The study, conducted by some of the province's top caribou scientists and published online late last week, suggests that Albertans face a stark choice as their government prepares legally required plans to restore the herds.
"One hopes that it's not just some window dressing that's going on," said Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta biologist and one of the co-authors.
"If ... the plan is one that tries to satisfy all the players in the game, it becomes a thing where each of the players at the table are in there primarily to ensure they don't lose too much, as opposed to the overall objective. Which is, what do we have to bloody well do to keep caribou around?"
The study examines the effect of a seven-year wolf cull in the northwestern Alberta range of the Little Smoky caribou herd — roughly 70 animals scratching out a living on land 95 per cent disturbed by forestry and energy development. Seismic lines and cutblocks from that development allow wolves deep into the undisturbed portions of the forest, adding further pressure.
In an attempt to keep caribou from disappearing, Alberta began an annual cull of about 45 per cent of the wolves on that range in 2005. By 2012, 841 wolves had been poisoned or shot from helicopters.
The study compares caribou numbers before and after the cull. It also compares them with a nearby range subject to similar development pressures on which no cull took place.
"Removing" wolves has stopped the Little Smoky herd's decline, it concludes. Cow and calf numbers are up, just enough.
"It is fair to say the Little Smoky is stable," said Dave Hervieux, co-author and provincial caribou biologist.
Without the cull, the Little Smoky herd would be long gone, said Hervieux.
And it will likely be needed for years to come. The study says the range is so torn up that habitat restoration will take 30 years.
But Boutin said the study also shows that industry mitigation measures are of little immediate help.
"It's great that they're doing those things and it's absolutely important that they do it in the long run," he said. "But in the short term, we certainly have good evidence to indicate that those activities have not reversed any of the population declines."
And it raises questions about caribou management that relies heavily on killing wolves, while allowing industry's footprint to increase.
"It is buying us time, but it's buying us time in a worse landscape," said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
While the Little Smoky range currently enjoys a moratorium on new energy leases and forestry cutblocks, that breather is only temporary. Boutin said the herd's shaky stability would likely collapse under further disturbance.
Energy leases are still being sold and forestry continues on other caribou ranges.
Ramping up wolf culls would be difficult and expensive, said Boutin, especially if they were extended to any of the other 18 woodland caribou ranges in Alberta, all of which are significantly disturbed by industry.
"The larger the area that you treat, the more wolves that you're going to have to deal with and the higher the cost. It's not scalable, in the sense that I don't think anyone has the stomach for doing it across the province."
The provincial government is required under the Species At Risk Act to file a range plan for Little Smoky that will keep caribou on the landscape. That plan is now almost a year behind schedule and isn't expected until early 2015.
The content of that plan will be crucial for the Little Smoky herd — and all the others, said Campbell.
"The range plans need to reduce the energy footprint and they need to end logging in highly disturbed ranges," she said. "It's important for the government to take those solutions and not continually bow to very short-term pressures.
"Previous history is not that encouraging. On the other hand, we have a premier who says that to have social licence to extract our energy, we have to be an environmental leader.
"We're not being an environmental leader by just killing wolves."