Big Bad Wolf blamed for habitat loss due to global warming
EDMONTON, Alberta, Canada––Again this Christmas season, Alberta Environment & Parks will welcome Santa’s reindeer by setting out strychnine.
The strychnine will be not for Santa, nor for the reindeer, the North American variety of whom are called caribou, but rather for the Big Bad Wolf, as part of a wildlife management strategy bizarrely mixing up fairy tales.
Tangling the myths of Little Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus in story-telling before the blazing Yule log might inspire not visions of sugar-plums dancing in children’s heads but rather a Nightmare Before Christmas.
Ghosts of bad policy decisions past, present, & future
The myths tangled by Alberta Environment & Parks, however, including the ghosts of bad policy decisions past, present, and leaning into the future, have much deadlier consequences for both the poisoned wolves and the caribou.
Both wolves and caribou, and many other species whose survival at least partially depends on wolves and caribou, have been hastened toward regional extirpation and, perhaps, eventual extinction, by the deadly combination of human encroachment on dwindling suitable habitat with continuing stubborn official denial of the effects of global warming.
Alberta wildlife may figuratively be getting tar sands, natural gas, and crude oil in their stockings, rather than coal, but the outcome is equally disappointing, in a province known to have hosted perhaps the most abundant populations of large terrestrial animals in North America since the days of the hadrosaurs, ceratopsians, and tyrannosaurs whose fossil remains fill the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.
Health minister asked to reconsider prescription of poison
Wolf Awareness and Animal Justice, two Canadian organizations focused on trying to persuade Canadian wildlife managers to get their stories straight and in line with science, during the third week of December 2020 asked federal health minister Patty Hajdu “to review a decision that allows Alberta to keep using strychnine to poison wolves in an ongoing effort to preserve caribou herds,” reported Bob Weber of Canadian Press.
Weber has covered the continuing decline of caribou despite the ongoing war on wolves since 1996.
The politically popular theory behind the annual winter wolf massacres, as in Alaska, where similar policies have prevailed for half a century, is that wolf predation on caribou calves is keeping caribou from recovering to historical abundance.
Wolves killed for Auld Lang Syne
Reality is that no amount of wolf-killing has ever been followed by more than limited and transient local caribou recovery.
Simply put, the habitat throughout caribou range below the Arctic Circle can no longer support caribou in the numbers recorded more than 100 years ago, long before systematic wolf-poisoning and strafing from aircraft began in lieu of suspending caribou hunting and protecting critical habitat.
Hajdu presides over Health Canada. The Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency in March 2020 renewed authorization for Alberta Environment & Parks to continue poisoning wolves with strychnine for purported caribou protection, along with continuing aerial gunnery.
(See Canada reviews “humaneness” of strychnine, sodium cyanide, & Compound 1080.)
Non-target wildlife killed too
“Between 2005 and 2018,” Weber wrote, “Alberta killed 225 wolves with strychnine in addition to deaths from aerial gunning,” used to kill about five times as many wolves.
Aerial gunnery is used to kill wolves chiefly when the days are long enough and the skies clear enough to allow the flying shooting teams to spot and follow tracks.
Strychnine baits are used most intensively during the short, stormy depths of winter.
“Fifty scientists and animal welfare advocates from across Canada and three countries in fall 2018 co-signed a letter from the advocacy group Wolf Awareness to Health Canada declaring strychnine, sodium cyanide, and Compound 1080 all inhumane,” recalled Weber.
“Wolf Awareness also released documents showing that — along with 1,200 wolves killed by various means in Alberta since 2005 — at least 257 other animals have been poisoned, including 44 foxes and a grizzly bear.
“We can’t be using these responsibly in Canada”
“Many scientists doubt poisoning actually reduces wolves,” Weber noted.
“You kill a dominant wolf, the pack splits, sometimes up to three or four times,” renowned wildlife biologist Gilbert Proulx told Weber. “Then you’re faced with four litters the following year instead of one.”
Wolf Awareness and Animal Justice in their December 2020 petition to Hajdu emphasized that public records obtained through freedom of information requests indicate that “Alberta is breaking the terms governing use of strychnine and endangering other wildlife,” summarized Weber.
Said Animal Justice lawyer Kaitlyn Mitchell, “These products [strychnine baits] are not environmentally responsible. The evidence of non-compliance with legal restrictions underscores the point that we can’t be using these in Canada in a responsible way.”
Nearly twice as much strychnine set out as allowed
Wolf Awareness and Animal Justice argued that the March 2020 Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency decision should be reviewed and reversed in light of the new evidence included in the newly obtained documents.
For example, Weber wrote, “Conditions stipulate that bait sites must be checked every seven days to ensure carcasses don’t poison other animals and the toxin doesn’t enter the environment. Records show that in 2018, the average time between checks at 19 sites was nearly nine days, including one stretch of two weeks.
“The request also alleges that Alberta is leaving out more poison than the 12 baits per site the rules allow,” Weber continued. “It quotes government records saying 20 baits were left out at almost all the sites.
“The request adds that site inspections and cleanup––important to ensure strychnine is removed from the landscape––were also inadequate.
20% of bait sites inadequately inspected
Alleged Wolf Awareness and Animal Justice, “More than 20 per cent of strychnine bait sites were not able to be inspected, either adequately or at all, for up to three months after sites were deemed closed due to local flooding.”
Dave Hervieux, heading the Alberta Environment & Parks caribou recovery and wolf-killing programs since 2005, again defended the programs, as he often has, by arguing essentially that the end justifies the means.
“We are trying to avoid the extirpation of an iconic species––caribou––that is in trouble entirely because of our activities,” said Hervieux. “I get it that it’s not okay to kill a dozen ravens [with strychnine baits consumed by ravens instead of wolves].
