ENGOs demand government prove its aerial wolf shooting is humane—and also condemn it as unethical and illogical.
MORE THAN 600 PHOTOS AND 14 VIDEOS, believed to show wolves being shot from helicopters by marksmen using semi-automatic rifles, are stashed in provincial government files.
The photos are part of the province’s commitment to monitor its wolf cull program, but efforts by environmental and animal rights organizations to gain access to the photos are being stonewalled, despite freedom of information submissions by The Fur-Bearers and Pacific Wild.
Government insists that the controversial wolf cull—which began in 2015 in an effort to protect shrinking caribou herds—is ethical, humane and necessary if endangered caribou are to be saved.
But no audit of the program has been made public and critics say the photos must be released so British Columbians can judge for themselves if the killings are humane.
“The government maintains that its shooting activities are ethical and humane and that the kills are verified by the shooters and independently by a provincial veterinarian. Yet, at the same time, the public is being denied access to records that could verify or challenge such claims,” says an open letter from Pacific Wild sent this month to Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston and Premier David Eby.
The shootings have been carried out in a secretive manner with little oversight, says the letter from Pacific Wild.
“The withholding of pictures and videos of the wolf cull unnecessarily restricts the public’s ability to hold the government to account for the humaneness and ethical aspects of the wolf killings,” it says.
The BC government has killed over 1500 wolves despite no evidence that it protects caribou (photo by John E. Marriott)
It has been a tough slog to get any useful information, Bryce Casavant, Pacific Wild director of conservation intelligence, said in an interview.
“I don’t feel that media or NGOs or the public should have to go through the FOI process on this. I think there should be proactive disclosure by the ministry,” Casavant said.
The wolf cull program moved from the Forests Ministry to the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship last year and that switch was followed by claims that there were no relevant photographic records.
Pacific Wild has now received confirmation from the ministry that there are 600 photographs and 14 videos relating to the wolf cull and the organization has paid a $810 fee for government to continue to search its records.
“We believe there are more because it’s a requirement under the permits [to take photos]. So, if there are 1,000 dead wolves, there should be 1,000 photos,” Casavant said.
An emailed statement from the Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Ministry, in answer to questions from Focus, confirmed that photos are sometimes taken of operations.
“Such photos are used strictly by the provincial wildlife veterinarian for assessment purposes and would not be shared publicly,” it said.
Since the program started, more than 1,500 wolves have been shot from the air. The program was extended last year for five years, with an expectation that 200 to 300 animals will be killed annually. The 2023 cull, with a budget of $1.7 million, is underway in 13 of BC’s 54 woodland caribou ranges this month.
“It can be difficult to predict how many wolves will be removed each year, but this year’s total will likely be less than 200,” said a ministry spokesperson.
In 2021/22, government contractors killed 279 wolves at a cost of $1.75 million, which works out to $6,272 per wolf. The total cost since 2015 has risen to more than $6-million.
Wolves likely dying slow, painful deaths from aerial shots
One of the only public videos of wolves being shot by government contractors is a decades-old segment of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things which shows some of the difficulties of obtaining a clean shot from an aircraft.
A question for government would be what has changed since the video was taken and the truthful answer would be “we gave them more bullets,” Casavant said.
“The precision element of shooting from an aerial platform is missing. It’s what the army would call spraying and praying,” he said.
Inevitably that means wolves are being wounded, rather than killed by a single shot to the head, and many are likely to die slow, painful deaths.
“I believe these photos and videos that the ministry has will show that the way it has been taking place is with immense suffering and is not an ethical shooting activity,” Casavant said.
There are also questions around what training and permits are needed when civilian contractors are using assault-style rifles from aircraft, he said.
“Ethics, morals and the suffering of the animals aside, there are some very serious safety risks with what’s taking place,” he said.
Contractors appear to be selected on the basis of having previously done similar jobs, rather than bonafide qualifications, Casavant said.
“I think what these records are going to show is that it’s absolute mayhem and chaos,” he said.
However, the ministry said shootings are conducted by wildlife contractors who document their training and are then approved by the provincial wildlife veterinarian and the Forests Ministry regional manager.
“There is a high level of government oversight during aerial wolf reduction activities with government biologists on board most flights,” says the ministry statement.
Hunting-caliber firearms, with semi-automatic actions and five-round magazines, are selected specifically to maximize humaneness, efficiency and effectiveness, and “predator reduction activities” are under continual assessment, it says.
Names of contractors and companies are not released because of “previous and ongoing threats to those personnel.”
The Fur-Bearers submitted an FOI in September last year asking for documents and photographs submitted to the provincial wildlife veterinarian from “wolf removals” in the Itcha-Ilgachuz and Tweedsmuir-Entiako area and were given 13 pages of emails and contractor reports.
When The Fur-Bearers asked about photographs and documentation of the number and placement of shots, the response was that the ministry is currently working on finalizing provincial standards.
The Fur-Bearers executive director Lesley Fox, in a letter to the ministry, said documents and photos are essential for the ministry to monitor humaneness and ensure contractors—who are killing BC wildlife on behalf of the government at taxpayers’ expense—are following guidelines.
“It is unclear where the problem lies, whether it is contractors failing to report or the ministry failing to monitor. But it is clear there is a problem,” wrote Fox.
In the apparent absence of a consistent approach to the collection of kill records, The Fur-Bearers has asked for an immediate cull moratorium and an audit of ministry monitoring and contractors’ adherence to standards and guidelines.
