Proper processes for scientific integrity (for planning, co-ordinating, or collaborating with killing wolves as a control) were not followed, making this study unethical.
  2. Study data proves only that habitat loss is the greatest threat to caribou.
  3. Study misinterprets proximate cause, which is not predators, but rather human activity (i.e., industrial logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, back country recreation, etc.). As a result of proximate human activity habitat is reduced and improved predator access to herds provided.
  4. The study recommends killing wolves and penning pregnant cows. It is not a scientific discovery to state that if you kill one’s natural predators their chances of survival are higher – nor is it a scientific discovery to state that caging animals increases their chances of survival. This is akin to stating that an elephant in a zoo will survive longer because it is less likely to be shot by poachers than when left in the wild. While true, it miss-represents the proximate cause – which for the elephant in the above example was poaching – and which for caribou is habitat loss and food scarcity.
  5. While ignoring current government sanctioned habitat destruction, the study essentially recommends wilderness zoos. This is not recovery. Recovery means a self-sustaining population without human intervention.
  6. As reported by the Wilderness Committee, the government of British Columbia is actively consulting with First Nations and federal government on conservation strategies while simultaneously greenlighting 314 logging cut blocks in critical caribou habitat (within the last 6 months). Eight of the most at risk herds experienced habitat loss of over 100 cut blocks (data sets below).
  7. One of the glaring failures of the study was the ignorance to Caribou food sources – lichens. Logging and industrial activity on the land can have significant lichen disturbance.
  8. Overall, the study authors are in a conflict of interest as the study was funded by the governments that benefit financial from the miss-identification of proximate cause, leading to an incorrect perception that killing wolves will save caribou.
  9. A wolf cull in the Selkirk region has been taking place since 2015. One specific herd, despite the cull, has now gone extinct. Habitat loss and scarce food being the reasons.
  10. The study studiously avoids mention of lessons learned from historic similarities regarding government sanctioned predator culls (as example, the Basking Shark in BC or the Tasmanian Tiger, and a host of others).

CONCLUSION: Continuing to kill wolves without immediately stopping industry in the most at risk areas shows a willing disregard for endangered species legislation and the potential recovery of mountain caribou. As a national standard, independent ethics reviews are required for research involving animals and people. When conducting research, which will rely on the killing of wildlife as a control, it is essential that any scientific involvement (direct or indirect) be subjected to ethics review.

The term “predator control” has been in use circa 1908. It has never been scientifically proven as an acceptable, ethical, or even justifiable solution to wildlife recovery strategies. I am confident in stating that, while humans have killed predators under the guise of saving other species for over 100 years, it is not a scientifically proven method. Typically, humans kill predators to protect their property and economic interests. There are ample examples in recent BC history to support this assertion (a glaring case study being the Basking Shark).

Finally, while the narrative is currently alive regarding both the survival of caribou and the survival of wolves, it has been brought to my attention that independent “contests” are being organized for predator kills. I respectfully remind hunters, politicians, bureaucrats, and the public, that wildlife population numbers are projected based on average annual successful hunts and reported hunter kills. We do not actually know the number of wolves, cougars, and other species in this province. When contests are organized, the pressure applied to the species under chase is artificial (i.e., not normal) and was not accounted for in annual hunting allowances or population models. The risk of unintended damage to ecologically normal and balanced predator prey cycles is high. Addressing habitat loss should be our main priority and concern – not blaming other species for the impacts of our industrial human actions.

Acknowledgments:

Data extrapolation GIS mapping regarding logging activities and caribou habitat overlap graciously provided by the Wilderness Committee.

Bryce Casavant is currently a Doctoral Candidate with Royal Roads University and recently received fellowship with the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for his work, In Search of a Wild Peace. Bryce is currently employed as a senior investigator and special provincial constable with the Province of BC. He is a former BC Conservation Officer.

Data:

Approved_314_Cutblocks_WithLogged_OverviewMap_SMtnCaribou_CritHab_Oct19_2018_to_Feb28_2019 (1)

Approved_314_Cutblocks_NoLogged_OverviewMap_SMtnCaribou_CritHab_Oct19_2018_to_Feb28_2019

initialStats_Approved_314_cutblocks_SmtnCaribouCritHab_LPUs_Oct19_2018_to_Feb28_2019

2018_10_approved_cutblocks_SmtnCaribouCritHab_LPUsFedConcern_sinceMay5_2018

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Showing 2 comments
  • Lynda Gerlach

    Very interesting read. It is so sad that humans will jump on any idea that allows them to disrespect our planet. Not just the wildlife, but every aspect of this beautiful planet.

  • ernie meyer

    great article but who in the government is resposible enough to act on this matter. Why in fact are the provincial ministries listening to anecdotal theories instead of applying the science that is available to them? Who is controlling our politicians when it comes to conservation of a species? Do outfitters have that much influence? I hope not. For the hand full of outfitters in the province they can’t possibly sway the government to go against the majority of the population. There are no excuses that would make me think that this is an honest mistake by the government bureaucracy.

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