A plan to limit NWT wolf numbers that involves shooting some of them from planes or helicopters has received reluctant approval from regulators.
Bringing down wolf numbers is seen as necessary to help the threatened Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou herds, each of which are in precipitous decline.
The Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board last week approved a wolf culling proposal from the Tłı̨chǫ Government and NWT government, but accused both governments of unacceptable delay in coming up with a plan.
The board said it had to scrap its usual approvals process as the governments had delayed so long that further inaction would be “most unfortunate” for the caribou.
As a result, the culling proposal was approval for 2020 but only “as a pilot program.” Similar proposals for 2021 to 2025 will go through the usual, more rigorous regulatory process.
The pilot authorizes shooting of wolves from the sky if fewer than 100 have been harvested using ground-based methods by mid-March. The plan was submitted in January. It’s not clear if this target had been hit by its March 15 deadline, but the regulator said it understood few wolves had been harvested on the ground so far.
“Although the timing of the proposal placed the board in a difficult position, the board also is acutely aware of the urgency of the situation and the opportunity that has been identified to provide relief to the herds,” read a letter from the regulator to the two governments.
Shane Thompson, the NWT’s environment minister, told the CBC: “We’re down to two percent of the population, so we have to make some hard decisions.
“We looked at every option available and if we … just do status quo, we’ll just continue seeing the decline of our populations.”
Aerial shoots common, controversial
This is not the first time wolves have been subject to what is known as “aerial gunning.”
The Northwest Territories has used the practice of aerial gunning, on and off, for decades. The practice, common elsewhere, has seen recent use in Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta.
It is, however, controversial.
Aerial wolf hunts, when they happen, invariably attract more public attention and scrutiny than other methods of controlling the population.
A 2015 Canadian paper on ethical standards in conservation stated: “Obvious problems include trying to accurately target, shoot and rapidly kill an agile, fleeing animal from a platform that is moving irregularly through the boreal forest where open spaces are few, small, and intermittent.
“Thus, the ability of even the very best pilot to position the shooter correctly under these circumstances every time also has a strong bearing on the efficacy and humaneness of euthanasia by aerial shooting.
“Painful injuries and inhumane kills will inevitably occur, even with the hiring of skilled helicopter pilots and proficient shooters.”
The practice can be expensive, too.
Figures from BC for early 2016 show the province killed 154 wolves from the air but had to spend $400,000 on a fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopter crews to perform tasks like setting out bait, collaring, tracking, shooting, and then transporting carcasses of wolves.
Yet a 2016 research paper prepared for the Government of the Northwest Territories concluded: “Aerial wolf reduction programs are more likely to reach target objectives than traditional harvest methods.”
Correction: March 17, 2020 – 17:52 MT. Based on practices used elsewhere, this article initially suggested aerial gunning in the NWT would use collared wolves to help teams in the air find packs of wolves to shoot.
However, the territorial government on Tuesday afternoon said that while it does have a number of wolves collared, those wolves are part of research and monitoring programs. Those collared wolves would not be used to locate packs for removal, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said, unless aircraft and helicopters can’t find enough wolves by looking out of the window.