A growing number of British Columbians are pushing the provincial government to tighten rules around killing wolves.
FORESTS, LANDS, NATURAL RESOURCE OPERATIONS AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT Minister Katrine Conroy said this month that she is looking at closing “loopholes” in wolf hunting and trapping rules. One of the few certainties is that Conroy will be walking an emotionally-charged tightrope.
On one side, defenders of wolves point to the ethics of killing an animal with no intention of eating it. They also note the lack of reliable population figures and regulations that allow uncontrolled wolf hunting and trapping. The wolf’s role as an apex predator that helps maintain balanced ecosystems is also cited as a reason to stop the unregulated killing.
On the other, hunters point to dramatically shrinking ungulate populations—caused in large part by logging that has given wolves easy access to prey. (In a rare point of agreement, both primary sides say that habitat protection and restoration is desperately needed.)
Photo by Ian McAllister
While the websites of legal guide-outfitters show piles of dead wolves in an effort to persuade tourists to take part in “trapline adventures,” wildlife watching businesses and environmental groups say killing BC wolves is scientifically unwarranted and gives the province an international black eye.
The debate has become so heated that spokespeople for both sides say they have been subjected to threats of lawsuits or violence.
“I get death threats all the time,” said Jesse Zeman, BC Wildlife Federation director or fish and wildlife restoration, adding that there are fringe elements on both sides. Less than two percent of hunters in BC identify as trophy hunters and most hunt because of the chance to spend time outdoors with friends and family and for food, Zeman said.
However, according to a study published in Conservation Biology and written by researchers from Raincoast Conservation Society and the Universities of Victoria and Wisconsin, those hunters should be concerned their reputation is being tarnished by trophy hunters.
Wolves and other large carnivores are rarely killed and eaten and that does not sit well with many members of the public who see it as gratuitous killing, said one of the study’s authors, Chris Darimont, a wolf researcher, University of Victoria professor and Raincoast Research Chair in Applied Conservation Science.
“Large surveys tell us that the public generally show strong support for hunting to feed your family, but not to feed your hunger for status,” said Darimont pointing to the Province’s decision to end the grizzly bear hunt after persistent public pressure.
There is certainly not much empirical data on wolves in BC, but, for Darimont, the issue does not revolve around the numbers and whether there is a harvestable surplus. Most opponents of wolf hunting and trapping would continue to be opposed even if the science showed healthy populations, said Darimont. “Why they are really opposed is not over conservation concerns, but rather because hunting an animal not to feed your family, but to feed your ego, grossly misaligns with most people’s values,” Darimont said.
No real numbers—or regulations
Grief and outrage followed the shooting of Takaya, the lone coastal wolf who for eight years lived on Discovery Island and adjacent islands off Oak Bay. His death put an international spotlight on BC’s wildlife regulations.
Takaya, known as Staqeya by the Songhees First Nation, was legally shot by a hunter near Shawnigan Lake in March 2020 after being relocated to the Port Renfrew area by BC conservation officers.
No one knew Takaya better than Cheryl Alexander, wildlife photographer, environmental consultant and former environmental studies teacher at the University of Victoria, who studied Takaya for much of his life and wrote the book Takaya: Lone Wolf.
A sense of foreboding hung over Alexander after Takaya was relocated. Even though she believed Takaya had never lost his wildness and, like all wolves, was cautious around humans, she anticipated he would die in a trap or from a bullet because of BC’s Wild West attitude towards wolf killing.
“I think most people do not understand that we have regulations that allow and even encourage hunters to kill wolves and that there is ostensibly no limit,” she said.
“There’s an issue about the scientific management of wolves and the knowledge base and there’s also an issue around ethics and having a free-for-all and deciding to take out all the wolves.”
Alexander feels the Province has turned wolf management over to citizens, letting them decide when to shoot or trap wolves rather than making the BC Conservation Service responsible.
Alexander wants a moratorium on recreational wolf hunting until population numbers and the role of wolves in regional ecosystems are confirmed. She also wants to see compulsory reporting of wolf kills and a requirement for all hunters to obtain a species licence or tag to hunt or trap wolves. Alexander has recently written an open letter to Premier John Horgan to this effect.
If a tag had been required, the Shawnigan Lake hunter may not have killed Takaya, Alexander believes.
Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland have a bag limit of three wolves for anyone holding a basic hunting license, but in some other areas of the province there is no bag limit, no closed season, and no requirement to report wolf kills. British Columbians do not require a tag or special license to kill a wolf and non-residents pay a fee of $50.
The lack of regulations makes estimating the number of wolves in the province—alive or killed—little more than a guessing game.
Emails from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, sent to Alexander as she was researching her book, confirm there is no information on the distribution of wolf packs on Vancouver Island and population estimates are “inferred.”
The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, responding by email to questions from Focus, said wolf population numbers are not directly monitored, but the numbers killed by hunters, trappers or for government “control efforts” are recorded through hunter surveys. Wolf populations change quickly because of high reproduction and prey availability, said the spokesperson.
“Staff know when populations are healthy and we know that, while there are not huge numbers of wolves on Vancouver Island—about 250—we know that the populations are not under any immediate threat,” he wrote.
Ministry figures show that the Province itself has killed 1,208 wolves since 2015 in areas where caribou herds are in trouble—even though there is conflicting evidence whether removing wolves noticeably increases ungulate populations. In 2019 there were 695 reported kills by hunters and trappers, down from 939 the previous year—but that’s only the reported kills.
On Vancouver Island there were no reported wolf kills in 2019 and 35 the previous year.
The lack of scientifically verified information about the province’s wolf packs has convinced more than 71,600 people to sign a petition asking for a moratorium on wolf hunting until population numbers are confirmed. Also, in February 2021, a resolution going to Oak Bay Council calls for recreational wolf hunting on Vancouver Island to be re-examined for scientific and ethical reasons.
The resolution underlines the scant information about the size of Vancouver Island’s wolf population and the effects of unrestricted harvesting on habitat and wildlife ecology. If it passes, the resolution will be sent to the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities and the Union of BC Municipalities
Photo by Ian McAllister
Indiscriminate killing—but no conservation concerns?
Advocates believe the absence of regulation feeds the attitude of hunters such as Victoria resident Jacine Jadresko, who describes herself on social media as the InkedHuntress and posts pictures of herself with animals she has killed, including wolves in Sooke.
Jadresko has posted that she is trapping wolves in response to a problem wolf pack threatening pets—believed to be feral cats in East Sooke—and wrote “full pack removal is always the goal.”
Two years ago, Steve Isdahl, also from Vancouver Island, posted pictures of rows of dead wolves and, on his Facebook page, appealed to hunters and trappers to join him in killing as many wolves as possible. Isdahl attempted to raise money on-line for snares and traps.
Conroy, in an emailed answer to questions from Focus, said most hunters she knows are conservationists who would find such an attitude offensive. “This person [Jadresko] is abusing the hunting regulations just to boost her own profile. We will be working with the BC Wildlife Federation and the BC Trappers Association to change the regulations to close this loophole so this type of behaviour is prevented in the future,” she said. “We’ll work with stakeholders to find a solution that works for everyone.”
The idea that government will work with hunting organizations to tweak regulations has alarmed environmental groups. Conroy did not reply when asked which other stakeholders would be consulted.
An open letter to Conroy, in February 2021, signed by 26 scientists and organizations, including the BC SPCA, environmental groups and wildlife tourism businesses, asks for a balanced review.
“Surely your ministry would not select only two interest groups for consultation—and groups that have a vested interest in killing wolves at that,” says the letter, which also takes issue with a statement made by Conroy to the Globe and Mail, that “wolves breed like rabbits. There are no conservation concerns.” That, states the letter, is a “common fallacy that has long been promoted by hunters, trappers, and some wildlife managers who have failed to take note of the science of ecology.” (An open letter from senior wolf researchers Dr John and Mary Theberge also points out this faulty assumption.)
“To the contrary,” the letter states, “we assure you that wolves have been wiped out over a vast area of the United States. They were nearly wiped out historically in parts of southern Canada from early trapping, strychnine poisoning and persecution.” Wayne McCrory, chair of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, which spearheaded the letter, condemned what he calls the indiscriminate killing of wolves.
Urging the minister to ensure that “environmental groups, independent conservationists, independent scientists and non-consumptive wildlife viewing tourism businesses have standing equal to hunting and trapping interests in this matter,” the Valhalla letter noted, “hunters, trappers, and their organizations lobby constantly to have large carnivores regularly killed in order to increase ungulate populations, for no other reason than to make it easier for humans to hunt [ungulates themselves].”
