My Friend, the Wolf
Last year, my daughter, Nastassja, began graduate studies in Intercultural and International Communications. For her thesis, “What big teeth you have: An educational approach to wolf conservation,” she conducted a series of interviews at a wolf conservation centre. She hopes to determine how education can effect public perception and ultimately conservation of wolves. To contextualize her research, she has studied the history of Canadian public policy on the “management” of the species.
The following is a short piece she wrote as a result of her research:
Having spent a number of hours conducting interviews and researching wolves, wildlife education and the pathetic policies of our government that do not only fail to protect wolves, but strive to systematically murder them, I wanted to share some of the insights and information I have learned throughout the process of doing research; an undertaking that for me has become something far more than just a thesis.
First of all, some background. Wolves are known as a keystone species. I have included a nice little graphic to demonstrate this concept here:
The idea of a keystone species is that the species in question is the keystone in the archway and the remaining stones are an ecosystem. If you remove the keystone, the entire archway collapses. The integral role of wolves in the ecosystem was perhaps most aptly demonstrated by events that took place throughout the twentieth century in Yellowstone National Park.
In 1926, the last wolves in the park were killed. The eradication of wolves from Yellowstone was a result of the usual human motivations for such policies: irrational fear, hatred and misunderstanding, the uneducated assumption that removing an apex predator from an ecosystem would have no negative effects, pressure from stakeholders such as hunters and ranchers, and from what I’ve come to note in my research again and again an almost compulsive need to exterminate wolves at any and all costs.
I won’t pretend to know why humans are so remarkably stupid.
Within a few years of the wolf’s disappearance in the park, visitors began to notice that the once vibrant ecosystem seemed less alive. Waterways became muddy and stagnant, vegetation disappeared, and small birds, beavers, and other animals native to the landscape were nowhere to be seen.
A study was conducted and it was discovered that the reason was due to an explosion of deer, elk, and other ungulate populations. Unchecked, hooved animals were becoming accustomed to spending their days along the water whereas with wolves around, they only visited when they had to. This in turn was decimating the vegetation around lakes and rivers, resulting in mass erosion. Beavers had no materials with which to make their dams, causing a lack of the stagnant water needed to breed insect populations that in turn feed small birds and so on up the food chain.
It wasn’t until 1995 that a solution to this problem was enacted. 35 Canadian wolves were captured and relocated to Yellowstone. The difference in the park’s ecosystem happened quickly. Ungulate herds were reduced to healthy populations, and vegetation recovered. Waterways healed and absent animals began to return.
So we have this example of how important wolves are to an ecosystem, which means the Canadian government protects them right? Yeah, no. This is the Canadian government we’re talking about after all.
Here are some fun facts about how our government treats a keystone species.
Outside the parks you’re allowed to hunt, bait and trap wolves 9-12 months of the year. You don’t even need a tag to hunt a wolf. Alberta actually offers bounties if you kill one, and it doesn’t matter if the wolf is young, old, pregnant or a pup. In addition, park protection is rendered meaningless for an animal that ranges hundreds of kilometres. The wolves don’t know that there’s an invisible line between life and death.
This ad promotes guided wolf hunts in Alberta: “Hunt the elusive timber wolf. There is no limit on wolves.” Unfortunately whoever created it was too stupid to know that timber wolves aren’t even a real species.
The government aerial culls 100 wolves per year, meaning they hunt down packs from a helicopter with high powered rifles, running to exhaustion and killing entire families that don’t have a chance of eluding them. In one of my books I read an account of a rifleman who recalled a wolf so desperate to escape that it jumped off a 300 foot cliff. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of watching on film how a wolf reacts to being shot… the sight still haunts me and always will.
In addition to these policies, our own Fish and Wildlife officers deploy poisoned carcasses along the borders of Jasper National Park that are laced with Compound 1080. Compound 1080, I have learned, is a cascading poison. That means that when an animal eats a carcass laced with the poison and dies, every single animal that scavenges their carcass will die also and so on. The poison leaches into and contaminates waterways. It inflicts hours of excruciating agony on its victim before they’re finally allowed to die.
