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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.

3 comments to winter of wolves

  • avatar David Platt

    Interesting stuff, including the comment from Sue which indicates the wolves I recently (Aug. 22) encountered on Shark Spit might be the same pack. The pack I saw was 8, all of them black, some with white on the chest, led by a big male.) I was clamming on the spit when I looked up to see three or four loping straight at me, the other smaller ones further to the rear. Loud yells and hand-tool waving turned them. Okay, I thought, that’s that. But they came back just a few minutes later straight at me again. I was on the west side of the spit, separated by a ridge of sand from my family in our boat anchored off the east side. As I moved up the spit to get back within sight of the boat, the wolves came at me twice more, each time turned by aggressive yelling and rock throwing. I’d say they got pretty close–Nolan Ryan I’m not, but I just missed the lead male–so,100 feet? As I got to the other side I hailed our boat, telling them to get the hell over with the dingy. A moment later the lead three wolves came up over the ridge and straight down toward me, just as my son lay on the boat’s horn–that really seemed to scatter them. Back on the boat we watched as the lead three came back, making sure, I guess, that I was really gone. So. Dumb to be on the spit alone without a dingy? Well yeah, especially in retrospect. I was operating under an obviously outdated model which had wolves deadly afraid of humans. Not these. And I don’t really think they wanted their ears scratched. And yes, they were wolves, absolutely silent until, perhaps fifteen minutes after I had returned to the boat and they to the woods, they set up a prolonged chorus of howling which erased any doubts.
    I don’t write this with any aim other to inform and be informed. I would like to think the wolves will stay. I will not be letting my children or grandchildren roam around out there. I’ll clam there again, I hope, but not so casually, not so unaware that whatever wildness is left is still wild and may just have an empty stomach.

  • avatar sue

    Sept.3, 2009 Walking in the Carrington Bay area we met up with a 6 pack of wolves in one of the homestead clearings. Thought they were dogs at first because they were long-haired and black, sort of border-collie looking. They left when we did a shoo motion. Ran into them again later, unknowingly got between them and a deer they were hunting. We’d picked up sticks earlier while we were trying to decide if they really were wolves or a pack of dogs. But the sameness/family look kept bringing up wolves. The trail beside us headed down to the bay & got us out from between the deer & wolves. 10min or less of walking we glance behind us & they’re coming at a lope along the road, split three to either side of us. I’m not too clear on the next sequence of events. They circled us, we started yelling, shaking our sticks, being aggressive and working our way back up the trail. Soon they went into the bush on either side and followed us. We did a couple more Maori-type yells & stomps, one of them barked a couple times and they were gone.
    It was the thrill of my week visit to Cortes Island. I do feel if we’d been kids, weak, or acted scared it might have been a different ending.
    They were beautiful to look at, the lead one has a white patch in the middle of his/her? chest.

  • avatar Susan A.

    Thanks for this excellent post, meaty, highly informative.

    The extremely timid wild wolf of past decades seems to be changing its ways in some areas.

    I worked with wolves for about 4 years and I know that an unsocialized, unhabituated wolf is normally very wary and timid of people – astonishingly so, in fact.

    (Socialization = hand raising a wolf so that it includes humans in its social group. Habituation = desensitizing a wild wolf to the proximity of people by repeated exposure.)

    This natural awe and avoidance of humans must be carefully preserved to protect both wolves and humans.

    The norm in wolf country is that you can go years without seeing one, and when you do, it’s on a remote road and the wolf quickly moves off. And that’s as it should be.

    But as they say about bears, “A fed wolf is a dead wolf.” For example that much-photographed wolf pair on Vargas Island were a habituated brother and sister that were often fed by kayakers. They were shot when they started getting too aggressive.

    And as of 2005 we have one dead human. The tragic killing of a young man in Saskatchewan, apparently by wolves, seems to have been a consequence of very thorough habituation of local wolves feeding at an illegal dump.

    From your post it sounds like the wolves of Cortes are getting a bit too blasé about people. They’re starting to act like urban coyotes and that is not copacetic.

    Are the local authorities concerned about this and are they developing a serious plan to haze wolves and minimize human-generated food sources?

    Very aggressive hazing should be part of the answer (short of real bullets, I mean) – bean bag rounds, cracker rounds, rubber bullets etc.- there should also be a simultaneous horrifyingly loud noise such as an airhorn fanfare.

    The wolves are coming near people in their perpetual search for food. They prefer an easy meal to a hard-won meal just like we do.

    On Cortes what are the food sources for wolves close to people?

    Do wolves actively hunt deer in town?

    (Presumably the local outdoor cat and stray dog population is being rapidly pruned.)

    What is done with dead livestock? (especially near town)

    What access do wolves have to local garbage dumps?

    Is there any curbside trash collection (sorry, I’ve never been to Cortes) and thus, wolves digging into garbage bins before the truck arrives?

    Do people feed their dogs outside? Some wolves will come up to a house when no one’s outdoors and eat from the dog’s bowl. Of course they would rather eat the dog.

    Do any locals deliberately feed wolves? (they should be tarred and feathered)

    – Susan in Burnaby

    P.S. As for your place… you could try to get your hands on a few strings of the loudest thunder flash firecrackers you can find. Keep them ready to light and throw at the next wolf that you see around your place. If fireworks would burn down the forest, get an air horn…