Lack of deer cited as justification for killing wolves
An opposing open letter to Conroy and other cabinet ministers, from the Hunters for BC Interior Chapter-Safari Club International, says too much credence is being given “to the emotions of the anti-hunting movement,” and there is concern that could influence a decision to ban or limit wolf hunting and trapping.
The letter, signed by Robin Unrau, president of the organization, accuses anti-hunting advocates of bullying and says that if people do not appreciate “thousands of years of hunting and trapping traditions,” they should not visit social media sites owned by hunters and trappers.
For Zeman of the Wildlife Federation, the history of crashing deer populations on Vancouver Island illustrates why wolves must be “harvested.” Old-growth logging means predators move efficiently across the landscape and the deer have nowhere to go, he said.
“In the 1960s hunters would have harvested 20,000 to 25,000 deer on Vancouver Island and now we’re down to 3,700,” he said. “That’s an 85 percent decline in deer harvest, so, in terms of food security, that represents red meat for close to 20,000 people on the Island…If we don’t manage wolves, we won’t have any deer,” said Zeman.
But without accurate data, how can anyone be sure of this? Zeman admits there is a lack of accurate wildlife statistics because of BC’s scant funding for wildlife management.
McCrory noted there is evidence from areas such as Yellowstone National Park that showed the reintroduction of wolves dramatically improved the ecosystem. “There is a lack of recognition that wolves are an arch predator and have evolved with ungulates in the ecosystem to keep it all healthy,” McCrory wrote.
Others, like biologist Kyle Artelle, who reviewed 667 management plans for 27 species that are hunted and trapped in Canada and the US in 2018, have observed that it doesn’t make biological sense that if a food source—like deer—is crashing, the predator population would be increasing. He told the Narwhal that anecdotal information on declining deer populations and on increased wolf populations was being used to justify hunting and trapping practices on Vancouver Island and pointed to a study in southeast Alaska that found declining deer populations were the result of logging activities rather than wolf predation.
With 16,000 kilometres of logging roads in BC giving access to predators and hunters, there are few places where ungulates can safely birth calves and forage.
And, as the Valhalla Society letter noted, “Simply reducing wolf populations can have very negative ripple effects in ecosystems that can extend to wiping out other species.” McCrory also stated that disrupting wolf packs and killing alpha males or females means young wolves are more likely to get into trouble with preying on livestock or heading into populated areas.
Regardless of the “loopholes” closed by the BC government, Indigenous rights and practices will likely be respected by all.
John Henderson, vice-chairman of Kwakiutl Tribal Council on northern Vancouver Island, said, “There’s so much shortage of food everywhere whether it’s the fishing crisis or the wildlife crisis. [Wolves] are predators that we have protected for a long time, but now it’s time to start managing them.”
Surveys have shown that deer populations have dropped from about 13 animals per square kilometre to 0.1 animal, said Henderson. Wolf trapping is now part of the training for young people from the eight nations who are learning the ways of their ancestors. “We train our kids to go out there and they’re actually trapping wolves and skinning them and using them for cultural purposes and that’s positive—what better way to treat a problem,” he said.
Ultimately, it is logging and other forms of industrial incursion and urbanization that decimated the ungulates’ ability to forage and maintain healthy populations. But the wolf is, of course, easier to “manage,” especially when there are few rules, at least in settler society.
In the letter that Cheryl Alexander wrote to Premier Horgan as founder & executive director of Takaya’s Legacy Project, she noted, “Trappers across BC are ‘encouraged’ to kill wolves, with no limit on the number that may be trapped.” She told of communication with a Vancouver Island trapper in 2019, who told her “he had taken 18 wolves off his single trapline in 2018, and that in the first three months of 2019, he had taken six. As well, sponsored wolf-killing contests in northern and interior BC encourage participants to kill as many wolves as possible, with prizes provided.”
For Alexander, the question for people living in interface areas where wolf territory has been disrupted, is how to live with an iconic animal, rather than using traps and guns to wipe them out. “It’s our human responsibility to figure out how we can best live with them near us or around us and most people value that,” she said.
McCrory agrees: “We have to reverse this freight train of wolf killing that has been going on in the province. They’re extremely beautiful, iconic animals and many of us who have worked in the Great Bear Rainforests for a long time have come to a deep appreciation of how important they are.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith