How do you protect an endangered species? Well, if you're the government of British Columbia, the answer is simple — you kill stuff. That may sound crude, but so is what the provincial government is considering doing to save an endangered population of caribou in the province.
Found in the eastern parts of British Columbia, and down into Idaho (where they are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act), mountain caribou are one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Their population has declined alarmingly fast. While there were an estimated 2,500 animals in B.C. in the 1990s, today there are fewer than 1,900.
To make matters worse, what historically had likely been one large population has been fragmented into as many as 18 subpopulations, some of which are completely isolated from one another. Such isolation raises problems of inbreeding and makes populations less likely to survive. Two of these small herds have recently disappeared altogether.
In 2004, the province convened a science team to assess the status of the caribou and provide options for the recovery of the species. This fall, the panel reported back, providing a series of recommendations — from habitat protection, to controlling access to critical caribou habitat, to culling competing predators and prey.
Given that the primary underlying threat to mountain caribou is from habitat loss, the recommendation of protecting habitat was not surprising. What was surprising, however, was that the government announcement about recovery options and management actions didn't include maps of the caribou's core habitat or provide details on the recommended protected areas.
Instead, the announcement focused largely on just one of six potential actions — killing stuff. The theory is that if you kill the caribou's potential predators (such as grizzly bears, wolverines, cougars and wolves), along with competing prey species (such as elk and moose), it reduces pressure on the mountain caribou. Yet the science panel itself was not definitive on the effectiveness of this action. Killing other species in hopes of protecting a specific one is a risky and unproven strategy. Everything we have learned about conservation biology tells us that ecosystems are extremely complex and interconnected. Crude, simplistic methods of human intervention are likely to prove unhelpful and potentially disastrous.
We also don't know how much of a factor illegal hunting has been in the caribou's decline. Recently, University of British Columbia researcher Peter Arcese and others looked at the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. Their findings, published in the journal Science, reported that the abundance of a variety of species could be directly linked to the number of anti-poaching patrols conducted. Dr. Arcese noted recently in the Vancouver Sun that mountain caribou in British Columbia could be disappearing due to poaching, but we wouldn't know because there are so few officers patrolling the woods.
So here's the situation: We know that nature is decidedly complex and we know that invasive management techniques to recover species at risk rarely work. We know that logging is still allowed in mountain caribou habitat. We don't know how much illegal hunting is occurring because we don't have enough conservation officers or a comprehensive system to monitor poaching. And some of the creatures the government has suggested we kill to protect the caribou, such as grizzly bears and wolverines, are themselves threatened species.
Habitat protection won't save all the caribou, but it's the species' best bet and it will directly benefit hundreds of other species that share the same old-growth habitat. Protecting threatened species often requires making some tough decisions that can pit short-term economic goals against more sustainable long-term options. Trying to take conservation short cuts by culling other creatures may be politically expedient, but it's a risky strategy that history tells us is doomed to fail.