Barren-ground Caribou

Wolf management

To help address the significant declines we have seen in the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou (ekwò) herds over the last few years, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) and Tłı̨chǫ Government developed a joint approach to wolf (dìga) management in the North Slave region.

Reducing wolf predation, together with ongoing caribou harvest restrictions and other management actions, can help increase caribou survival and give these herds a better chance to recover.

How can reducing wolf populations help caribou?

Wolf management is one of many actions being taken by the GNWT and our co-management partners to help support our declining caribou herds.

When caribou populations are at extremely low levels, reducing numbers of predators can help increase caribou survival rates and support population recovery. Wolves are the main predator of barren-ground caribou. On average, a single wolf can eat 23-29 caribou per year.

Given the current low numbers of Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou, predation is considered an important contributor to caribou mortality for these herds.

Our approach

The joint GNWT and Tłı̨chǫ Government approach to wolf (dìga) management focuses on reducing the number of wolves on the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou winter ranges over five years through enhanced support for harvesters and our traditional economy.

In 2019-20, the GNWT increased payments under the Enhanced North Slave Wolf Harvest Incentive Program, eliminated fees for wolf tags, and offered workshops on best practices for wolf harvesting and pelt preparation to further support harvesting efforts. The Tłı̨chǫ Government continued its Community-based Dìga Harvest Training Program to train local harvesters in humane harvesting techniques and pelt preparation.

In collaboration with the Government of Nunavut, the GNWT also offered enhanced incentives to Nunavut hunters harvesting wolves in their traditional area within the North Slave Wolf Harvest Incentive Area.

While our focus is on supporting harvesters to achieve the wolf removal levels necessary to support caribou recovery, aerial removal may be required if wolf removal targets are not met by harvesters. Some aerial removals were required as a pilot project in 2019-20 because the number of wolves harvested by hunters was less than removal targets.

2019-20 Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou winter ranges (Dec-Mar) and North Slave Wolf Harvest Incentive Area (light green)

Monitoring and research are also an important part of effective wolf management and will help us assess the impact our actions are having on wolves and caribou recovery. A collaring program is being conducted to track wolf movements and observe how they interact with barren-ground caribou herds. Wolves collected from the winter ranges of Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou are being studied to learn more about the diet, health and life history of wolf populations.

Where are we focusing our efforts?

Our wolf reduction actions are targeted on the winter ranges of the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou, the area where these herds spend the winter. This area is captured by the North Slave Wolf Harvest Incentive Area (see map above). The much larger Beverly caribou herd sometimes winters in this area as well.

How many wolves need to be removed to give caribou the best chance to recover?

Experience elsewhere shows a high level of sustained removal is necessary to support an increase in caribou survival rates, as wolf populations can rebound quickly once management actions are no longer applied. Our program follows the recommended target of 60% to 80% wolf reduction for each of the winter ranges of the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou herds within a period of five years.

In 2019-20, the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou herds were located separately on their winter ranges with limited mixing, and separate targets were established for each herd. Targets of 73-97 wolves for the Bluenose-East herd and 29-39 for Bathurst were established based on best available information, reflecting the 60 to 80% wolf reduction target for each herd.

These targets will be reviewed every year based on the best available scientific, local and traditional knowledge, and may be revised as new information becomes available. There is currently limited available information about wolf populations in the NWT, and part of the goal of our wolf management program is to improve our understanding of wolves and wolf-caribou interactions.

What were the results of the 2019-20 wolf management program?

In 2019-20, NWT and Nunavut harvesters received approximately $58,400 under the Enhanced North Slave Wolf Harvest Incentive Program.

Eleven collars were deployed on wolves in 2019-20, including:

  • 4 on the Bathurst winter range
  • 6 on the Bluenose-East winter range
  • 1 in area with caribou from both herds 

85 wolves were removed from the winter ranges of the Bathurst (31 wolves) and Bluenose-East (54 wolves) caribou herds in 2019-20 through harvesting and aerial removals.

The number of wolves removed from the Bathurst caribou winter range met the 2019-20 removal target to help support herd recovery. Removal levels from the Bluenose-East caribou range were lower, but should still have a meaningful impact on predation.

2019-20
Bathurst Bluenose-East
31 wolves removed 54 wolves removed
Target: 29-39 wolves Target: 73-97 wolves

What about other factors affecting caribou—such as habitat disturbance?

There are multiple pressures affecting caribou populations, some of which we have little control over—including weather, disease and food availability. The Bathurst and Bluenose-East barren-ground caribou herds have declined significantly in recent years, despite sustained efforts to reduce harvest pressure and promote herd recovery. 

While habitat disturbance from development is a major cause of decline in many southern caribou populations (e.g. boreal caribou and southern mountain caribou in B.C.), the ranges of most barren-ground caribou in the NWT have little to no human-caused disturbance. Still, the same downward trends or low population levels are being seen across the north.

Harvest

Harvest restrictions on the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou herds are set by Renewable Resources Boards. All harvest of the Bathurst caribou herd in the NWT has been closed since 2015. Harvest of the Bluenose-East herd is currently restricted to 193 bulls. These restrictions are supported by our co-management partners and communities, even though they have resulted in hardships.

Disturbance

The GNWT and our co-management partners are committed to minimizing the effects of human disturbance such as development, and managing cumulative impacts. Land use plans and range plans, including the Bathurst Caribou Range Plan, help regulators minimize disturbance to caribou as part of the NWT’s robust environmental assessment process.

Habitat conservation

Habitat conservation is one of the approaches identified in the Bathurst Caribou Range Plan, Taking Care of Caribou (management plan for the Bluenose-East, Bluenose-West and Cape Bathurst herds) and the Recovery Strategy for Barren-ground Caribou in the Northwest Territories, which were collaboratively developed with Indigenous co-management partners.

Work is currently underway to identify key caribou winter ranges that can be considered in decisions about fire suppression, as well as important areas related to maintaining migration routes such as key water crossings and land corridors with developers and regulators. The GNWT also works closely with developers to support best practices to reduce impacts on caribou.

When will we know if these actions are helping?

Overall success of wolf management actions will take time to determine. Information collected from harvesters and satellite collars, along with scientific analysis, will help us learn more about wolves and assess the effectiveness of our management actions on caribou over the next five years. Multiple factors affect caribou in complex ways, so it will be important to look at any changes in caribou populations in the context of environmental conditions and all management actions that are occurring, not wolf management alone.

All wolf management actions will be carefully reviewed every year to determine whether they should continue or if we need to adapt our approach.