In BC, the alpha pair of a wolf pack are abducted and sterilized. As pack leaders and the only breeding pair, this creates mass confusion upon their return. Pack structure disintegrates, and often falls apart completely. It does little to curb reproduction rates, as the beta pair will take over instead. All it serves to do is to cause more confusion and suffering for the animals.
Many of these policies are carried out under the guise of the protection of mountain caribou, an endangered species. It’s important to note that ten years of these policies have done nothing to bolster caribou numbers. Why? Because human-caused habitation loss and destruction are the reason for the decline of the mountain caribou. Are we doing anything to address that? Of course we’re not. Wolves continue to be an easy scapegoat.
As if that wasn’t example enough of humanity’s excessive cruelty toward wolves, one of the only two wolf centres in Canada had a number of its wolves released by vandals last year. The alpha pair, Haida and Granite, were subsequently shot and killed.
Before Europeans reached North America, wolves were revered for their hunting prowess by indigenous peoples. Some anthropologists even believe that early humans created hunting practices and family structure around their observations of wolf pack behaviour.
So why are wolves despised and their direct descendants, dogs, considered “man’s best friend”? Why are wolves portrayed as mythic monsters when they’re more like us than most people care to realize? One of the most common things I have heard when conducting interviews is that the wolves are a lot smaller than people thought. This might have something to do with giant, computer generated wolves dominating popular culture, or it might be a conceptual throwback to hundreds of years’ worth of fairytales portraying them as malevolent, evil beings. Perhaps it’s a combination of both. In truth, there are no documented cases of a truly wild, unhabituated wolf attacking a human being.
I should add at this point that wolves account for a very small percentage of livestock deaths, negligible especially when compared to deaths from illness and disease. In some cases they’re even falsely accused of killing livestock when they’re scavanging a deceased animal’s corpse. Even in these cases, ranchers are compensated by the government for every animal lost to predation. No money is spent on prevention such as guardian animals, fences, or visual deterrents. A lot of money is spent on wolf eradication and extermination.
This year, BC unveiled its “Wolf Management Plan”. You can read it here: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw/wildlife/management-issues/docs/grey_wolf_management_plan.pdf
The first thing to note about the plan is that it bases its decisions on wolf population numbers that are estimates, not real numbers. An inside source (a biologist who works for the government) leaked that the numbers were inflated by as much as 30%. We don’t even know how many wolves there really are, yet the BC government sure seems to know how many should be exterminated.
The second issue is that the plan presents an exaggerated view of the impact of wolf predation on the livestock and hunting industries, while failing to address the ecological benefits of a healthy wolf population and the economic benefits of having said population manage our ecosystems and provide tourism opportunities
Third, there is far more emphasis on “management” in the plan than there is on “conservation.” Conservation seems more of an afterthought if it’s in there at all. To make matters worse, the articles cited in the plan provide sketchy scientific support for its conclusions at best.
To give you an idea of the degree to which the plan ignores science, the initial draft (consistently) misspelled the scientific name of the wolf, Canis lupus, as “Canis lupis”.
We have our own “management plan” here in Alberta, which in essence allows wolves to be baited, trapped, poisoned and aerially shot with absolutely no regulation whatsoever. A dead wolf in Alberta is worth $300.00. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, your taxes pay for that.
I know most people are either too busy or too inundated with the evils of the world to stop for a minute and pay attention to what’s happening to our wildlife. We still have a chance. Unlike Yellowstone in the early twentieth century, we still have wolves. Why let them be driven to the brink of endangerment and perhaps eventually extinction when they’re right there, right now? We need to stand up to our government and let them know that we won’t stand idlely by while they enact ecological destruction and systematic cruelty on another species. That people will take responsibility for their own actions and repercussions of those actions, like the decline of the mountain caribou. Parts of BC are already beginning to show the devastating effects of wolf management policies.
I don’t want to imagine a world without the predators of history, myth, and our imaginations. Too many species have already disappeared under our watch… and it breaks my heart to think that our oldest and most spiritually sacred allies might join them.
“We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be – the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.” – Farley Mowat