Wolves in the North Slave will continue to be harvested on winter caribou ranges in order to combat threats against the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou herds, if a new plan is approved.
The Tłı̨chǫ and NWT governments have submitted a joint proposal to the Wek’éezhìi Renewable Resources Board to expand what is done to limit wolf numbers for the period between 2021 and 2024.
The plan is under review. The governments argue decreasing the number of wolves will give herds, whose numbers are critically low, a better chance to recover.
“We still have a lot more to learn, and we’ll continue to adapt the approaches necessary based on best available scientific, local, and traditional knowledge,” said John Nishi, technical advisor for the Tłı̨chǫ Government.
The plan includes more training for people to hunt wolves and more support for community-based harvesting workshops, as well as research and monitoring.
A total of 85 wolves were harvested in a pilot project earlier this year.
Brett Elkin, assistant deputy minister at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), confirmed aerial removals – the practice of shooting wolves from helicopters or planes – were used in some instances during that pilot.
That remains an option in the revised program. The governments, though, said they hope to avoid this by incentivizing harvesters to use other methods.
The revised plan
Workshops run by the Tłı̨chǫ Government and GNWT to teach best practices for wolf harvesting and pelt preparation, with the aim of increasing the number of wolves killed and maximizing pelt value.
Tammy Steinwand-Dechambeault, director of the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s Department of Culture and Lands Protection, said the training will “ensure wolves are harvested using humane techniques.”
Wolf tags, which are needed to hunt wolves, will be offered at no cost.
Bruno Croft, ENR’s superintendent for the North Slave region, said on average a hunter can earn $1,200 to $1,950 per wolf, depending how the pelt is prepared.
Monitoring plans involve compiling information related to the condition of wolves, their diets, and their movements – collected through tracking with satellite collars.
Data from Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è – a “boots on the ground” caribou monitoring program run by the Tłı̨chǫ Government – will help researchers assess the state of both the caribou and wolf populations.
Wolves in the North Slave
Fewer wolves were harvested this past winter than the governments had hoped.
According to Nishi, the pilot project was hoping to see 29-39 wolves removed from the Bathurst range and 73-97 wolves removed from the Bluenose-East range.
The Bathurst range hit its target, with 31 wolves removed, while the Bluenose-East area only saw 54 wolves removed.
Some experts maintain caribou numbers are more significantly impacted by human development, such as mining projects impacting migration routes, than by wolves.
The plan states: “Human-caused disturbance to barren-ground caribou is important to the GNWT and our co-management partners, and we are committed to minimizing the effects of development and managing cumulative impacts.”
Croft said that wolves remain the main predator of caribou herds and can each eat up to 30 of the animals per year.
Nishi said wolves in the NWT have a high repopulation rate which can rebound within one year, meaning removal targets of 60-80 percent are needed for caribou to have a chance at making a resurgence.
“For this program to have an impact on caribou populations, it will be important to maintain pressure on wolf populations by ensuring we meet removal targets,” he said.
This target will be assessed annually and adjusted based on caribou herd information, Nishi said.
As of 2018, there were only 8,200 caribou in the Bathurst herd, a decline of 98 percent since 1986, when the herd had 472,000 caribou. There has been a ban on hunting caribou in the NWT since 2015.
The Bluenose-East herd had approximately 19,000 caribou in 2018, a decrease of 50 percent in three years from 2015’s herd numbers.
There are plans for a new calving-ground survey in June 2021, which will provide updated population numbers.