Advertisement

N.W.T. wolf collaring program gears up for final year

Collared wolves moving through brush onto Great Slave Lake near Fort Resolution. Tracking collars that will be used in the North Slave are smaller and lighter than those pictured.  (A. Kelly photo/Government of the Northwest Territories - image credit)
Collared wolves moving through brush onto Great Slave Lake near Fort Resolution. Tracking collars that will be used in the North Slave are smaller and lighter than those pictured. (A. Kelly photo/Government of the Northwest Territories - image credit)

The N.W.T.'s wolf management program will collar its final group of wolves this March.

The five-year program, which has stirred up some controversy over the years, is a part of a larger effort to deter wolves from preying on the Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou herds, which have experienced a steep decline over the past decade.

The program includes both collaring, for research and monitoring of wolves, and a wolf-harvesting component.

The goal is to place up to 15 GPS collars on wolves in the North Slave and 20 collars on wolves in the Beaufort Delta region.

The process is famously difficult: wolves must first be located by helicopter, captured by net gun, then secured so a collar can be fitted to the animal.

The task requires individuals who are highly skilled in aviation and sharpshooting.

"The area is vast, definitely remote," said Abbey Wilson, a carnivore biologist with the N.W.T.'s Department of Environment and Climate Change (ECC).

"We really have to plan where our fuel caches are going to be — low temperatures and minimal daylight can also pose challenges."

The department put out a request for tenders in January for a capture crew. According to ECC, that tender for the 2024 contract was recently awarded to Great Slave Helicopters.

Searching for the 'golden ratio'

Wolves continue to play a part in low caribou numbers across the territory.

ECC told CBC News that current caribou numbers are low, but stable.

Looking back on the first four years of the program, the department admits there have been challenges, and they've frequently come up short of their 30-collar-a-year goal.

Since 2020, a total of 48 collars have been deployed on wolves as part of the program.

The first year saw 13 wolves collared, which increased to 19 the second year. Numbers then dropped to single digits for 2022 and 2023.

The more controversial part of the management program is wolf harvesting.

To date, 431 wolves have been killed.

The caribou herds consistently face the risk of being biologically outnumbered. A female wolf can produce a litter of up to 10 pups, while a female caribou usually has one calf per year.

On average, a single wolf can eat 23 to 29 caribou per year.

New priorities after a difficult year

CBC News reported during the 2023 program some community members across the North took issue with collaring, citing cruelty to the animal.

The Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation was also critical of a one-year pilot program that saw wolves shot from an aircraft, calling the program "inhumane and unnecessary."

Lawrence Casaway has been hunting in the Yellowknife area since he was a boy. He says the 2023 wildfire season, along with other extreme weather events in the North has made studying animal migration that much more important.

"I understand the concern, but now is the most important time to be monitoring these herds", he said. "We're having things happen we haven't seen in a very long time."

Casaway says he understands the issue from both sides.

"If we're not collaring too many, and it's for the purpose of study, I don't see why it would be a problem. It's definitely important."

The satellite collars used for the wolf tracking program weigh about 880 grams each and collect location data up to five times a day.
The satellite collars used for the wolf tracking program weigh about 880 grams each and collect location data up to five times a day.

A photo of a satellite collars used for the wolf tracking program. (Government of the Northwest Territories)

Wilson told CBC News the department has always ensured the collars are safe and comfortable for the animal, but they're learning new things as the program continues.

"All our collars weigh about 850 grams, that's about 1.9 percent of the bodyweight of the wolves we collar," she said.

"In recent years we've changed the fit of the collars so they lay flat at the front against the neck, it keeps any fur from getting trapped."

The collar does not stay on the wolf forever — it's detached by releasing a pin electronically and if for whatever reason that doesn't work, the department has added a cotton "rot-off" piece that deteriorates with time.

Prepping for the future

ECC told CBC News they are aware of past program criticism, but have not heard any concerns this year, and that caribou herds continue to face pressures that can limit herd recovery, including climate change, habitat disturbances and predation.

The department further said based on experiences with wolf management elsewhere, relieving predation pressure on caribou may be able to support herd recovery faster in the face of these threats.

Wilson says it will take time to learn the effectiveness of the program, and ECC will spend the next few years analyzing the data.

Collaring will start on March 3 in the North Slave region, and finish no later than March 31 in the Beaufort Delta region.

The wolf management project is expected to wrap up in 2025.