NWT authorities should stop aerial shooting of wolves as a means of preserving caribou numbers, a regulatory body has concluded.
In a letter to NWT environment minister Shane Thompson and Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie, the Wek’èezhìi Renewable Resources Board said more effort should instead be made to kill wolves using ground-based techniques.
The minister has the option to accept, vary, or reject the board’s recommendations.
The board, known as the WRRB, said there was “significant public concern” about shooting wolves from the air and no other Indigenous governments had expressed support for the practice to continue.
“The WRRB does not support aerial removals at this time,” the board stated.
In 2020, which was considered a pilot year for the proposed approach, 36 wolves were shot and killed from the air while 130 were killed by harvesters on the ground. Another five died during a collaring project that formed part of the same overall effort, for a total of 171.
Both the NWT and Tłı̨chǫ governments have maintained killing wolves from the air is not their preferred method but is an important backup if not enough wolves are killed using other means.
The governments and regulatory board agree that decreasing the number of wolves will give caribou herds, whose numbers are critically low, a better chance to recover. The project in question focuses on the Bathurst and Bluenose-East herds.
The board was giving its verdict on a revised proposal from the two governments that would increase ground-based harvesting of wolves but still rely on “aerial removals if required” on the winter ranges of two caribou herds.
The WRRB told the governments there were doubts about some of the data used to conclude almost all aerially shot wolves were humanely killed, and 11 out of 12 individuals and groups providing comment had “heavily criticized” the program.
For example, the WRRB quoted the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation as stating the means by which the wolves were being killed was “contrary to respecting animals.” The Délı̨nę̨ Renewable Resources Council made a similar observation.
The WRRB said Dave Olesen, a pilot with significant experience of such flights, had commented: “I have real concerns about the wisdom, the efficiency, and what I predict will ultimately be the fruitless outcome of this program.”
Not many wolves in the first place
The regulator said evidence from 2020’s pilot project suggests the number of wolves is already quite low, which may make hunting them “increasingly challenging.” Olesen, in his comments, also noted “substantially fewer” wolves appear to exist than had previously been the case.
The governments lack a firm estimate of the number of wolves and had trouble identifying wolves from the air, the regulator found. The WRRB urged the governments to do a better job of more precisely estimating wolf numbers, calling that an “essential first step” in any work to manage wolf populations.
Ground-based wolf harvesting under the government’s proposal would be supported by more training and incentives, alongside the participation of hunters from Nunavut and the use of bait. The WRRB called for more resources to be poured into these or other non-aerial methods, as well as improved collaring and statistical tracking of wolves in the area.
Aerial killing of wolves in the NWT followed similar work in the Yukon and British Columbia, where some success in protecting boreal caribou numbers was reported.
The WRRB’s letter stated the governments used one plane and two helicopters to kill 36 wolves. The plane flew a survey grid to find the wolves, the first helicopter’s crew shot the wolves and grouped the carcasses, and the second helicopter’s crew tagged the wolves and prepared them for transport.
One wolf was killed with a high-powered rifle. The rest were killed with buckshot. While most pursuits lasted less than a couple of minutes, in one instance a group of three wolves held out against the helicopter for 51 minutes according to WRRB’s letter.
Seven wolves escaped the helicopters, apparently uninjured according to a veterinary assessment of the project.
The exact cost of killing each wolf isn’t clear but the overall pilot project had a budget in the region of $500,000, much of it assigned to fund the aerial shooting.
Minister has 42 days to respond
In concluding its letter to the governments, the WRRB stated ground-based wolf culls remain “unfortunately necessary” – alongside caribou harvesting limits and reducing human disturbance to caribou habitat – given the low numbers of caribou in the two herds.
“Collaborative and adaptive management is essential,” the letter concluded.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources said killing wolves was “just one of many actions” being taken to help the herds.
The department gave no indication of whether the WRRB’s recommendations would be accepted but said the board’s “thorough review” was being considered and noted Thompson, the minister, had 42 days to reach a decision.
“Aerial removal has only been proposed for the end of the winter if harvest numbers do not meet the wolf removal target of 60-80 percent needed to support Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou recovery,” spokesperson Joslyn Oosenbrug wrote.
“Our approach is based on the latest scientific, local and traditional knowledge and builds on lessons learned from other jurisdictions and through our own experience.”
The Bathurst and Bluenose-East herds together had an estimated size of 28,000 caribou in 2018. Each herd was thought to have declined in size by about a quarter in the preceding three years.
Officials working to preserve caribou numbers have previously acknowledged that the exact causes of herd decline, and the best responses, remain unclear despite a range of government actions.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government has been approached for comment.