‘Indiscriminate killer’: New documentary condemns poisoning of Alberta wolves

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An Alberta government program intended to cull wolves and protect endangered caribou herds inadvertently poisons too many other animals, a filmmaker says.

Andrew Budziak is the producer of Poisoned Earth, a new documentary that takes a critical view of  Alberta’s wolf cull practices, which include the use of lethal snares, leghold traps, aerial shooting and strychnine poisoning.

‘A really nasty poison’

The use of strychnine, a powerful rodenticide, is inhumane and causes unnecessary deaths to many non-targeted species, Budziak said.

« We really needed people to see what was going on here, what was happening with this program, » Budziak said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

« Strychnine is a really nasty poison. This is an indiscriminate killer. »

« Nothing should die this way. » 

 It really was a ring of death out there.– Andrew  Budziak

Conservation groups have long called for an end of strychnine poisoning in Alberta’s wolf-cull program. 

Numbers obtained by Wolf Awareness Inc. in 2017 through the Freedom of Information Act show about 1,200 wolves have been culled since the population control program began in 2005.

About 250 other animals have also been accidentally poisoned, according to the Alberta government.

Those numbers fail to fully account for animals killed by feeding on the carcasses of poisoned wolves, Budziak said. 

His documentary relies on internal government documents, testimony from land users, conservationists and pest-control experts to provide an in-depth look at the program’s biological impacts.  

He describes the poisoning program as a « scorched earth policy. »

« We needed people to see what we saw out there, » Budziak said. « It really was a ring of death out there. And it is a nasty sight.

« This isn’t conservation. » 

Acting on a tip from a concerned land user, Budziak and his crew travelled from Toronto to Hinton, Alta., in October and found a wolf poison site deep in the bush.

The area was littered with fresh animal remains. 

« What we found was shocking, » he said. « We came across a dead wolf that had been torn from limb to limb.

« We found raven feathers, coyote hide, fox bone. All in all, we found between 15 and 16 dead animals. »

Budziak said the site was not cleaned up and monitored as mandated by health guidelines. Carcasses contaminated with poison were left to rot and endanger other wildlife. 

« This site should have been wrapped up end of February, early March, which means any poison that’s left on the ground is removed and any animals that were poisoned as a result of this are removed.

« This site and others are not being cleaned up, so this strychnine is remaining on the earth, in the environment, well into the summer months. » 

‘We still want answers’

Chemical toxicants are only used in extreme situations.– Alberta government spokesperson

A provincial government spokesperson could not say if the site near Hinton was managed by the government or by a private landowner.

In an emailed statement, the province suggested that poison is only used to cull wolves in rare circumstances, and that use is strictly regulated. 

« Annual wolf population reductions to avoid the loss of caribou populations are primarily conducted through aerial tracking and shooting of wolves, but also through the use of chemical toxicants, » a government spokesperson said in an emailed statement.  

« Chemical toxicants are only used in extreme situations, after other methods have been demonstrated to require this additional management action.  

« The use of toxicants allows the removal of animals that filter into the target areas while aircraft are not operating, and allows removal of wolves that are impossible to target from the air: transient wolves and small packs that move a lot.

The only toxicant used by the Government of Alberta is strychnine.

« The use of this substance is regulated by the Government of Canada, which requires strict reporting and safety protocols, » the government statement said. 

« Alberta is licensed to use this substance and rigorously follows all such protocols. »

Strychnine is also used on some Alberta farms to control gopher and ground squirrel populations.

Health Canada is looking at banning the substance because of the potential to harm non-targeted animals. Public consultations are now underway.

Health Canada told CBC News it has received reports that the poison has led to the deaths of a badger, a weasel, foxes, antelopes, dogs, deer, horses, a bear cub, mice, rats, moles and various birds.

Budziak said his documentary is still a couple months away from completion. He extended timelines for the project after learning of the Health Canada investigation.

He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $3,000 needed to finish production.

In the meantime, he hopes for more clarity on whether the program will be abolished.

« We thought this would be a short film to complete, but that’s turned out not to be the case, » he said. « We still want answers. »

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Ontario wolves to be trapped, transferred in effort to restore population on Michigan island

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Wolves from Ontario will soon be moved across the border to try to help restore the dwindling population in Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park.

This fall, officials at the park began a multi-year effort to move wolves from the mainland to the island, to try to restore the balance between wolves and moose on the isolated island, which is located on Lake Superior, not far from Thunder Bay, Ont. 

The multi-year wolf transfer will involve capturing and moving mainland wolves from Michigan and Minnesota, but Isle Royale National Park superintendent Phyllis Green says they now also plan to move a pack from nearby Ontario.

The first wolves to be moved were trapped in Minnesota, but officials were hopeful that Canadian wolves would also be added to the mix. That plan has now been given the green light, said park superintendent Phyllis Green.

« Actually we were fortunate that Michigan’s Governor [Rick] Snyder had a conversation with [Ontario’s] Premier [Doug] Ford and talked about the importance of the project, » she said.

« And so after that conversation we were able to have further conversations and we’re definitely going to be — weather providing — receiving wolves from Ontario this winter. » 

The wolves will come from Michipicoten Island in northeastern Lake Superior, where a very different wildlife management problem has made headlines. While Isle Royale’s wolf population has faced near extinction, wolves on Michipicoten were weakening the caribou population.

If weather permits, suitable wolves will be trapped during a normal collaring exercise done by Ontario researchers in January and transferred to Isle Royale by helicopter, Green said. 

Phyllis Green, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, stands in front of an empty crate that held one of the first wolves to be transported to the island. (National Park Service/John Pepin)

‘Robust’ Canadian wolves desirable for genetic strength

The Ontario wolves are desirable for several reasons, said Green, including the fact that the animals on Michipicoten are well-studied by Ontario researchers who will be able to identify alpha males and females that might be well suited to the trip.

« And also we actually know that they’re actually pretty prolific on pups, and that’s certainly what you would hope to see when you start a new population. »

« And the other positive is that they’re very robust genetically, » Green added.

« On the U.S. side, we’ve had situations where the wolf population has dropped and then there’s some incursion of coyote or dog genetics into the population. »

A trail camera photo shows one of the female wolves transferred to Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park this fall, as part of a multi-year effort to restore the population and balance the ecosystem. (U.S. National Park Service)

Two wolf fatalities so far

The wolf transfer is not without risks. During the first phase of the project this fall, a wolf that had been cleared for transfer died before it could be moved to Isle Royale, prompting changes to protocols in an effort to reduce stress on the animals. 

One male and three females were successfully moved to the island, but in November, the National Park Service confirmed that the male wolf had been found dead. The cause of death is not known, Green said, but autopsy results expected in December should yield more information. 

Some natural mortality is to be expected, Green said.

« It’s unfortunate but in the wild population about 25 to 30 per cent of the wolves die annually, » she said.

« It’s a tough life out there for them. »

The transferred wolves are being monitored using GPS technology and the other three are doing well, Green said. 

The Isle Royale wolf relocation effort is expected to take three to five years, with the eventual goal of moving up to 30 animals. 

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