SEATTLE — In the dead of winter in remote forests near the top of the world, hunters fire semiautomatic rifles from helicopters at packs of gray wolves that are unable to outrun death in the deep snow.
The men with the guns are on government business.
The aerial hunt, in which packs are lured into clearings baited with dead moose, is part of British Columbia's wolf management program. It has stirred up more intense debate than any wildlife issue since Canada halted the hunting of harp seal pups off its east coast five years.
"Wolves elicit tremendous emotion in people," said Ralph Archibald, a wildlife biologist and carnivore specialist with the Wildlife Branch of the province's Ministry of Environment and Parks. "We're attempting to separate the emotional and sociopolitical issues from the technical ones. It's very easy to say, but very difficult to do."
Wolf Numbers Dwindling
Since 1982, government agents have killed 1,000 wolves in an attempt to allow the herds of elk, moose, caribou, mountain sheep and other large game animals to expand in numbers. The provincial hunting industry, which generates more than $35 million in revenues each year, has helped to sponsor the wolf kill in past years.
Ministry officials believe the program is working, but environmentalists and some biologists argue that it is merely depleting the wolf population of British Columbia, which has dropped by tens of thousands of animals in the last 50 years, to 7,000 or fewer.
"I give the wolf 10 to 15 years in British Columbia," said biologist Jack Laufer, a director of the Northwest Wildlife Preservation Society in Vancouver, B.C. "They kill them on Vancouver Island because they're near deer. They kill them in the south because they don't want any wolves in their cattle. They kill them in the north because they eat moose. It's getting to the point where the wolf has nowhere to go."
Once plentiful across the northern hemisphere, wolves have been shot, trapped, burned and hanged to extinction in much of their natural habitat. An estimated 20,000-24,000 wolves now live in North America, mostly in Alaska and Canada. Of the 24 subspecies that once roamed freely, at least eight are extinct, including two native to British Columbia.
Wolves are protected as an endangered species in the lower 48 United States and programs are under way to reintroduce them where they have disappeared. Canada does not consider the wolf threatened, although it is regarded as such by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
"There are people who love wolves and say they can do no wrong, and those who hate them and think they should be eliminated," said Don Robinson, chairman of the wildlife committee for the B.C. Wildlife Federation, a group of about 37,000 hunters and fishermen who support the control program. "The truth is probably somewhere in between. Wolves have a right to be here but, like rats, they sometimes impinge on what man wants to do."
Proponents say the program will stop the decimation of big-game populations that has been occurring since the 1970s. Environmentalists and some biologists argue that the government data used to justify thinning wolves are flawed. They say the studies did not consider other factors such as poaching, increased hunting and habitat losses.
Concerned people in the United States have urged that American tourists boycott British Columbia until the wolf hunts stop. Howling protesters, several dressed in polyester wolf costumes, recently chained themselves to the door of a fur shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to call attention to the hunt.
Province officials are scrutinizing the data used to justify the last three aerial hunts to determine if the program should be changed, a review prompted in part by public outcry and dissent within the ministry itself.
No hunt has been scheduled for this winter, pending completion of the review, but environmentalists are poised to demonstrate in the Kechika and Muskwa valleys of northeastern British Columbia, where the kill has taken place three of the last four years.
One group, Friends of the Wolf, has plans for a "Wolf Rendezvous" this month to disrupt the Muskwa hunt. Three directors of the group will parachute into the valley, where other protesters will meet them.
Elk, caribou, moose, deer and bison roam the rugged region, as do the wolves. Cougars and grizzly and black bears share the habitat. It is also home to guide-outfitters, hunters, trappers, Indians, conservationists, government biologists and foresters. It is a popular vacation spot for foreign hunters. Many Americans and Germans pay thousands of dollars for the guides and equipment needed to bag trophy animals.