Encounters with a wolf

I’m in a boat off an island off another island, and I’ve just spotted a wolf. At first it’s just a grey-white blur against sand, but as our zodiac swerves towards the island’s coast, the ghostly figure becomes visible, climbing up onto jagged rocks to scour the high tide line for food.

Seaweed webs between the rocks; mussels and barnacles weave a thick intertidal carpet. The narrow shoreline is the only thing stopping the towering trees from dropping directly into the ocean. This is Vargas Island, a windswept outpost off the west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada, full of long sweeping bays, intact rainforest and exposed rocky shores.

Behind us: 6000 uninterrupted kilometres of Pacific Ocean.

In front of us: a sea wolf, the first I’ve ever seen.

It belongs to a coastal subspecies of the 300,000 grey wolves (Canis lupus lupus) that live throughout North America and Eurasia. About the size of a German Shepherd, these salt-slicked predators live with two paws in the ocean and two on land, snapping up waterfowl and otters, crunching shellfish off rock, ripping into the languid carcasses of washed-up whales, and even fishing for salmon.

I squint against the mid-May sun as the animal moves with careful purpose along the shore. My friend pushes his binoculars into my hands, and through the eyepieces the wolf becomes intimately real. Solitary and lanky, it has legs longer than any dog I’ve ever seen and paws the size of my hand span. But what strike me are the eyes: sharp and yellow, radiating awareness of its surroundings.

Though we’re keeping our distance in the zodiac, the wolf seems to catch scent of us; it pauses at the prow of a rock and stands tall and alert, nose out to sea, fully conscious of our presence. 

It makes me wonder – is our boat, because of our eagerness to catch sight of these impressive predators, inadvertently habituating wolves to humans? Now that wolves are returning to the landscapes humans drove them out of, how do we avoid conflict?

For nearly a century, there were no wolves on Vargas or Vancouver Island. The human imagination has historically painted the animals as savage creatures to be feared – and viciously hated for preying on livestock. 

“The only good wolf is a dead wolf” was an enduring mantra until the mid-twentieth century, and even leaders agreed; in his 1893 book The Wilderness Hunter, US President Teddy Roosevelt called the wolf “the beast of waste and desolation”. 

This sentiment nearly wiped wolves off the map. In North America, the campaign to eradicate the species began with private landholders and farmers, and grew to horrific proportions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when governments implemented intensive systematic poisoning programs. 

This story was echoed across the world. As humans expanded their ranges, wolves were killed or driven out. In Europe, culling wolves has been sanctioned and even rewarded for over 1000 years; they became extinct in England as early as the fifteenth century. Eventually, most lived in places almost entirely untouched by humans, such as the Arctic tundra. 

But wolves don’t deserve their monstrous image. In fact, they have much in common with humans: we both live in family groups, maintain mating bonds for many years at a time, have complex communications systems, and hunt as a team. 

For these reasons some cultures hold a deep respect and affinity for them. Many First Nations groups in Canada, for example, have lived alongside them for centuries and hold them in spiritual significance, tending only to kill individuals that become too bold or raid food caches. 

These groups recognised something colonisers took decades to grasp – that wolves, like all large carnivores, play an integral role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

It wasn’t until the late twentieth century, when a greater understanding of natural systems caused public and scientific attitudes to shift, that wolf populations slowly recolonised the landscapes they used to roam.

Today’s population of wolves on Vancouver Island originated on Canada’s mainland, where greater wilderness areas allowed them to survive systematic extermination. Eventually, some swam across the channel.

Other countries have seen similar returns. In Germany, the first wolf breeding was recorded in 2000, after an almost 100-year absence, and as of 2017 there are at least 73 packs. Wolves finally arrived in Belgium in 2018, completing their return to every country in mainland Europe. Although that continent is only half the size of the lower 48 United States with double the average human density, it is now home to twice as many wolves.

This seems like a heart-warming conservation success story – but there’s a catch.

Trouble is, these landscapes – particularly in heavily-populated Europe – are now dominated by humans who haven’t ever lived alongside wolves. Wild lands have become agricultural or urban, livestock is often unprotected, and human food and garbage create a dangerous lure.

So how can conflicts be prevented?

Dutch ecologist Dries Kuijper is trying to figure that out. He lives in the Polish village of Białowieża, within a forest that humans have shared with wolves for centuries without interruption.

“Local people are used to that and there exists no real wolf-human conflict,” he says. 

This is likely helped by the fact that Polish farmers effectively protect their livestock by using guard dogs or night enclosures.

But just this year, he watched as wolves resettled in his home country of the Netherlands for the first time in 140 years, triggering an outburst of emotional discussion about how to live alongside the animals.

“These emotions often blur an objective view,” explains Kuijper, who works for the Mammal Research Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences. 

“Although wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare compared to other risks humans face, the fear of wolves is still a crucial factor undermining acceptance of wolf recovery.” 

