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Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item #1309
v43 n4 (Winter 2001)

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In the Predator's Domain
Bruce Obee
Vancouver Island park officials struggle to balance the preservation of wolves, cougars, and bears with the protection of increasing numbers of people coming to commune with nature.
Word spread quickly through Clayoquot Sound when the kayaker on Vargas Island was attacked in the night by a wolf. It was the talk of Tofino: down on the docks, up at the Common Loaf Bake Shop, many had seen it coming. The wolves had been taking handouts from picnickers for months; their inherent fear of people had turned to expectation, then aggression.
British Columbia's revered symbol of true wilderness had taken on the status of a ''problem'' bear. The day after the attack, on the first Canada Day weekend of the new century, conservation officers stationed themselves at the kayakers' campsite on Vargas Island. As expected, three wolves appeared on the beach at daybreak. One held back while the others boldly sauntered up for an easy breakfast. The two were shot within 20 metres of camp.
''They showed no fear at all,'' says conservation officer Gerry Brunham. ''They just walked right up to you.'' BC Parks immediately put up signs at Vargas and other new provincial parks in Clayoquot Sound: ''People have been injured and wolves have been destroyed. Don't be the next victim!'' The notices claimed that wildlife had ''suffered the consequences of people's actions.'' Feeding the animals, and not discouraging their approach, had ''resulted in the wolves becoming habituated, i.e. not afraid of people.''
Just down the coast from Clayoquot, on Vancouver Island's southwest shores, Pacific Rim National Park posted its first wolf warnings a year earlier, after hikers reported being ''escorted'' by wolves on paths and beaches. These animals displayed little fear of humans, a recent and worrisome trait to Parks Canada officials at Long Beach, where as many as 800,000 people a year come to commune with nature.
Fatal attacks by bears and cougars are common in North America, but there is no verified report of anyone being killed by a wolf. There have been at least five attacks in Ontario's Algonquin Park, including a 1998 attempt by a wolf to carry off a 19-month-old baby. Alaska recorded its first attack in April 2000, when a wolf tried to pull a six-year-old boy into the woods.
Before Vargas, at least two confirmed wolf attacks on people had occurred in B.C., both on the mainland in the 1980s. More recently, Vancouver Island conservation officers have received complaints of wolves nipping at the heels or mouthing the calves of joggers running on beaches. And there are stories of wolves swimming the channels of Clayoquot Sound, following boaters from camp to camp. While most wolves are still afraid of people, a few have taken to raiding tents, carrying off mattresses, lamps, clothing, and the occasional dog.
No serious injury had been inflicted on a person until the Vargas incident. Populated by a half-dozen permanent residents, Vargas is Clayoquot's third-largest island. One of the closest to the village of Tofino, it's popular for campers and day-trippers. Scott Langevin, 23, was one of 18 kayakers who had set up camp on a surf-swept beach in a new park at the island's northwest end. Around sunset, a wolf wandered into the campsite. People shouted and threw sticks, but the animal had learned from previous visitors to associate humans with food. It approached within three metres, dragged away a cooler, and ripped apart empty garbage bags.
Langevin and fellow kayaker Wes Yung slept under the stars beside the campfire. At 1:30 a.m. Yung was awakened when a wolf the size of a German shepherd sat down on the end of his sleeping bag. He yelled and nudged it with his foot; the wolf stood up, but lingered in the firelight until another camper set off an ear-splitting ''bear banger.'' After unsuccessful efforts to wake Langevin, Yung retired to his tent. A half-hour later Langevin's screaming woke the whole camp. The wolf had pulled him, in his sleeping bag, around to the opposite side of the fire. When Langevin tried to roll away from the wolf, it jumped on his back and started gnawing on his scalp. The attack went on for about five minutes before other campers could scare off the wolf.
Conscious but in shock, Langevin was taken off the beach by two Tofino boaters who heard the kayakers' Mayday on a VHF radio. From Tofino he was airlifted to Victoria, where it took more than 50 stitches to close his head wound. Rescuers say Langevin would have bled to death if his friends had not had a marine radio.
''The cause for the attack was determined to be predatory,'' the official report concludes. A veterinarian examined the two wolves destroyed by conservation officers, describing the animals as healthy, sexually immature two-year-olds, a 37-kilogram male and a 29-kilogram female.
The ordeal lends credence to a dire prediction for the 21st century by Dr. Ludwig Carbyn, a respected wolf expert with Alberta's Canadian Wildlife Service. With more people penetrating the wilderness, feeding wildlife, enticing unpredictable predators within camera range, Carbyn warns that ''wolves are going to kill a human. It's quite possible.''
