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winter of wolves


Canis lupus


A scene of rural domesticity:

I’m in my yard, stacking firewood beside the satellite dish. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a movement in the salal bush at the edge of the forest, about fifty feet away from me. A deer, I figure. The woods up here are full of black tail deer and they are perpetually making forays into the lumpy meadow behind my house to nibble on the grass or sample the ornamental shrubs and fruit trees. I carry on stacking my wood, unconcerned. Another movement and I look up again. This time I see a long, black, canine snout and a stiff pair of triangular ears. I am met by a gaze that is at once curious and calculating. It is sizing me up. I suck in my breath and the face melts away into a viridian quiver of leaves.

As timber wolves go, this wasn’t a particularly large one. Wolves are a normal part of the ecosystem on Cortes Island and in my experience, they had always kept to themselves. I considered myself lucky to have gotten this close. Yet the wolf had seemed a bit brash. Unnervingly so.

I asked around a bit and soon discovered there had been a rash of wolf sightings by neighbours and those farther afield. Wolves were being spotted all over the place, loping through people’s backyards in the middle of the day and lurking around houses and barns. Dogs were getting killed. A neighbour’s Schnauzer was snatched from beside a popular hiking trail, a few feet away from its owner. The local wolves seemed suddenly to have lost their fear of man. A sense of alarm crept though the usually quiet community. Some folks already talked about instituting a wolf cull.

I recoiled at the prospect. I was familiar with the stories from the 70’s, when pick-up loads of dead wolves got paraded around the island after a concerted eradication campaign. Back then, the local ranchers poisoned, trapped and shot every wolf on Cortes Island in the name of protecting their livestock, which in those days was allowed to range freely through the bush. With the wolves gone, the deer population escalated, swarming onto the farmers’ fields, and into clear cuts, where they browsed the alder scrub that came up after extensive industrial logging operations. With such a bonanza of prey available, it was just a matter of time before new wolves started swimming over from the nearby mainland to take advantage of it. In the mean time, it had become less fashionable to kill wolves and so the migrants prospered, slowly returning the ecosystem to a sort of balance. Though rarely seen, wolves could often be heard howling on moonlit nights, invoking a frisson of wilderness in the hearts of the New Age refugees and dope farmers, who themselves were spreading out across the island. Occasionally someone’s dog would go missing or rarer still, a calf might get killed, but mostly the wolves kept a low profile.

Over the past few years though, their attitude was beginning to change. The wolves no longer seemed to be avoiding interactions with human beings and in a few cases, they were actively seeking us out. Several people had been surrounded by wolves while out in the woods, and they reported that they had come in uncomfortably close. Amidst a growing sense of unease, Sabina Mense, a local naturalist, invited a couple of wolf experts to field our questions at a public meeting. Speaking before a packed hall of what I knew to be some of the island’s more wolf-friendly people, Bob Hansen, a wildlife management specialist with the Pacific Rim National Park and Ben York, a provincial Conservation Officer, quickly disabused us of some of our more romantic wildlife notions.

Despite what I thought I had known from years of watching television documentaries and reading Never Cry Wolf as a kid, wolves can and will, under certain circumstances, attack people. This had recently started happening elsewhere on the coast and was about to, warned Hansen and York, happen in our neck of the woods, if we didn’t take necessary precautions. The irony was that wolves have changed their behavior in part as a reaction to our increased admiration for them. York recounted a recent incident in which a wolf badly mauled a sleeping kayaker, who had been camped out on the Broken Group Islands— a popular eco-tourism destination, famous for its spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife. The area’s wolf population is a prime attraction, providing a great photo opportunity as they forage on the beaches. But the Broken Island wolves were becoming pugnacious, lurking around camp sites and snatching provisions, abandoning their traditional wariness of people. On several occasions, campers were literally driven off their tent sites by marauding wolves, and had to fend them off with paddles, while hastily breaking camp and pushing their boats back into the sea. The wolves remained aggressive and several had to be shot by conservation officers, who then closed the campsites in the interest of public safety.

So what did this mean? Are wolves now suddenly more inclined to eat us? Should we revert to our childhood fears of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs? The problem, say York and Hansen, is habituation. The wolves had learned to associate sea-kayakers with food. In a perverse permutation of the observer effect, the same nature lovers who had traveled so far and paid so much to view the wolves in their wilderness habitat, were changing the animals’ behaviour and getting them shot. To counter habituation, eco-tourism operators are now being asked to let clients view wolves only from a distance.

On Cortes Island, the situation proved somewhat different. What brings wolves into contact with people here is not so much the prospect of being fed hot dogs by tourists but rather the black tail deer and delicious, easily-killed house pets that thrive in our lushly horticulturalized landscape of rural sprawl. Nevertheless we were advised to aggressively haze any wolf that approached populated areas and to take serious precautions with domestic animals and compost heaps. The wolves on Cortes are just at the point of getting dangerous, advised Hansen and York and we need to turn back the clock.

Mike Davis in his Ecology of Fear details an analogous situation with cougars (a.k.a. ‘mountain lions’) who are recolonizing the affluent fringes of Los Angeles. Despite being persecuted since the early days of European colonization, the cougars there are making a comeback – paradoxically by hiding out in the canyons and foothills adjacent to suburbia, from which they emerge to stalk the lawn-fattened deer, wayward lap dogs, and sometimes the occasional human. Davis estimates there are now more cougars in the hills around Los Angeles than in the entirety of Yellowstone National Park – a place that for many Americans, epitomizes large carnivore habitat. As rural exurbs continue to ooze further into the hinterland, the real back country has become much less hospitable to the wolves and cougars that once belonged there.

On Vancouver Island, this is largely due to the delayed effects of industrial, clear-cut logging. Bob Hansen recounted the phenomenon of ‘ungulate barrens’ now surrounding Pacific Rim National Park. From the satellite photographs he showed, it was easy to see how the original stands of old-growth rain forest have been obliterated from outside the reserve’s boundary. For a while, the removal of forest cover actually increases deer and elk habitat, due to an initial flush of deciduous browse, but the landscape soon becomes useless to them as it grows up into an even-aged plantation of tightly spaced, coniferous trees, with very little of the underbrush on which they need to feed. The ungulates die off and the starving predators abandon the depauperate tree farms and head for the park. Hansen described a rash of incidents where emaciated cougars crawled out of the forest to die on the beach in front of horrified tourists. They were literally starving to death. Others, terminally weakened yet still able to move, stalked hikers along the park’s busy trails, until they too got shot, in the name of animal control.

Davis (somewhat ironically) quotes Gary Snyder:

The wild is perhaps the very possibility of being eaten by a mountain lion. The risk, even if vanishingly remote, is a trigger toward heightened evolutionary awareness and enjoyment of an environment shared with large animals

It’s hard to know what such a sentiment even means now. In this topsy turvy world, the best habitat for some of our most emblematic carnivores turns out to be the interstitial landscape outside our cul-de-sacs and sliding patio doors. Though timber wolves aren’t likely to invade big cities any time soon, their little cousins the coyotes are thriving in our urban environs. An image that will stay with me forever is that of a coyote I once saw, scampering along Vancouver’s heavily industrialized Clark Drive, at three in the morning. In the insalubrious glow of the sodium lamps, I could just make out a house cat hanging limply in its jaws – the fat, as it were, of the asphalt land. For its own part, the coyote looked proud and alert. The lord of its realm. It was here to stay.