This is why wolves really matter

Small-pack-of-wolves-laze-around Photo by Derek R. Audette/Shutterstock

Updated July 26, 2018

Paw prints are a common sight right outside Lu Carbyn’s cabin north of Westlock, Alta. They may look like those left by a large dog, but there’s no fooling Carbyn, an internationally renowned wildlife biologist. Despite never having seen a wolf nearby, he knows they’re the ones leaving the tracks by the cover of night.

He’s always happy, he says, to see signs of the elusive canids, no matter how close they come to his vacation base. Over the span of his 48-year career studying wolves, Carbyn has never felt threatened, even while observing them from within a pack during a three-year research stint in Jasper National Park.

Plenty of mythology surrounds wolves—as children, we listened to stories about the Big Bad Wolf with a mouth full of teeth and a hunger for humans. Ironically, wolves don’t really care about humans at all, says Carbyn. It’s easy to see where the myth came from, though, because wolves are powerful predators, skilled at working together to take down very large prey.

Wolves are known as a keystone species, meaning they play an integral role in the food chain. They control prey populations and generally keep those populations healthy. But, in the case of the woodland caribou in British Columbia and Alberta, some scientists believe wolves are making a dire situation worse.

Canadian populations of woodland caribou are listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The Alberta government started with a wolf kill program, and then the B.C. government followed, with the goal of helping to save caribou in a few key places where they’re at risk of extirpation, or disappearing from the area. Alberta also has a bounty on wolves, whereby hunters can kill them during hunting season.

The idea behind the cull is that habitat change because of industry has created more opportunity for wolves to kill caribou. Woodland caribou have giant hooves that act like snowshoes in the winter, giving them access to areas that few predators, or even other prey animals, can reach. But research shows that forestry roads and seismic lines packed by heavy equipment allow predators to walk more easily along those trails. Researchers also believe that as old growth forests are destroyed and replaced with newer growth, the habitat becomes more attractive to prey animals including deer, further attracting wolves.

“The caribou is also a very sensitive animal, so it’s easy to displace them,” explains Sadie Parr, the executive director of Wolf Awareness, a non-profit organization in Golden, B.C. “We have a lot of noise from industry and even snowmobiling that occurs in their habitat and pushes them into other more dangerous areas.” Without the protection of their natural habitat, the woodland caribou are an easy mark.

As part of their plan to re-establish the caribou within B.C. and Alberta, both governments have decided to target wolves, culling them in a few key areas, including the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges in Alberta, and the South Selkirk Mountains and South Peace in B.C.

Not all biologists agree with the cull. Among those who disagree is John Theberge, a wildlife biologist who studied wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, in Ontario, between 1987 and 1999, with his wife, Mary, a wildlife illustrator and educator. (They now live in Oliver, B.C.) “We think that the science that backs the cull is better classified as pseudo-science,” says Theberge, adding that there isn’t evidence of predation as a major factor in caribou decline. He also says killing the predators hasn’t improved caribou numbers. As proof, he quotes from the B.C. government’s 2014 wolf management plan: “Attempting to control wolves to reduce predation risk on endangered caribou has been a provincial priority since 2001…Wolf densities were reduced; however, a correlation between reduced wolf densities and caribou recovery could not be substantiated.” Theberge instead attributes the caribou decline in large part to a decrease in food and the caribou’s ability to access it as a result of habitat destruction. To him, the focus seems to be on maintaining industry rather than sustaining biodiversity.

Stan Boutin, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta, has worked on data analysis for the Alberta and B.C. cull. He says the cull isn’t a long-term solution, but believes that it buys the provinces time while they employ longer-term measures, such as replanting trees along seismic lines and providing permanent protection to caribou ranges. Other short-term projects are also being employed to reduce reliance on wolf control, including fencing in areas where caribou females can give birth and raise their young undisturbed, but Boutin says, “without predator control, we will have caribou extinct before the restoration takes effect.” Currently, caribou numbers are going down by 10 to 15 per cent a year.

But what does the cull mean for wolves? Wolves pass along knowledge; they teach one another where to hunt and how to deal with threats. Killing one animal can severely damage and fragment a pack, especially if that individual were an older, influential member— potentially leaving the rest vulnerable to disease or injury, says Theberge. “Wolves are one of the most highly developed social animals in the world. They have division of labour, cooperation, and sophisticated systems of communication. All of that makes them more akin to our social groups than even our most closely related primates.” He’s currently analyzing wolf howls recorded in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, to document the canids’ “rich menu of emotions,” which, unlike the vocalizations of dolphins or whales, have not been extensively studied.

Boutin says the current compromise is to cut back severely on wolf populations just within a few fairly small sections where caribou are particularly hard hit. The problem, says Paul Paquet, a large-carnivore expert, is that wolves aren’t sedentary—get rid of the few that may reside in an area, and others will replace them. Paquet also believes that since prey animals other than caribou are now plentiful in some areas, the wolves will continue to come, as he observed in his research in the Little Smoky and A La Peche regions of Alberta in the ’80s. Wolves were travelling into the area, where they were at risk, from neighbouring parks, including Jasper, Willmore Wilderness, and Kakwa Wildland, where they were protected.

Ultimately, there are no safe havens for the wolves—not even in the national parks; a problem, says Parr, that goes beyond the cull. We have this fantasy of our national parks being an oasis for wildlife, says Parr, but she calls them sinkholes, with only five per cent of wolves dying from natural causes. Many are killed on the highways or the railways, which can also fragment their habitat. Wolves need vast areas in order to hunt and mate, and highways can limit their ranges. It’s even worse outside the parks, where wolves can immediately encounter traplines, bounties, poison, or aerial gunning.

Across the country, biologists have discovered that most of our parks simply aren’t big enough to provide adequate protection to any wolf. One radio-collared wolf travelled the equivalent of 15 Banff National Parks over the course of three years: she started off in Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, then made a loop, travelling into B.C., then down into Idaho and over to Montana, before making her way back home.

The Theberges were able to get buffer zones put into place around Algonquin Park to help protect the wolves they studied—and Parr would like to see similar protection zones in Western parks. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative wants to connect patches of protected land to better ensure the survival of large predators like wolves, but Parr says industry is encroaching on those plans. “Interconnected sections of conserved land are recognized by biologists as necessary for biodiversity. Meanwhile, our governments say we can have industry and biodiversity in the same place; but you have to be realistic,” says Parr.

In October, Alberta announced it would reforest 10,000 km of seismic lines in the Little Smoky and A La Peche regions. While the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative supported the decision, it said reforesting likely wouldn’t be enough to protect the caribou and called on the government to protect 7,200 sq. km of habitat from further industrial development.

Since we’re developing in wolf territory, it’s inevitable that the paths of humans and wolves will sometimes cross. Luckily, John Theberge has seen a shift in the way the public views wolves as more people learn of their crucial role in the ecosystem. Few even in the environmental community understood the role of the wolf until they witnessed its impact in Yellowstone. By 1994, wolves had been eradicated for more than 60 years, and the park had changed completely. Elk and deer had proliferated, and their behaviour was even different— they stood in highly exposed areas, and ate up vegetation that would normally thrive, changing the landscape. “With that, the whole ecosystem changed,” says Parr. “The park dried out, there were massive forest fires, and small animals, insects, fish, songbirds, and beavers had either left the park or died inside, decimating the biodiversity.”

In the years after 31 wolves were reintroduced from northern Alberta and northern B.C., beavers came back and cottonwood and aspen trees returned, along with the songbirds that hadn’t been seen in decades. Mountain lions, bears, and birds of prey thrived again, eating from the remains of wolf kills. (Parr says 33 different species have been documented feeding off wolf kills year-round in the Rockies.) The wolves created what’s known as a trophic cascade, with the effects rippling through the food chain.

While the importance of wolves is now better understood, issues surrounding their conservation remain complex. This year, scientists studied North American wolf genomes and announced that what was once thought to be three species living on the continent—the grey wolf, the red wolf, and the eastern wolf—are actually just variations of one. The study concluded that the red and eastern wolves are in fact grey wolves with coyote DNA mixed in. Paquet says the genetic makeup of these animals doesn’t really matter, since they are important to the ecosystem no matter what their ancestry. Meanwhile, in Ontario, where eastern wolves are classified as threatened, both wolves and coyotes are being protected in key areas. In the East, wolves are smaller, indistinguishable from coyotes, so without a more cautious approach, wolves would continue to be targeted. Paquet would like to see a similar approach taken in the Western provinces, but he knows these issues are as complicated as the lives of the canids themselves. It’s an elaborate dance between managing the interests of wolves, caribou, and industry. Conservation is not just wildlife management, he says, it’s about dealing with the quality of life of animals, as well as their numbers.

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