Contractors hired by the B.C. government have killed hundreds of wolves annually since 2015, as part of a program to help conserve threatened caribou herds.
In most cases, the wolves are shot from helicopters.
Environmental group the Pacific Wild Alliance filed a judicial review of the program in 2020, arguing that the province gave regional wildlife managers too much authority with too little direction in awarding permits to cull the wolves.
The group also argued that the program was illegal because it clashed with federal aviation regulations that ban the use of firearms from aircraft.
In a June 6 ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Giaschi found that while Pacific Wild did have standing to argue the case, it failed to prove the province’s program was unlawful.
The sporadic and situation-specific nature of where and when culls occur, he ruled, justified the wide latitude given to managers in issuing the permits.
“Cabinet cannot prescribe by regulation the species subject to aerial culling as this will depend on the wildlife issue that has arisen. Similarly, Cabinet cannot be expected to prescribe by regulation the geographical area of the hunt as this will depend on where in the province the issue has arisen,” he ruled.
“The same concerns apply to the type of aerial hunting allowed, the period of the hunt and the number of permits needed. All of these depend on the circumstances that have arisen.”
Conflict between the program and aviation regulations around firearms was not an issue, he ruled, so long as the contractors in the cull obtain federal exemptions, he ruled.
“We still maintained that the wolf kill program was unlawful,” Rebeka Breder, the animal law lawyer who argued the case for Pacific Wild told Global News Thursday. “It is based on flawed science, it is unethical, it is inhumane — you name it.”
“The way they are drafted now don’t provide enough guidelines to the officials who issue permits to kill wolves by air, but unfortunately the court disagreed with us, and essentially found there are enough guidelines.”
While the court ruled that the cull can continue, Breder said it marked a legal milestone as a potentially unique case of wild animals — or those advocating on their behalf — getting a day in court.
“If there is any silver lining to this decision it is that the court agreed with Pacific Wild that we have the right to speak on behalf of wolves in the courtroom, and we were given four days of court time to argue this case, which has not, to the best of my knowledge, been done before,” she said.
“That Pacific Wild, an environmental organization, can speak on behalf of animals will hopefully help other organizations who want to ensure the lawful actions of government.”
Breder also noted that over the course of litigation the province went back and revised its permitting regulations, and began ensuring cull participants had federal exemptions.
“We don’t see this happen very often where an organization or an individual starts a lawsuit and then something happens during litigation to make the system lawful, and that’s exactly what happened here.”
According to the province, the woodland caribou is at risk of extinction in British Columbia due to a loss of habitat, along with a resulting change in the predator-prey dynamic. The species’ Southern Mountain and Boreal populations are listed as “threatened” and the Northern Mountain population is listed as of “special concern” under the species at risk act.
The province has also engaged in habitat protection and herd planning and augmentation, but says those measures will be ineffective without extra protection from predators.
In February, the province moved to extend the program for an additional five years.
In April, the province told Global News that 280 wolves were killed under the program this past winter and more than 1,700 have been killed since the program started.
“Predator reduction aids caribou recovery and is based on science and sound wildlife management principles,” the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said in a statement at the time.