The B.C. government would benefit from independent oversight of its controversial wolf cull, according to experts on animal welfare auditing.
More than 1,000 wolves have been shot to protect endangered caribou since 2015, but the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship has not published evidence to support its claims that the process is humane.
“We trust, but verify,” said Jennifer Woods, an Alberta-based certified animal welfare auditor and livestock handling animal care specialist. “You need to verify that those standards are being met.”
Third-party audits are common across many industries, including workplace safety and food safety.
Woods conducts animal welfare audits for big meat processors in Canada, the Calgary Stampede and a number of farms, and has also audited animal holding facilities for several airlines. It’s not a process that sets out to prove wrongdoing, she added, but is a “great management tool” that can improve practices.
Referring to the B.C. wolf cull, she said activists’ calls for greater oversight are not unprecedented or unreasonable.
“There are audits that could be easily developed for this,” Woods said. “It would benefit them, internally for their programs … but also on a public relations side because they can then verify that (the culls) are humane, they are doing it, and they have the numbers to back it up.”
Last week, Global News confirmed that the B.C. government has photos of its wolf cull, in which wolves are shot from a helicopter. It won’t publish them, however, as “such photos are used strictly by the provincial wildlife veterinarian for assessment purposes.”
According to the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship, predator management is “an effective, temporary measure” to halt and reverse caribou decline in B.C., and its implementation is “not taken lightly.”
The approach is “based on science and sound wildlife management principles,” it said in a Friday statement. A ministry fact sheet states that in four herds in the South Peace region, wolves are responsible for at least 37 per cent of all adult deaths.
The province extended its aerial cull of wolves for another five years at the beginning of 2022, and has maintained that shooting the animals from above is the “most effective and humane method,” consistent with current guidelines for “wild animal euthanasia” in field conditions.
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Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, said her work to advance external animal welfare auditing has made some of the “biggest differences” of her career. The animal behaviour and welfare specialist has helped bring independent oversight to corporations like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, with great success.
“I’ll never forget the day when the McDonald’s vice-president saw a half-dead, emaciated dairy cow go into their product,” Grandin told Global News.
“(The B.C. wolf cull) program needs to be audited and I recommend the same basic principle … High-up management needs to get on those helicopters and find out what’s going on, third party, and then they do internal audits. You can’t let the fox guard the chickens.”
In a 2001 presentation, Grandin noted “huge improvements” in animal welfare practices at beef plants that supply McDonald’s when McDonald’s audits began in 1999.
“Most of the very abusive behavior of employees has stopped and in many plants, electric prod use has been reduced or eliminated,” she wrote at the time.
“I have been working in the meat industry for more than 25 years and I saw more improvements in 1999 than I have seen in my entire career.”
Regardless of what the procedure is for humanely killing wolves in B.C., she said, a “really good auditing program” can bring “a whole lot of improvement.”
The perceived lack of oversight has raised concerns among animal welfare activists in B.C., particularly the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, or the Fur-Bearers. Aaron Hofman, its director of advocacy and policy, doubts B.C.’s “single gunshot to the head” policy is being followed in the midst of a “chaotic” helicopter chase, or that only adults are killed in the process.
Documents obtained by the Fur-Bearers through freedom-of-information legislation showed wolf pups have been gunned down and used by hunters, said Hofman, expressing concern in particular about Tweedsmuir Provincial Park.
“They’re capturing wolf pups, they’re collaring them and then they’re tracking their packs,” Hofman told Global News last month.
“They shoot the pup’s pack and then leave that wolf pup alive, and so that wolf pup is now alone without its family, and then in one case six weeks later, they find a wolf pup again, travelling with another wolf pup, and they kill them both.”
Meanwhile, multiple environmental groups continue to oppose the cull, as does the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). Last month, the UBCIC called on the province to end the cull and prioritize a reduction of resource development — mostly logging — to protect caribou instead.
“We now face the grave issue of non-Indigenous gun clubs producing ‘killing contests’ and engaging in unethical hunting and culling practices,” it wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to ministers.
“This is in direct opposition to Indigenous traditional values, reciprocity with our animal relatives and our inherent Title and Rights Holders as the stewards of our lands, and impedes on our legal orders and jurisdiction over our territorial lands.”