A herd of B.C.’s endangered mountain caribou that lives in Mount Revelstoke National Park has only four animals left after numbering 120 in 1994, according to a University of Alberta researcher.
Robert Serrouya gave that example to show the pressing need to find new conservation solutions before these caribou herds disappear forever.
“There’s about 50 herds in B.C., and only 10 per cent of those are stable or increasing [their populations],” he said. “The rest are declining or not doing very well.”
In new research published in PeerJ, an academic journal, Serrouya and others advocate for one particular solution: increase the hunting of deer and moose that are spreading across B.C.
Caribou are ‘bycatch’
Serrouya says logging activities, climate change and forest fires over the last 150 years have removed trees in B.C., replacing them with lighter shrubbery that can remain in place for 30 to 40 years.
That shrubbery is eaten by moose and deer. As the shrubbery has grown, so too have those animals’ populations while also spreading into caribou territory.
He says those animals are enticing wolves to come along with them and caribou are becoming “bycatch” — unintentionally caught prey — as the wolves hunt moose and deer. “They’re not the main animal that sustains the predators but they get taken on the side and that can lead to extinction.”
As he explains, that’s because caribou are less reproductive than moose or deer, and while moose and deer have ways of handling predators — moose with their fearsome kicking and deer with their speed — caribou simply travel to areas where there are no predators.
But as wolves spread and habitat is removed, that is less and less possible.
Fewer moose, fewer wolves
Serrouya says many jurisdictions are using wolf culls to stop the loss of caribou, but he says that is a “Band-Aid solution” at best and increasingly socially unacceptable.
His research compared caribou herds in areas where moose hunting was increased with areas where hunting remained the same.
He says in areas where moose hunting was increased, wolves moved on and bred less.
“That approach seems more acceptable than directly killing wolves,” he said. “You’re also providing a food opportunity for hunters.”
Serrouya says increased hunting of caribou and moose is not the solution on its own but along with better habitat management and maternal penning it could be part of a solution.