EDMONTON - Conservationists are warning that privately funded bounties for killing wolves are shifting control over Alberta's wildlife management to special interest groups.
The Alberta Wilderness Association has compiled data showing that "harvest incentives" offered by northern municipal districts and hunting and trapping groups are encouraging an increasing and unregulated number of wolf kills.
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The Alberta government says the province has plenty of wolves and doesn't believe the private bounties are a concern. The Alberta Fish and Game Association says wolves are a growing threat to livestock and popular big-game animals.
Others say the bounties are leading to unselective killing because animals from moose to grizzly bears also are strangled in snares set for wolves.
Carolyn Campbell of the wilderness association says the bounties — which can be three times the value of a wolf pelt — are an ineffective response to the predators and represent an old-fashioned and unethical approach to wildlife.
"Albertans want a more responsible, modern relationship with wildlife that recognizes that wolves have a value and shouldn't just be shot on sight," she said Wednesday. "It's just unethical, as well as it doesn't address the problem of livestock predation.
"We should be managing wolves based on science and not for the pleasure of special interest groups."
Starting in about 2010, several municipal districts in Alberta began offering bounties for wolf carcasses killed on private land. Those districts now include Big Lakes, Clear Hills, Bonnyville, St. Paul and Two Hills.
The bounties range between $15 and $300 per wolf. Figures compiled by the wilderness association suggest at least 524 wolves have been killed since 2010, although the group hasn't been able to get numbers from all districts.
At least $166,000 has been paid in bounties.
In addition, two branches of the Alberta Fish and Game Association and some branches of the Alberta Trappers Association offer a $300 bounty.
"Wolf predation on farm animals and wild animals is increasing at a high rate," said fish and game president Gordon Poirier.
The packs are doing well after several years of good deer numbers, he said.
"The wolves are smiling and happy and fat."
But this year's tough winter has them turning to other food sources, including popular big-game targets such as moose and elk, Poirier said. Fish and game members don't like the competition.
"They want less wolves, more animals left on the ground — elk, primarily."
Although she supports eliminating wolves that develop a taste for livestock, Campbell said there's no scientific evidence that killing them reduces predation.
Provincial biologists back her.
"Public bounties' effectiveness at reducing wolf populations is doubtful despite many thousands of wolves killed in North America in the 20th century," Mark Heckbert, a fish and wildlife manager, wrote in a 2010 letter to the Municipal District of Big Lakes.
"Where large tracts of land function as reservoirs for wolf populations, bounties can be expected to be ineffective."
Encouraging trappers to target wolves sometimes harms the very animals they are trying to protect, said Dwight Rodtka, a recently retired provincial wildlife official and member of the Rocky Mountain House Fish and Game Association.
He said that too often large piles of animal carcasses are heaped in the bush and surrounded by up to 100 snares. Everything that comes by gets snagged.
"They wind up catching all kinds of non-target animals — moose and deer and elk and wild horses and cougars," he said.
"Eagles have been caught. It's whatever animal wanders down the game trail."
Alberta Environment doesn't control wolf hunting and leaves it open to anyone with an in-season big-game tag. The department doesn't keep records of wolves hunted or trapped on private land.
"We do not believe that localized private wolf harvest incentive or bounty programs pose a significant risk to the provincial wolf population, so long as wolves are removed according to existing regulations," said spokeswoman Nikki Booth.
However, the fish and game association's request for a provincewide wolf bounty is unlikely to be granted.
"There are no plans to develop a provincial wolf bounty program," Booth said in an email.
Rodtka said wolves are paying the price for problems rooted elsewhere, especially in the shrinking habitat that industrial development leaves for game animals.
"They're scapegoating wolves," he said. "Wolves are easy to blame."