Conservationists call for changes after famous coastal wolf killed by hunter

coastal wolf Photo by Liron Gertsman

A famous wolf that made his home on the chain of Chatham and Discovery Islands off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, was shot and killed by a trophy hunter in March 2020. Takaya, named by the Songhees First Nations whose territory includes a portion of Takaya’s former island home, was a coastal wolf: a genetically unique group of wolves found on the Pacific coast.

Takaya’s innovative behaviours allowed him to survive alone on rugged marine islands in view of downtown Victoria. His unique lifestyle made him significant to the Songhees First Nation, coastal wolf researchers, and wildlife lovers. His death has prompted a renewed call for the government of British Columbia to reexamine its wolf management plan.

Chris Darimont, a professor at the University of Victoria and director of science for the non profit organization Raincoast Conservation Foundation, was a co-author on a 2018 study on Takaya that chronicled his unique lifestyle. Takaya initially showed up in May 2012 in Victoria, B.C., before making the 1.5 km swim to the adjacent Chatham and Discovery Islands. Takaya used all the main islands and outcroppings in the archipelago, a territory that added up to only 1.9 sq. km of terrestrial land. In comparison, the smallest recorded range of a Vancouver Island wolf pack measures 64 sq. km.

Despite his small home range, the productive marine environment provided Takaya with an ocean buffet. “The islands had a whole bunch of haul-out sites for seals,” explained Darimont. Takaya’s diet was over 80 per cent marine mammals, and the lone wolf would actively hunt “harbour seals, river otters, and mink.”

Photographers capture pictures of rare coastal wolf

Takaya also had to cope with a lack of fresh water sources. Fresh water on the islands arrives from rainwater that collects in temporary wetlands and rocky pools. The dry season causes these water sources to disappear. As a result, Takaya dug wells into the dried-up wetlands, a behaviour also performed by desert-dwelling coyotes, says Darimont. The behaviour has not been documented in other wolves.

“Wolves are incredibly good at surviving,” said Darimont. “Except when it comes to humans turning these predators into prey.”

In January 2020, Takaya decided to swim back to Vancouver Island and began roaming the streets of downtown Victoria. B.C. conservation officers captured and sedated him before relocating him to an inland site on Vancouver Island. The British Columbia Officer Service revealed in a statement that Takaya was shot and killed about 50 km from his release site by a hunter.

Conservationists have criticized the limits on hunting regulations for wolves in the province. While hunters are required to carry basic hunting licences, there is no species licence required for residents to hunt wolves in the province.

Conservation and animal welfare organizations including the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have also spoken out against the British Columbia government’s controversial decision to cull wolf populations in an effort to preserve caribou herds, stating that habitat loss is the real threat to caribou in the province.

“Wolves happen to be very good at bouncing back from persecution,” Darimont points out. “In many ecosystems, 20, 30, 40, even 50 per cent of the wolves can be killed every year, and the population still doesn’t decline. When a bunch of them are killed, there’s more food left per remaining mouth, and they tend to have more babies.” The babies tend to survive at higher rates, and you can end up with the same number of individual wolves that you started with.

But just looking at the number of wolves is a “myopic view on wildlife population health,” argues Darimont. Cutting down a wolf population by as much as half every year results in a loss of genetic diversity. It also shifts the population to be mostly composed of teenage and young wolves, as the probability of a wolf living into old age becomes very low.

An unwanted side effect from this shift is that young wolves tend to come into conflict with humans and livestock. Looking at wolves as just population numbers, he says, ignores the welfare and suffering of individual animals.

If we are mourning the loss of Takaya, we should also be mourning the deaths of other wolves in the province from trophy hunting and persecution, he argues. “It’s my hope that this tragedy inspires people to ask for a change to wildlife management systems in British Columbia.”

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