A book review
“There’s an important distinction between management of wildlife and management for wildlife” Paul Paquet
I have long had a strong interest in wolves and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about them. I have read a lot about wolves, starting with L. David Mech’s “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”, which at the time (1970’s) was probably the definitive work on these fascinating animals. I also wrote a term paper on wolves in my Master of Pest Management degree at Simon Fraser University. But our state of knowledge has changed a lot, and Paula Wild lays out the current reality in her excellent book.
Living in Prince George, BC, and being out in the wilderness a fair bit, I was always hoping to see wolves, but to my disappointment I never did. The wolf population in that area was supposedly quite robust, but these animals are wary and seem to have an almost unnatural ability to appear and disappear at will. The closest I ever got was some tracks and scats, showing that they were around. I now live on Vancouver Island, which also has a healthy wolf population. In fact, based on Paula Wild’s book, wolves may be more prevalent than you think, even in area inhabited by people.
The sighting of a wolf would be a thrill, to say the least, and because of that most of us naturalists may not react the way we should in order to ensure the safety of both wolves, pets, and people. Based on my previous knowledge, I would not have worried about any aggression from a wolf, as the prevailing thought was that North American wolves did not attack humans. The exception would be attacks by rabid wolves, or old and sick individuals. Paula Wild’s book addresses human-wolf interaction in some detail, and it turns out that the non-aggressiveness of our wolves is more myth than reality. Ms. Wild describes many attacks and aggressive encounters that have occurred historically and very recently, some of them literally in my back yard (Tofino and Port Alberni, for example), and includes a lethal attack on a young man in Saskatchewan in 2010. Most attacks have been by healthy animals, and generally they have been by animals habituated to, or even fed by humans. Habituation can happen quite quickly, requiring only a few encounters where humans remain and watch the animals. This is likely what I would have done to get a photograph or two. The correct behaviour, according to wildlife experts, is to maintain at least 100 m distance, leave quickly, or if necessary, haze the animals by acting aggressively – try to appear large, yelling, throwing rocks or other non-food items while moving a few steps toward the wolves. This seems completely contrary to what we as naturalists would prefer, but the evidence supports the notion that wolves must associate humans with negative experience if we are going to coexist with them. If they don’t, the consequences can be dire. Food habituated wolves generally end up killed when they start attacking and killing pets, sometimes even when the pet is leashed. Like other organisms, wolves will choose the food that requires the least energy output. That includes pets, food left lying about or otherwise left accessible by campers. Dogs should be leashed as they are particularly attractive to wolves – one case describes a wolf trying to entice a dog into the forest by a play-stance, with other wolves waiting out of sight. Farmers and ranchers have to adjust by protecting their animals.
One way in which we should NOT interact with wolves is as pets, whether purebred or as so-called wolfdogs. Wolves are unpredictable once they reach maturity, and while all dogs descend from wolves, they are not dogs. In my opinion it is regrettable when wild animals are kept in captivity. There are more captive tigers in the United States than in the wild! With all the dog breeds available today, I fail to see why anyone would want a wolf.
In addition to what I cover above, Paula Wild’s book about wolves has a lot of important and interesting information. It really is a must-read for anyone spending a lot of time in the forest where wolves are present. As wolf populations re-establish in historic habitats and humans establish homes in the urban/wilderness transition zone, encounters are likely to increase. These magnificent animals deserve a chance to live their lives without the type of persecution they were subjected to in the past (and regrettably are subjected to still through poisoning with non-specific materials like strychnine or shooting from helicopters). Our behaviour towards wolves will determine how they behave around us, and that will ultimately determine their fate.