This lack of objectivity filters all the way up to policy; science-based decision-making seems to be missing from wildlife management across the world.

In collaboration with colleagues from Europe and South Africa, Kuijper recently reviewed a diverse array of management approaches used when humans and wolves clash. The resulting paper, published in the journal Biological Conservation, draws on large carnivore management from around the world to have a science-based discussion about ways to manage conflicts.

“A seemingly easy solution – shooting wolves to regulate their numbers – is in clear conflict with current European nature legislation,” he notes, referring to the fact that wolves are a protected species under European Union law.

“Besides, many scientific studies show that this method is often counter-productive, as reducing wolf numbers in one area will often attract more wolves from the surrounding areas.”

Wolves are also a social species who live in small family groups, so even individual losses can upset social stability and reduce genetic diversity, resulting in inbreeding or hybridisation with dogs

The next obvious solution is to fence the animals into an area. This is a common tool used for other large predators; consider Australia’s 5614-kilometre dingo-proof fence.

But fencing may constrain natural behaviours and limit gene flow – not just among wolves but also of other animals that it excludes – as well as further divide already fragmented areas, especially in Europe. It would also be costly, considering that the range of one wolf family can span hundreds of square kilometres.

Fencing wolves out may be a better solution. Non-lethal, high-voltage electric fences around human-occupied zones or livestock would reduce conflicts while also allowing wolves to roam their natural ranges. This is common practice in Germany, where livestock owners are also financially compensated for animals killed by them.

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A wolf crossing a snowfield in Alaska. Credit: Design Pics Inc/Getty Images

But Kuijper and colleagues hold that the most effective way to manage wolf-human co-existence is even simpler: mutual avoidance.

“Too often we focus only on reactive approaches such as killing and compensation rather than focusing on the root of the problem,” he says.

The most dangerous situations tend to arise when wolves show little fear towards humans – a sign of habituation. In 2015, for example, two hunted down and killed a deer right in the centre of the Canadian tourist town of Banff. 

A solution to this uneasy familiarity could be adverse conditioning: to re-instil fear by using non-lethal means.

“For example,” Kuijper suggests, “the use of electric shock collars, physical or chemical deterrents and repellents, hard sounds, and bright lights.”

These conditioning tools would encourage wolves to stay away from populated areas, reducing the likelihood of conflicts.

So far, there has been little scientific testing of such methods, though some research has proposed that deterrents may only last for a limited time before wolves become accustomed and lose their fear again. The effectiveness of adverse conditioning techniques needs to be studied in more depth, but it may provide a more ethical solution than culling.

In agricultural areas, mutual avoidance may be most effective when paired with carefully-designed, non-lethal livestock protection methods. 

Germany has led the way in this respect ever since the first wolf pack returned to Saxony in 2000. Many states have “wolf commissioners”, who work with farmers to provide financial support to build electric fences and obtain guard dogs, as well as compensation for dead livestock. Problem wolves are GPS-collared and deterred with rubber bullets.

But scaring the animals away from human food sources and livestock will only be effective if sufficient, year-round wild prey is an available alternative. As a result of widespread hunting to prevent forestry or agriculture conflicts, the densities of ungulates such as deer and elk across Europe are relatively low – often too low to feed wolves. In some regions in the southwest, this is the reason why wolves are reliant on livestock.

The management of wolves therefore overlaps heavily with hunting regulations and the preservation of wild lands. Encouragingly, the increasing number of rewilding projects across Europe are beginning to recreate rich prey communities. 

Education is also key to get people to interact in an appropriate way.

Currently, almost half of large carnivore attacks are provoked by human behaviour, such as feeding wildlife, walking with unleashed dogs, or leaving children or livestock unattended.

Todd Windle, a human-wildlife conflict specialist at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve near Vargas Island in Canada, deals with these issues every day. 

“For many people, seeing a wolf in the wild is truly a magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience – so they may be reluctant to scare the animal away,” he explains. 

“But while a visitor may have a brief sighting or momentary interaction with a wolf, for the wolf it is a different story, as these encounters could compound day after day.”

Through repeated interactions with no negative consequences, wolves quickly learn not to fear humans, creating risks to human safety and wolf health.

On Vargas Island, the only known wolf attack happened in 2000, when a kayaker sleeping on a beach was mauled and left with bite wounds that required 50 stitches. It turned out that for over a year, visitors had been feeding the animals, especially pups, causing them to lose their fear of humans and begin to scavenge our food. 

As a direct result of the incident, two young wolves were shot.

When humans mess up, wolves pay. But if people are educated about how to behave, a healthy, distanced relationship can be created.

Many states and provinces in North America have adopted basic education programs to teach the correct ways to interact with large predators, from wolves to bears to cougars.  

Pacific Rim National Park, for example, has wildlife signs, brochures, interpretive presentations, outreach programs and staff on the ground in the park, all informing visitors to keep pets leashed, keep food and garbage secure, remain 100 metres away from large animals, and not to offer wildlife food. Windle and his team even temporarily close off certain areas that have high wildlife use, to reduce the likelihood of conflicts.