“But the real question is,” claimed Hervieux, “shall we protect these animals––caribou––so that they can exist and benefit from improved habitat conditions into the future, or shall we not?”
“Killing wolves takes everyone’s eye off the real problem”
Responded Cliff Wallis, second vice president of the Alberta Wilderness Association to an almost identical Hervieux argument in 2012, at that time defending killing wolves along the Little Smoky River in northwestern Alberta, “While Dave Hervieux is scientifically correct to observe that the wolf kills have temporarily kept caribou on the Little Smoky landscape, he knows that it has also allowed Alberta to continue to develop new all-season roads, grant new subsurface leases, and generally do nothing to protect caribou habitat.
“The Alberta Wilderness Association will not collaborate in such a charade,” Wallis said. “Caribou habitat is being lost at an alarmingly fast rate and the short-term success from shooting wolves reinforces government complacency about actually protecting caribou habitat from further industrial incursion.
“Killing wolves takes everyone’s eye off the real problem,” Wallis emphasized.
Elaborated Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell, “Woodland caribou eat lichen and favor large peat wetland areas and lichen-rich old forests; these wet or snowy areas in the intact boreal forest are inhospitable to other prey species such as deer and moose. Such an intact, un-fragmented landscape helps to separate the caribou from wolves and bears.
“Today,” Campbell explained, “seismic lines, well sites, camps, forestry cut blocks and busy roads fragment huge, growing swaths of Alberta’s boreal forest. With this industrial disturbance, deer and moose are drawn into previously inaccessible forest in unprecedented numbers and wolf populations grow accordingly,” hunting their primary prey, picking off caribou as occasional targets of opportunity.
“In addition,” Campbell said, “cut lines and roads give wolves and bears easy pathways to caribou. Sadly, predation on adult and young caribou is unsustainably high,” Campbell acknowledged.
“No significant habitat protection and restoration”
“Caribou population trends are a barometer of boreal forest intactness that affects many other species,” Campbell observed. “The barometer doesn’t suggest a sunny tomorrow.”
Campbell noted that in 2009 “The Athabasca Landscape Team of scientists reported to the Alberta Caribou Committee that there was an urgent need for both caribou habitat restoration and mortality management measures to be applied together, or caribou would not persist for more than several decades in Alberta.”
Despite that, Campbell wrote, “The years pass and there still has been no significant habitat protection and restoration – none, zero. The provincial government’s Lower Athabasca regional land-use plan in northeastern Alberta remains a proposal only.”
Ski areas prioritized over caribou
That, again, was in 2012, eight years before Parks Canada updated the Jasper National Park web site in September 2020 to acknowledge the loss of one of the park’s former four resident caribou herds and likely impending loss of two others, due to what Campbell termed “a tragic, predictable result of decades-long habitat and wildlife errors,”
Campbell specifically blamed Parks Canada for “catering to the recreation desires of a few above the habitat needs of endangered wildlife” by keeping the Maligne Lake Road open all winter to allow access to ski areas.
Closures first ordered in 2002 were reversed in Ottawa, the Canadian national capital, through political pressure. Temporary four-month closures have been in effect since 2016, but came too late for the Maligne Lake herd, which had already declined to just four individuals.
Maligne herd is gone
Reported Cathy Ellis for the Rocky Mountain Outlook, “Jasper’s Maligne herd is gone and two other herds under the agency’s responsibility,” the Tonquin and Brazeau herds, “are too small to recover,
“Twenty-five years ago,” Ellis wrote, “more than 800 caribou ranged in the mountain national parks. Today, fewer than 220 remain.
“The Tonquin herd is estimated to have 45 caribou and the Brazeau herd to have fewer than 15,” with ten or fewer adult females in each herd, Ellis said.
“In neighboring Banff National Park,” to the south, “woodland caribou were extirpated in 2009,” Ellis remembered, “when the last five animals in that tiny remnant herd died in an avalanche near Molar Creek north of Lake Louise.”
Caribou losses extend into the Far North
The Athabasca mountain range, including Jasper and Banff national parks, historically marked the southern fringe of Canadian woodland caribou habitat.
But caribou losses extend all the way up into the Canadian Far North, where nine of the thirteen major resident caribou herds are reportedly now in catastrophic decline, putting the remaining healthy herds under intensifying pressure.
(See “Cargo cult” politics make caribou the bison of the Canadian North: Far North learns the hard way that climate & geography can’t prevent effects of global warming. )
The same trend is evident in Alaska, and in Siberia and northern Scandinavia, where caribou are still reindeer, as in The Night Before Christmas.
Most jeopardized by global warming
Despite the difference in names, New World and Old World caribou are the same species, with some herds wandering from continent to continent over the Arctic polar ice cap. That ancient habit, however, may soon end, as the polar ice cap closes for ever shorter lengths of time.
The underlying threat to caribou everywhere is not only human encroachment on habitat, mostly for oil and gas extraction, and for logging as access roads are opened.
Rather, caribou are most jeopardized by global warming, which over most of their range has them of their winter survival advantages in habitat competition against elk, moose, and deer.
Ironically, the loss of caribou from parts of the Far North is in itself amplifying the effects of global warming.
“Protecting their frozen turf”
“Santa’s reindeer enjoy big headlines just once a year,” explained Colorado journalist Bob Berwyn in 2016 for Inside Climate News, “but, in fact, they’re busy the rest of the time protecting their frozen turf from global warming. As millions of the Arctic ungulates graze the circumpolar tundra, they thin out shrubs, creating shiny clearings that bounce solar radiation back into space.
“Simply put,” Berwyn summarized of recent scientific research, ‘the darker, textured leaves of bushes are better at trapping the incoming heat from the sun” than grass.”
(See The gift of reindeer dwarfs the value of Christmas.)