Here’s one aspect of Canada’s energy boom that isn’t being thwarted by the oil market crash: the wolf cull.
The expansion of oil-sands mines and drilling pads has brought the caribou pictured on Canada’s 25-cent coin to the brink of extinction in Alberta and British Columbia. To arrest the population decline, the two provinces are intensifying a hunt of the caribou’s main predator, the gray wolf. Conservation groups accuse the provinces of making wolves into scapegoats for man-made damage to caribou habitats.
The cull carried out in winter when the dark fur of the wolves is easier to spot against the snow has claimed more than 1,000 animals since 2005. Hunters shoot them with high-powered rifles from nimble two-seat helicopters that can hover close to a pack or lone wolf. In Alberta, some are poisoned with big chunks of bait laced with strychnine, leading to slow and painful deaths that may be preceded by seizures and hypothermia.
“It’s an unhappy necessity,” Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta biologist, said of the government-sponsored hunt. “We’ve let the development proceed so far already that now, trying to get industry out of an area, is just not going to happen.”
The energy industry has delivered a death blow to caribou by turning prime habitat into production sites and by introducing linear features on the landscape that give wolves easy paths to hunt caribou, such as roads, pipelines and lines of downed trees created by oil and gas exploration.
A drop in drilling after oil prices plunged can’t reverse the damage. More than C$350 billion ($285 billion) spent by Alberta’s oil-sands producers to build an industrial complex that’s visible from space have made the province’s boreal herds of woodland caribou the most endangered in the country. Their population is falling by about half every eight years, according to a 2013 study in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
Since 2005, Alberta has auctioned the rights to develop more than 25,000 square kilometers (9,652 square miles) of land in caribou ranges to energy companies, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, an Ottawa-based charity. That’s equivalent to about three times New York’s metropolitan area.
“When the oil industry goes in there and cuts those lines and drills and puts in pipelines, it helps the wolves,” said Chad Lenz, a hunting guide with two decades of experience based in Red Deer, Alberta. Lenz has watched caribou herds shrink as the number of wolves soar. “There’s not a place in Alberta that hasn’t been affected by industry, especially the oil industry.”
Home to the world’s third-largest proven crude reserves, Alberta depends on levies from the energy industry to build new roads, schools and hospitals.
British Columbia joined Alberta in sponsoring a wolf hunt this year as its logging and energy industries too are putting populations of woodland caribou at risk. Canada’s westernmost province is trying to erase its debt with revenues from the energy industry, as companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc consider multibillion-dollar gas export projects along the Pacific Coast.
The provinces are widening their wolf cull -- a stop gap poised to extend for years -- as companies such as Devon Energy Corp. join in testing other radical measures to revive the herds.
British Columbia killed 84 wolves in the hunt that ended this month. Alberta eliminated 53 this year, bringing its total killed through the program since 2005 to 1,033.
Conservation groups have petitioned for the end of a program they deem unethical without aggressive habitat recovery, while the provinces keep selling drilling rights on caribou ranges.
“We do not support the current wolf kill,” said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist at the Alberta Wilderness Association, a Calgary-based advocacy group. “It’s an unethical way to scapegoat wolves.”
The provinces are only poised to kill more wolves, though, as they prepare plans to reverse the population decline for each caribou range ahead of a 2017 Canadian government deadline.
Alberta is expected to continue the cull in the first of its range plans to be released this year, which will serve as a model for handling of the other herds, said Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesman for Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development department. British Columbia’s 2015 cull was just the first of a five-year program.
Killing wolves is saving caribou from extinction while governments and energy companies consider new approaches, said the University of Alberta’s Boutin.
The energy industry has worked to reduce its impact on caribou by adding gates on roads to block access and by returning disturbed land to a more natural state, said Chelsie Klassen, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
After spending about C$200 million annually for 12 years to help revive the caribou and watching populations continue to fall, companies are finally seeing small successes, said Amit Saxena, senior biodiversity and land specialist at Devon.
Wolves tracked with collars are being deterred from areas where companies have replanted trees, Saxena said. At its Jackfish oil-sands project, Devon is monitoring a fenced patch of land to see if it can keep out wolves and bears attracted by bait. Until the lessons can be successfully applied to wider swaths of land, the wolf cull will have to continue, he said.
“Sustainability of caribou herds and oil and gas activity can go hand in hand on the landscape,” Saxena said. “If we can manage that predation level that is too excessive in some areas, then caribou can recover on an industrial, active working landscape.”
The human impact can’t all be reversed for herds that each require about 30,000 square kilometers of mostly undisturbed land to thrive, Boutin said. The biologist advocates building pens for pregnant and newborn caribou and larger fenced-off areas for certain entire herds.
“Habitat recovery will be part of the toolbox but it will never be useful on its own,” Boutin said. If provincial governments don’t pursue radical ideas such as maternity pens, fences and predator control, “then they’re going to be wasting everybody’s time.”