Windle is also managing a new research project in the park, called Wild about Wolves.

“The project involves an ecological study on local wolves, gathering Traditional Knowledge in cooperation with Nuu-chah-nulth Elders, and human dimension research into the attitudes, values, and beliefs of people that play a role in driving these conflicts with wolves,” he explains.

Education can also help manage people’s perceptions of the dangers involved, because these are hugely influential in management policies.

According to conservation biologist Marco Heurich from the University of Freiburg in Germany, who co-authored the recent study with Kuijper, the public must be given a balanced view. {%recommended 8988%}

“People must be convinced of the ecological value that the return of the wolves has,” he says. 

“It is necessary to show that these animals pose a very low risk to human safety.”

But the perspective of wolves as vicious and merciless is hard to shake.

“Even close encounters foster the widespread and exaggerated perception that wolves are far more dangerous to humans than they are,” says David Mech, a senior research scientist with the US Geological Survey and the University of Minnesota. 

“Such issues feed public intolerance by folks living in or near wolf range.”

People must be taught that although recovering wolf populations are natural and welcome, they comprise large predators who demand respect.

Yet it’s difficult to advocate respect for wolves and awareness of their conservation when governments seem to be doing the opposite.

Canada’s 60,000 wolves are not protected by law as they are in Europe and the majority of US states. In many parts of the country they can be hunted and trapped year-round, but this is small beans compared to government culling programs. 

A controversial poison has been used to slaughter over 1000 wolves in the province of Alberta since 2005, while British Columbia (BC) has conducted aerial shooting to control wolf populations since 2015. 

Ian McAllister, executive director of the Canadian conservation non-profit Pacific Wild, explains that “the core reason why wolves are being persecuted is because the natural habitat for many other species, in particular ungulates like mountain caribou, has been decimated and the BC government is using wolves as a scapegoat.”

Research supports the fact that wolf predation is not the sole root of the problem; rather, caribou losses are largely driven by the erosion and alteration of habitats by human activities such as logging. 

“If adequate habitat was protected, the natural balance between predator and prey would be maintained,” McAllister explains.

On a smaller scale, Finland, Norway and Sweden controversially cull wolves to manage populations, citing the protection of humans and livestock. Poisoning is also legal in several regions of Europe.

If governments don’t model responsible and science-based behaviour towards wolves, it is difficult to see how the public will be convinced to make compromises in order to co-exist.

“We should be wiser this time and avoid creating the conditions for reinstating wolf persecution as the default policy,” Kuijper concludes.

A week after sighting my first coastal wolf, I head out on a four-day expedition to circumnavigate Vargas Island by kayak. My group includes a seasoned guide with decades of experience around Canada’s waters and wildlife, from polar bears up on Hudson Bay to grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest. 

Wolves are an elusive yet constant presence on our trip. We see plenty of memorable evidence that they’re around, like tracks on the beach – less than a few hours old, judging how they’re freshly pressed into the rain-rippled sand – and a pile of scat containing the barely-digested foot of a small animal.

But it’s not until our final night that we catch sight of a wolf itself.

We’re sitting around a fire on a sheltered beach, watching the sun sink over the ocean, when someone lets out a quiet, breathless exclamation. 

Within a split second all of us spin around, and there it is: a wolf, just emerging from the rainforest at the other end of the beach, about 75 metres away.

Grey-white in colouring, it trots along the high-tide line with a curiously light gait. Its head is slung low and it appears to have no care in the world, like it knows with every atom of its body that it belongs here on this beach in the half-light, in the company of whales and ancient trees and the unending sky.

A moment hangs suspended in silence; we do nothing but watch as the wolf – immersed in its own expansive business – draws closer.

Then our guide snaps out of the spell.

“It should be afraid of us,” she says. “If it wants to survive on this island, it needs to be afraid.”

“If I grab my camera right now, can I take a photo?” asks another member of our group, his voice tinged with frenetic energy.

“Ten seconds.” Our guide’s sharp eyes remain locked on the wolf. “Ten seconds is all you’ve got, then we need to scare it away.”

I glance around for a club of driftwood to heft, preparing myself to shout and intimidate this incredible predator back into the forest – but none of that is necessary.

Halfway down the beach, the wolf pauses. Its nose flicks up and it glances into the forest where another group is camped. Its body language shifts, ears flattening; then it turns on its heel and bounds light-footed back the way it came.

By the end of the 10 seconds, it has vanished.

Everyone on the beach exhales. Incredulous chatter breaks out – for many, it’s the first wolf they’ve ever seen.

But our guide’s gaze still lingers down the beach, at the tracks of a predator who belongs here so thoroughly and yet whose existence depends entirely on how humans choose to interact with it.

“Good,” she says quietly. “It ran, and because of that, it will live.”

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