The Northwest Territories government has been authorized to proceed immediately with a plan that includes using satellite collars and shooting from aircraft to cut wolf populations by up to 80 per cent.
The plan targets wolves that prey on the Bathurst and Bluenose East barren-ground caribou herds, both of which have been in steep decline.
In a decision announced Friday, the Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board said it would allow the proposed wolf management program to proceed as a one-year pilot project while a longer-term plan is reviewed more closely. The program was jointly proposed by the territorial and Tłı̨chǫ governments at the end of January.
The resources board criticized the two governments for submitting the plan so late that a proper review would leave no time to reduce wolf populations this winter. Having it proceed as a pilot will allow action to be taken this winter without the need for public hearings or to answer questions about the plan.
The combination of placing global positioning system (GPS) collars on wolves and shooting them from aircraft is as effective as it is controversial.
Under the proposed plan, if hunters fail to meet annual targets for wolf kills by March, those targets will be met by shooting wolves from aircraft, using satellite collars to locate packs. All members of the pack will be killed — apart from the collared one, in the hopes of it later leading to another pack.
The government plans to put satellite collars on 30 wolves this year.
In their joint proposal, the Tłı̨chǫ and N.W.T. governments say shooting wolves from aircraft will almost certainly be required to meet reduction targets.
“It is unlikely that ground-based harvesting on the winter range, even by harvesters from both the North Slave Region and Nunavut, can reduce wolf numbers to the level needed to increase survival rates in caribou,” it reads.
The territory’s minister of Environment and Natural Resources referred questions about the public perception of aerial hunting using satellite tracking collars to the department, saying it is a technical issue.
“We looked at every option available and if we don’t do nothing and just do status quo, we’ll just continue seeing the decline of our populations,” Shane Thompson said Monday, noting that the population of the Bathurst herd has declined by about 98 per cent since 1996.
“So we’re down to two per cent of the population,” he said. “So we have to make some hard decisions.”
The wolf management plan also includes expanding increased bounties for wolves to hunters from Nunavut, training on trapping wolves, and Tłı̨chǫ community wolf hunts.
Wolf cull helping B.C. caribou
British Columbia recently finished a five-year program that included using satellite collars to locate wolves and shooting them from helicopters. It helped halt the decline of mountain caribou herds there.
“We’ve taken some caribou populations that were declining at a rate of about 15 per cent per year and we’ve reversed those trends to the point where they are now increasing by about 15 per cent per year,” said B.C. government biologist Michael Bridger.
Contractors hired by the provincial government shot between 51 and 155 wolves from helicopters each year of the program.
But Bridger said aerial hunting is only supposed to be a temporary measure while the government addresses the real cause of caribou declines — habitat disturbance caused by resource development and clear-cut logging.
“The wolves do recover at a very high rate annually, anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent in a given year,” he said. “So it is a method — this aerial wolf reduction — that has to be sustained over time in order to achieve those results in the caribou population.
“Basically it’s buying us time to get the caribou habitat back online.”
N.W.T. continues push for road in caribou grounds
While it is proposing a plan to cull wolves that prey on Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou, the Northwest Territories government continues to lobby the federal government for funding to build a road to encourage more mining development in the range of the two caribou herds.
That lobbying has had recent success. A little over six months ago, the federal and territorial governments announced $40 million for planning studies and research required for a regulatory review of the proposed road.
The Slave Geological Province corridor is a 413-kilometre road that would run northeast from the Yellowknife area up to the diamond fields of Lac de Gras. It would roughly follow the route of the winter road to the diamond mines — one that many hunters use as a jumping-off point for harvesting activities.
Thompson, the Environment and Natural Resources minister, said the studies may conclude the road is not a good idea.
“They may come back from the environmental study and say, ‘This is not a good place to be, the road’s not in a good place,'” he said.