Aaron Hofman, The Fur-Bearers director of advocacy and policy, said the organization made Freedom of Information requests to ascertain whether methods used to kill wolves are humane and, as claimed by government, in accordance with euthanasia guidelines.
“We submitted a request for photos of wolves killed, as is required in the contractors’ documents. They have to send the photos to the provincial wildlife veterinarian. That’s how they are monitoring humaneness. They want to see how many shots it took to kill a wolf and where in the body these shots were,” Hofman said.
According to the guidelines, humane would be one shot to the head, he said.
“But the nature of the wolf cull is semi-automatic weapons being shot from helicopters chasing wolves, so we would question the idea that it is a clean shot every time,” Hofman said.
BC follows the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines for euthanasia and depopulation of animals and aerial-based shooting avoids the risk of animals other than wolves being killed, according to the ministry statement.
The Fur-Bearers were not given photos and have filed a complaint to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner alleging that either government did not do its due diligence or are refusing to provide the photos.
Pups now being killed
However, the documents the organization did receive led to the discovery that contractors are killing wolf pups and using pups to lead them to other wolves.
In one case, one pup was left alive when seven members of her pack were killed. She was collared and found several weeks later with another pup and then both wolves were killed.
“We’ve known they have been using Judas wolves, but now the fact they are using wolf pups is another level of cruelty and inhumaneness,” Hofman said.
The ministry disputes the definition of wolf pups.
BC government documents show that wolf pups are now being killed, as well as used to help eradicate entire packs. (Photo by Paul Paquet)
“Wolf reduction takes place in the winter when the previous year’s pups are considered sub-adults, nearing full maturity and contributing to the pack’s hunting efforts,” according to the statement.
“In some circumstances, an individual wolf from a pack is captured and fitted with a GPS collar. This method provides data to government biologists about wolf movements and pack territories and helps facilitate the removal of entire packs.”
Government acknowledges that habitat destruction is the problem
In addition to growing concerns about the suffering of animals, there are questions about the efficacy of killing wolves and cougars in proximity to caribou herds when government is continuing to approve logging and other activities in caribou critical habitat.
“Industrial development, logging, seismic lines—all this development happening in critical caribou habitat is ultimately driving caribou declines. The government acknowledges that too,” Hofman said.
A 2021 study found that habitat restoration is key to the survival of mountain caribou herds.
Numbers of woodland caribou in BC have shrunk from 40,000 to 15,500—but habitat destruction (via clearcut logging) is likely more to blame than wolves. (Photo by Conservation North)
A 2019 study found caribou survival increased with aggressive wolf culls, but also said wolf control cannot continue forever and habitat protection and restoration is key. That study was then challenged by a 2020 paper that concluded wolf control has no effect on caribou survival.
The decline in woodland caribou is due to habitat change which has significantly altered predator-prey dynamics and predator culls usually take place in areas impacted by resource extraction, although there are no maps showing the overlap of wolf culls and resource extraction, said the ministry.
In those changed and disturbed landscapes, wolves, given easy access on logging roads or seismic lines, are now the primary predator of caribou.
“The province has long acknowledged that habitat protection and restoration is crucial for caribou recovery, but habitat protection alone will not allow caribou populations to increase, since currently disturbed habitat needs time to recover,” said the ministry spokesperson.
But critics question why, if government acknowledges that habitat destruction is the problem, the province continues to approve logging in critical habitat.
When asked why logging permits continue to be handed out in caribou critical habitat, an oblique statement from the ministry said significant steps have already been taken to protect critical winter ranges, calving and post-rut areas.
“We continue, in partnership with First Nations, to monitor caribou populations and adjust forestry practices as necessary,” it says.
The wolf cull is opposed by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs who have written to the province demanding a “full-stop end to wolf culls and unethical hunting.”
“The false narrative that blames wolves as the source of the problem is a misdirection of the real issue which is resource development sanctioned by BC with no regard to our future generations which has resulted in the eradication of major habitat areas,” says the letter.
“We now face the grave issue of non-Indigenous gun clubs producing ‘killing contests’ and engaging in unethical hunting and culling practices,” says the letter signed by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chief Don Tom and Kukpi7 Judy Wilson.
Biologist Paul Paquet, Raincoast Conservation Foundation senior scientist and an internationally recognized wolf expert, said there is no way that the wolf cull can be described as humane.
“It’s a failure on the part of both [federal and provincial] governments that they allowed this and have not been very explicit and transparent about the fact that it is inhumane,” Paquet said in an interview.
Contractors might manage a shot to the head or heart some of the time, but not most of the time, said Paquet, adding that his experience tells him that the monitoring is inadequate.
“What we are looking at is the old parable of doing harm to do good. This where we run into questions of ethics with the end justifies the means arguments,” he said.
It is an argument that is not defensible, Paquet said.
Releasing photos may help put public pressure on government, but, so far, public pressure has not deterred those in favour of the cull, Paquet said.
“Most of these people have only a casual acquaintance with ethics and, I would say relatedly, logic,” he said.
Science has been mixed on the success of the program, but science does not give permission to override ethics, Paquet said.
“There is honest disagreement over the science as to what is happening, but that is only looking at the science and not the ethics and that is a big, big issue,” said Paquet, who has written extensively on how the mythical picture of wolves as savage killers has led to destructive management of wolf populations.
Most people, when told that contractors are using pups to lead them to other wolves in their pack, instinctively react that the practice is offensive and immoral, Paquet said.
“There’s betrayal here,” he said.
“I think the old maxim ‘there is no right way to do the wrong thing’ applies here. It certainly captures the essence of the ethical debate,” Paquet said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world, along with the politics around them.