The population of three mountain caribou herds in the South Peace region has risen by 49 per cent just four years into an experimental wolf cull program, according to a new analysis released by the provincial government.
Based on those findings, the report concludes "it is highly recommended that wolf reduction continue to be implemented" until the herds are self-sustaining.
The recovery of the South Peace population is also cited in a proposal for a two-year emergency predator reduction program to halt and reverse the decline of the Tweedsmuir-Entiako and Itcha-Ilgachuz herds in central B.C. east of Bella Coola, and the Hart Ranges herd near the Alberta border.
The government has just completed a stakeholder consultation on the emergency proposal from the B.C. Caribou Recovery Program, but it has not yet been approved, according to the ministry of forests.
The proposal calls for more than 80 per cent of wolves in critical caribou habitat be eliminated using a combination of radio-collaring and aerial shooting. It recommends a population density of fewer than three wolves per 1,000 square kilometres.
The B.C. Wildlife Federation is concerned that intensive predator management will become an open-ended solution to caribou survival as industrial activity disrupts the landscape.
"The science says wolf control does work. It also says this is a Band-Aid interim solution," said Jesse Zeman, spokesman for the B.C. Wildlife Federation. "If you don't restore habitat, you will have to cull wolves forever."
Only 15,000 caribou remain provincewide and at least four herds in the Selkirk and Purcell Mountains are considered "functionally extinct".
Expanding natural gas exploration and extraction in the northeast corner of the province will likely impact the boreal caribou north of Fort St. John, Zeman said.
Caribou are highly sensitive to disruptions in their natural environment and appear to be suffering dire consequences of seismic exploration, road-building, backwoods recreation, and especially land-clearing, which leads to increasing numbers of other prey species such as moose, elk, and deer.
Wolf populations boom in response to the increased availability of food, and caribou are "incidentally killed because of increased predator density," the proposal notes.
Exploration corridors, trails and roads also act as predator highways that allow wolves to move through caribou habitat with greater efficiency.
The government is pursuing a $47-million, multi-pronged program aimed at turning around the decades-long decline of the caribou.
An interim ban on industrial and commercial development was announced earlier this year for a large swath of the South Peace, one of the areas proposed for the two-year emergency cull.
Some work has been done on re-wilding roads and disrupted landscapes, including a lichen restoration project in the range of the Tweedsmuir-Entiako herd to increase food availability.
The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations have been running a successful maternity penning program, which has more than doubled the population of the Klinse-Za herd. Pregnant females are tracked by helicopters, captured and held in a large, fenced enclosure until after they give birth.
The combination of maternity penning and predator reduction is the most potent combination for short-term caribou recovery, said Robert Serrouya, director of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute's Caribou Monitoring Unit.
"Habitat restoration is the long-term piece to this strategy, but if we wait for habitat to be restored and do nothing else, there won't be any caribou to occupy it," he said.
A recent study of 18 caribou herds led by Serrouya found that herds stabilized or increased in eight of 12 herds in areas that were culled of wolves.