04/17/2014 07:11 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C. releases plan to control grey wolves to ire of conservation groups

VANCOUVER - The B.C. government says it's taking a balanced approach with its long-awaited wolf management plan, but the strategy is already drawing attacks from conservation groups.

The plan, aimed at controlling the province's grey wolf population, was released Thursday after a careful review of more than 2,500 submissions of public input since a first draft was produced a year and a half ago.

It won't dramatically change how the species is managed, instead continuing to use a two-zone approach that treats agricultural areas differently than everywhere else. It also calls for measures designed to ensure the population is tracked more accurately.

The plan takes a "conservative approach" aimed at ensuring the provincial wolf population is kept healthy while also meeting the needs of disparate groups, said Tom Ethier, an assistant deputy minister with the ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations.

"We want to ensure the right mix of tools is in place to help livestock owners ... while at same time, not reducing our overall goal here of sustaining wolves," he said in an interview.

"We manage based on conservation first."

The plan uses two indirect methods to estimate the overall population, suggesting it is about 8,500 wolves while noting the figure may actually range between 5,300 and 11,600.

The species is believed to be stable or increasing in size and is not considered to be at-risk. The last count, in 1991, put the number at 8,100.

The new plan, the first formal document created since 1979, attempts to satisfy groups concerned the predator population is out of control as well as those concerned it paves the way for a slaughter.

The government makes no bones about the fact its massive consultation turned up "strongly differing beliefs and values," according to a news release.

Ian McAllister, with the advocacy group Pacific Wild, said the plan doesn't recognize the profound ecological role the animals play in B.C.

"It makes things worse, because this is actually now a formal plan and this is what is going to direct wildlife management officials in British Columbia for years to come," he said.

"It's a plan to kill as many wolves as possible."

Paul Paquet, a biology professor who also works with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the plan is an improvement over the 2012 draft. But he agreed that regulations making it easier to kill wolves that threaten agriculture are ineffective and could also make matters worse.

"It's clear that the kind of management that they would invoke for protection of livestock hasn't worked in the past and it won't work now," he said, while also disputing the methods used to estimate the population size.

"They're making the invalid assumption that if there are more wolves available that more will be killed. That's not necessarily the case."

Ethier disagreed the wolf population might be endangered. He said the plan, which "stays the course," carries forward strategies in use now for many years, all the while the wolf population has been stable and increasing.

"We knew our harvest is well within sustainable limits," he said. "We don't see this wolf plan in any way taking us to a place like that."

At least one group is encouraged by the new policies. The B.C. Cattlemen's Association is pleased the government is taking an active role in assisting ranchers and First Nations, said its director Mark Grafton.

"When you ride out and see a cow bawling for a calf and her udder is swollen, or you see calves maimed by the wolves, you have a real problem," he said from Bar K ranch in Prince George. "Sometimes we need help. And the province owns the wolves, so I think they have a responsibility."