The human invasion of once-remote wildlife habitat on southwest Vancouver Island has continued unabated since Pacific Rim National Park opened at Long Beach three decades ago. With an annual flood of vacationers feeding local economies, permanent populations have more than doubled to a total of 5,000 in the communities near the park: Tofino, Ucluelet, and the villages around Clayoquot Sound.
....BC Parks issues 30 or 40 permits annually to kayak companies that share the new parks with two or three dozen sightseeing and nature-cruise operators. Many who come here stay outside the parks in new luxury resorts or upscale ''getaway'' condominiums, overlooking beaches where wolves, bears, and sometimes cougars leave their tracks.
The unnatural influx of people into the hunting grounds of natural predators challenges the mandates of park managers to protect wild animals while encouraging people to explore their habitat safely. That philosophy was supported by the United Nations in January 2000 when Clayoquot Sound was designated a UNESCO Bisophere Reserve, which promotes ''a balanced relationship between people and nature.''
''We've got a mandate to protect the natural resources of the parks. If our visitors are detrimental to the natural values, then we have to manage our visitors to preferably eliminate that effect,'' states Jur Bekker, Clayoquot area supervisor for BC Parks. Shutting down parks is not a reasonable option; neither is shooting predators that appear to threaten people. It's preferable to advise visitors not to feed potentially dangerous predators and to deter wild animals from coming close. ''Be aware these animals are there, they've always been there, and have a right to be there. It's up to you to behave in such a way as to minimize the encounters.''
....The latest pack came in the late 1990s; they probably swam the kilometre between Meares and Vargas islands. No one is sure how many -- some say eight, others think three or four. There aren't as many deer now, and Neil has seen wolf scat laced with carb and mussel shells. Lately, some wolves have supplemented their diets with buried garbage and human waste, or sandwiches dropped in the sand....
At 30 square kilometres Vargas Island probably does not have enough natural prey to sustain a family of wolves, says Doug Janz, head of wildlife on Vancouver Island for B.C.'s Ministry of Environment. ''But if their food source is being held artificially high by human assistance, then sure, some wolves may stay there.'' Some people admit to feeding wildlife, claiming that without help the animals can't survive in an environment so badly damaged by humankind. Others become frightened and throw their lunches at persistent wolves.
Even with handouts, says Janz, the wolves in Clayoquot likely need to cover a lot of ground to find adequate prey. ''We certainly know they island hop. I really suspect the wolves on Vargas Island are the same wolves that appear at Tofino Airport and Wickaninnish sand dunes in Pacific Rim Park.''
It's through island hopping that Vancouver Island came to be colonized by wolves from the mainland. Only the most inaccessible areas had wolf populations before the early 1970s. Then mainland wolves started skipping across the tightly packed archipelagos between Johnstone and Georgia straits. Sightings were reported on Cortes, Quadra, and other islands, then eventually on the adjacent shores of Vancouver Island near Campbell River and Sayward.
By 1976 there were wolves in almost every Vancouver Island watershed and on many offshore islands. Their prime prey, black-tailed deer, numbered more than 200,000 in 1980 when wolves peaked at about 600. There was plenty to eat and wolves were known to ''high-grade'' carcasses, taking only the choicest parts.
Habitat changes and predation in the past two decades have brought Vancouver Island deer populations to an all-time low of 70,000. Wolf numbers have followed, dropping to 150 or 200. Nowadays, they eat even the bones.
''Deer numbers are getting so low that predators can't sustain themselves on many parts of the Island,'' Janz notes. ''We're seeing the implications in terms of more interaction with humans, more so-called problem animals, dogs and cats missing, that whole scenario.'' A decade ago, Island conservation officers received three or four wolf complaints a year; now they get 20 or 30. On the Island's more populated east side there have been wolves marauding in a schoolyard near Qualicum Beach. Eight wolves near Qualicum encircled a woman and killed her German shepherd before she set off a loud alarm and escaped to her car with a smaller dog in her arms. In many encounters, wolves are attracted by dogs. So, too, are cougars and bears, and BC Parks' advice about dogs in the wilderness is blunt: ''Keep pets leashed and under control. Better still, don't bring them at all.''
Cougars, the other major predators of Island deer, are down to 200 or 300, about one-third as many as in the 1980s. But unlike wolves that roam widely in search of food, cougars are more apt to stick around established territories and eat what wanders through. They are also secretive, and more inclined to hunt their own prey than to scavenge, so are less likely to become habituated to handouts from people.
They are nonetheless a concern. There have been at least 23 cougar attacks on people on Vancouver Island, four of them fatal. In Pacific Rim National Park, cougar sightings are regularly reported on the West Coast Trail....
Eco-tourism is booming, communities in the wilderness are expanding, and numbers of natural prey are dwindling. It is a potentially lethal combination, experts say, for both predators and people. Most agree the solution is to try to change human habits, not the natural behaviour of wild animals in their own domain.