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Killing Wolves For Caribou Recovery, Human's Nature

The Ethics of Animals Culls

by Tyson Kelsall

Killing Wolves For Caribou Recovery, Human's Nature

The Grey Wolf (Canis lupus; hereafter wolf) is a highly adaptable, intelligent carnivore that inhabits most of British Columbia” – Ministry of Environment, Government of British Columbia


The face of an elusive wolf plays to the heart of many people; it evokes strong emotions. Canis lupus is as close as you can get to man’s best friend in the wild, traveling in packs they have intertwined themselves throughout the landscape of human history. A wolf can play the role of a predator in the wild, but its recognizable image has a crucial role in reminding humans that there are things outside the borders of our sprawling mega-cities and small towns that we do not yet control. This has not stopped us from trying. The government has sanctioned traps and guns to hunt them under a grey wolf management plan; what spells out “attempting to control” better than a management plan? There has been a coming and going of open season hunting in certain areas of British Columbia in order to keep wolves’ numbers level.  The BC government itself notes that in the early 20th century wolves were what they call, “persecuted”.


The history of the war on wolves in the Pacific Northwest is a little more ugly then a single shot to the back of the canine’s head. Besides being stigmatized, wolves have been poisoned, they have been trapped, they have been sterilized, and they have been shot. Early in the 20th century they nearly went extinct in southern British Columbia, including Vancouver Island. There have been proposals both in BC and neighbour to the northwest, Alaska, to shoot them down from helicopters. This has lead to a division amongst citizens, many calling wolf culls immoral. Shelley Black, co-founder and operator of Northern Lights Wildlife Centre in Golden, BC, says that ever since the European man has tried to settle in the west, the human-wolf relationship has been a violent one. 


However, being followed by a wolf might give one a different perspective than having a friend in the wilderness. Christopher Wilde*, a hunter for over 30 years tells the story of his hunting partner who came across wolves in the woods. His hunting partner blew into his bull moose call whistle. A moose cow ran through the forest, into the clearing, whimpering in fear, looking for the bull moose and the protection he would bring, unable to see him, she ran on. The hunter, who was ducking in the bush, was not well hidden to the eye of a wolf. The wolf, perhaps the pack leader, edged towards him, and when the hunter looked around he was flanked by wolves on all sides; however, as he looked back and forth the wolves would appear and then, disappear again. Terrified, he slowly loaded his bow and arrow, and stayed still. Eventually one timber wolf charged towards him and he released the shot. The pitch-black wolf lay on its’ side, motionless and the rest of the pack receded into the woods, adapting to the hunter’s deed.


On the other side of the predator-prey dynamic sits the caribou, a disappearing species related to deer that migrates with the weather. The government has drafted recovery plans. Cross-border non-governmental organizations, such as the Yellowstone 2 Yukon Initiative, have taken note. The caribou has a long cultural history in Northern Canada, and its face has passed through many hands on the front of the 25-cent piece. Its’ cultural importance is widely shared by many First Nations and settlers alike. As Chief Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation stated in a 2011 media release via the Sierra Club Prairie, “the caribou have and will always be the traditional food of our people. Working to sustain the caribou is critical for our culture and way of life.” 

Where do these two animals intersect? Historically, the caribou cured the wolf’s hunger while the wolf kept the caribou strong by eating the weakest members of the herd. However, with the manipulation of ecosystems that has been happening around caribou migration routes, they have not been able to stay strong. Their numbers are dwindling and although they remain a meal to the predator, because of the social constructs, and perhaps guilt that humans feel for allowing them to be in such a situation, they have found themselves as a priority when it comes to protection. 


Where does human responsibility sit in all of this? In western history, the idea of humans removing themselves from nature reaches as far back as early human interpretations of Genesis; some say it was the unlocking of agricultural capability that pushed people onto a different plateau, taking a step outside and perhaps above of the food chain. However, where do morals and ethics fit in when it comes to the killing of wolves to fix damages caused by humans? When the hunting and trapping laws are opened right up under the assumption that they are found “non-detriment” towards wolf numbers, do we consider social aspects within wolf packs? The answer could easily be that even if the numbers are sustainable, there could be serious impacts on the traditional structures of wolf packs. Historically, reviving threatened species has not been as simple as graphs and calculations. The BC government acknowledges that even the “economic returns have been low for decades”, so what is killing a wolf worth besides protecting the human ego from taking ownership of caribou and other prey decline? 

Wilde* says, as a hunter, it might be ethical to kill certain wolves when the numbers become unsustainable for survival. However, he points out that the idea of open season culls throughout BC could be a little too sloppy, and vague considering packs are likely not overpopulated in every area. Shelley Black disagrees that deliberately killing wolves is ever necessary. She points to a common myth that most people believe all wolves in the pack are breeding; however, that is not the case, only the two alpha wolves will breed. As she explains, when there is not enough prey to feed the pack, the wolves ostracize certain members, and a lone wolf only has about a 1/10 chance of surviving. Black points out that the population will go in 5-7 year cycles, and deems a wolf cull to be ethically “ridiculous”.  Black also brings up that wolf and a variety of prey, including deer, moose and caribou have co-existed for a long time, and says that man is now using the wolf as a scapegoat.

Markus Pollhammer, a new hunter of two-years in BC and self-identifying environmentalist, agrees that it is not necessarily a human’s job to control wolf populations, but argues that if humans can harvest a wolf in an overpopulated pack and make use of its’ hide and potentially meat, without effecting the pack in a negative way then perhaps it isn’t ethically, nor theoretically problematic.  However, he acknowledges gaps in the current system as to how hunters could really know exactly what is going on in a timely fashion in regards to both wolf populations and what other hunters are doing. There is also very little done legally after somebody has killed an animal in terms of monitoring how the animal is used. Pollhammer points out the provincial Report All Poachers and Polluters program, but says that much of it is based on the honour system rather than solid policing, and after being reported to the conservation officer, the officer then has to go find proof of the hunter misusing the animal he or she killed. Generally, he reasons, the monitoring of killing animals is too loose to really know what is going on.

Of course, wolves are not the only species that shoulder the guilt of human misconduct. Another member of the animal kingdom has also been the ire of much blame: the pine beetle. By any standards, the pine beetles’ effects on British Columbia’s forest have been absolutely tragic both ecologically and economically. However, the pine beetle’s unexpected winter survivals has been often claimed to be due to the winters getting warmer which can be attributed to climate change. Climate change has been proven 95% certain to be man-made by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th assessment that came out September 2013. In any case, there is a potential pattern here of people walking away from their responsibility and putting it on another species.


Lastly, many great thinkers and psychologists from different angles have pointed out that how we treat non-human living beings reflects onto how we treat each other and what kind of people we are. Gandhi once took it as far as to say, “what we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”. Shelley Black says it is possible that we fear wolves because of how similar they are to us. Perhaps the violent and sometimes barbaric way we are treating wolves is only one part of a greater trend of the conscious human separation from nature. Perhaps part of dismantling this myth is to shrink the space in between nature and humans, by taking full responsibility in our recovery plans, to modify our own behaviour instead of the behaviour of other species and to be mindful of the consequences to ecosystems brought by our actions. The firefighter stance of killing certain species to protect others is surely a controversial, multi-faceted topic; but could it be avoided altogether with a new approach towards how we treat the planet? 


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tkelsall (Tyson Kelsall)
Vancouver, BC
Member since November 2013


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