Trappers catch problem predators

For many Manitobans, catching a glimpse of a grey wolf — with its long, bushy tail, thick coat that can range in colour from grey to solid white to brown or black, and its piercing yellow eyes — can be an exhilarating experience, albeit one best enjoyed from a distance.

But for some Manitoba cattle producers, especially those who make their living near Riding Mountain National Park, Duck Mountain Provincial Forest, Spruce Woods Provincial Park and other areas, wolves are a problem predator that need to be dealt with.

Currently, the province states that Manitoba’s wolf population sits at around 4,000, and appears to be stable, with an exception in Riding Mountain National Park, located 99 kilometres north of Brandon. There, the wolf population has been decreasing since the 1990s. As a result, wolf hunting has been curtailed around the national park.

In areas where wolf populations are stable, Manitoba Conservation allows trappers and hunters to target wolves, especially in areas where increased harvesting has potential to reduce conflict between wolves and agricultural interests.

Fewer than 40 wolves are killed by Manitoba hunters annually. The province says about 20 wolves on average that have killed livestock are trapped annually, and around 500 livestock have been killed or injured by wolves annually in the last five years.

The issue of wolves and other problem predators, such as foxes, coyotes and bears, came up at the last meeting of Manitoba Beef Producers in February, said Ray Bittner, who is a livestock lead with the group.

“The whole province has problems with coyotes and foxes. Certain … bush areas have problems with bears, and others … with wolves, so you have to deal with every area differently,” Bittner said.

When a producer loses an animal to a wolf or another predator, the first step is to contact crop insurance for compensation to replace the lost or injured animal.

If the problem persists, depending on their area, producers can reach out to the Manitoba Trappers Association to take part in the government of Manitoba’s predator removal program. The program helps with the removal of predators such as coyotes, wolves or foxes that have attacked livestock or that pose an increased risk to human safety. The program is not for general predator population reduction.

Claims under Manitoba’s wildlife damage compensation program indicate that wildlife damage averages about 20,000 acres annually, but can fluctuate greatly from year to year due to factors such as crop selection, weather conditions and food availability for wildlife. The program indicates there are about 1,900 claims for predator attacks on livestock in Manitoba annually.

For the past year, Bittner said, wolves were the biggest problem predator for producers, although there have been more issues with bears in forested and mountainous areas lately.

“I would say wolves have the greatest number,” he said. “It was mostly wolves for the second and third quarters [of the year].”

This marks a change from what the province of Manitoba has noticed in the past, stating that coyotes are currently identified as the predator responsible in about 75 per cent of insurance claims, with wolves coming in at 20 and black bears, cougars and foxes making up the remaining five per cent.

The Manitoba Trappers Association works closely with producers and on their land under the predator removal program, association president Gord Hannibal said.

“We’re allowed to basically take the wolf out of the system, and we have several different ways that we do that,” Hannibal said, adding that an exception is in place around the area of Riding Mountain National Park.

However, this is where a majority of wolf attacks on livestock occur, which Hannibal believes is due to the province’s bovine tuberculosis management program in Riding Mountain, which he said has greatly reduced the number of local elk wolves typically feed on.

Bovine tuberculosis is a contagious disease that affects cattle, bison, deer, elk, goats and other species, including humans.

According to a report from the Manitoba government, over the past 12 years, bovine tuberculosis has been found in 11 cattle herds, 22 elk and two white-tailed dear in Riding Mountain National Park.

Since there are no effective vaccines available for the disease, the province says the most effective control is to eliminate contact with infected livestock or wildlife and to destroy infected and exposed animals.

A task force for bovine tuberculosis was created in 2000, which funds and co-ordinates the bovine tuberculosis management program to eliminate the disease and includes representatives from Manitoba Conservation, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Parks Canada. The Manitoba Cattle Producers Association and Manitoba Wildlife Federation provide consultation to the group.

As part of the program, all elk and deer hunters hunting in the Riding Mountain tuberculosis eradication area and the Duck Mountain tuberculosis surveillance area must submit the head, upper neck and lungs of harvested elk and deer to be tested for bovine tuberculosis.

As a preventative measure against the disease, the province is reducing and maintaining elk and deer numbers at a lower level, with attempts being made to target older male elk. As of 2019, federal government data showed that there were 1,216 elk in Riding Mountain at the time.

“We have a lot of wolves coming out of the park in search of food because the elk population is down about as low as it can possibly get. They have to come out to eat somewhere, so most of the time, it’s on somebody’s cattle ranch or farm,” Hannibal said.

The system needs to change to one that can zone in on the areas in the province where wolves are creating the most damage, he said.

Currently, about 50 trappers with the Manitoba Trappers Association actively help producers as part of the predator removal program. It’s a number that Hannibal would like to see increase.

“We have to educate our own trappers,” he said. “You can take a person that’s interested in hunting and train them to trap just as good as anybody else can.”

In addition to the program, the Manitoba government also recommends that producers monitor their livestock daily, maintain calving and lambing facilities near buildings where there is human activity, use pens to house livestock at night, alter the timing of calving and lambing seasons to reduce risks for young animals, avoid leaving livestock unattended in high-risk areas, store and dispose of after-birth and deadstock in a manner that prevents predators from accessing them, and more.

The province also cautions against removing predators where no livestock predation has occurred, since it will only allow for other predators to come into the area that may have a greater tendency to attack livestock.

Producers can also use electric fencing, guardian animals and other devices and repellents as interim solutions when faced with a problem predator.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun