11/14/2012 05:00 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

B.C. not considering a wolf cull in new draft management plan

VANCOUVER - The B.C. government has no plans for a wolf cull or a bounty in the province, despite concerns in the cattle industry and among some First Nations that the predator population is out of control.

A draft management plan released Wednesday estimates there are 8,500 grey wolves in B.C. now, compared to 8,100 in 1991.

There are areas where the predator populations are at historic highs, but the increase is largely attributed to a recolonization by wolves of areas where they were wiped out in the last century, such as the Kootenay and Thompson regions.

And it found that the number of wolves being hunted annually has increased significantly in recent years.

The draft plan is a balanced approach, said Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson.

"The issue does generate a lot of emotion, a lot of public feeling and response on all sides," he said in a telephone interview. "There are many who feel we are not taking enough action; there are others who feel that any approach would put populations at risk."

The plan takes a region-specific approach to managing conflicts, he said.

"This plan will provide a foundation and a science-based approach that will help us make those management decisions in the future," Thomson said.

The report makes nine recommendations, most of them focused on improving data collection and tracking of both wolf numbers and wolf kills.

The province should implement a two-zone management strategy that addresses livestock depredation with hunting and trapping, it suggests, and implement a low-cost species licence for wolves that will improve tracking of the hunt.

"Wolves have a troubled history with western society, and systematic persecution has led to their extirpation in the regions of their historical range associated with the highest densities of people," said the plan.

"The species attracts a highly polarized debate between those who see wolves as emblematic of B.C.'s wilderness heritage and those who see them as a threat to game species, agricultural interests, and human safety."

It suggested only that the province investigate a statistical model that would help officials make decisions about potential for pack culls in the future.

The B.C. Cattlemen's Association and several First Nations groups in the Chilcotin region have expressed concern that wolves are taking an unsustainable toll on cattle and endangered caribou populations.

Last year, the province lifted bag limits in one of the hardest hit areas, the Chilcotin, and kept the hunting season open. The management plan recommends no change to those measures.

Kevin Boon, president of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association, said the plan acknowledges that there is a problem in some areas and it opens the door to a resolution.

"We feel that government needs a plan for managing wildlife, period, helping it flourish in good areas and helping keep it in check or in reasonable numbers in the areas where they're overpopulated," Boon said.

The draft plan is a start, he said, if one that "is maybe a little bit soft in its approach in some areas."

He said his group doesn't advocate an overall cull, but wants relief for ranchers who are losing a lot of their herds to wolf predation.

"Our ranchers do expect a certain amount of loss, but they can't be expected to lose $70-100,000 a year," Boon said. "We've got guys going out of business in certain areas just because they cannot afford to feed the wolves."

Members of the public are invited to comment on the plan until Dec. 5, and then a final plan will be formed.