Why the Canadian Government is Killing Wolves to Save Endangered Caribou


A government-sponsored wolf-reduction program is playing a major role in the rebound of endangered woodland caribou populations in Canada, according to a recently published study in the journal of Ecological Applications. Authored by 32 researchers from Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, the study found that wildlife managers in British Columbia and Alberta were able to increase the numbers of struggling populations of woodland caribou by more than 50 percent by targeting and removing wolves and by providing cows and calves with supplemental feed inside fully-enclosed penning sites.

“Southern mountain caribou abundance declined by 51% between 1991 and 2023, and 37% of subpopulations were functionally extirpated,” the study’s abstract reads. “Wolf reduction was the only recovery action that consistently increased population growth when applied in isolation, and combinations of wolf reductions with maternal penning or supplemental feeding provided rapid growth.”

Woodland caribou recovery is one of the toughest conservation challenges in North America because the unique ungulates require large tracts of uninterrupted boreal forest to survive. Until relatively recently, both northern Montana and the northern Idaho panhandle had populations of woodland caribou, but the animals have since been extirpated from that part of their native range. They’re still being pushed to the brink in Canada by large-scale logging and mining and “will continue to be extirpated well before habitat conservation and restoration can become effective unless predation is reduced,” the study states.

“If we don’t shoot wolves, given the state of the habitat that industry and government have allowed, we will lose caribou,” B.C.-based researcher Dr. Clayton Lamb, the lead author on the study, told the Canadian Broadcast Company.

According to the CBC, wildlife managers have killed close to 2,000 wolves since 2015 in the highly targeted habitat where the most threatened woodland caribou subpopulations reside. The program has costs the Canadian government a total of $10 million. The wolves are killed by skilled marksman shooting from helicopters, and the program is expected to continue through at least 2026.

Canadian Hunters Support the Program

The CBC article cites local opposition from people who are against killing any number of wolves in order to save endangered caribou, but a Canadian hunter and podcaster who’s followed the program closely for several years tells Field & Stream that most hunting-focused conservationists support the program. “The B.C. Wildlife Federation is hugely supportive of the program because it’s science-based,” said Mark Hall, host of the Blood Origins Canada podcast. “There are a lot of smaller fish and game clubs that support it as well. People who understand the dynamics going on here between wolves and caribou are definitely in support of it.”

Hall, who has hosted the study’s lead author on his podcast multiple times, says the high-density wolf populations in the embattled caribou’s habitat are more of a human-caused ripple effect than a natural condition. “Back in the 1950s and 1960s, they were heavily logging this caribou old-growth habitat,” he said. “That made great moose habitat in the clear cuts. But with increased moose populations and more roads going into the logging cuts, the wolf population exploded. Those numbers were never that high before because wolves are not an old-growth dependent animal.”

Since woodland caribou didn’t evolve alongside high concentrations of wolves, the large carnivore’s heavy presence in their habitat has become a severely limiting factor for sustained population growth, pushing them closer and closer to extinction, Hall says. And while a combination of targeted wolf culling and supplemental feeding for mother caribou and their young is keeping the species from winking out altogether, it’s not an ideal solution for the longterm.

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“In order for these herds to grow into the future and get back to the numbers they once were, they have to have old growth habitat. But they’re continuing to log that old growth habitat now, which means these herds aren’t going to be able to recover to their former selves,” Hall says. “If they simply stopped logging the habitat, they could continue the wolf control program until the herds got large enough where they’re self sustaining. Then they could stop the wolf control program, once the caribou-wolf dynamic gets back to where it was thousands of years ago.”

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