Yukon News

Lose wolves, lose the wilderness

John Thompson Friday January 14, 2011

Bob Hayes/Yukon News

Wolf

A wolf is shot with a tranquilizer dart as part of the Yukon government's radio-collaring program. Yukon's wolf population is one of the most studied in the world.

Bob Hayes has some advice for Yukoners who want to revisit the wolf cull: don’t bother.

“It’s completely not worth it,” he said.

Hayes worked as Yukon’s wolf biologist for 18 years, until 2000. During that time he helped design and deliver Yukon’s wolf control programs.

His conclusions? It’s costly. It often doesn’t work, and when it does, its effects are always temporary.

And, ultimately, it cheapens the Yukon by transforming wilderness into a glorified meat farm.

Hayes has, quite literally, written the book on the subject: Wolves of the Yukon. It’s a decade in the making, and, by luck, its release later this month coincides with a review of the territory’s wolf management plan.

Hunters have long lamented low moose, caribou and sheep populations in the Yukon. Hayes is familiar with the usual circle of blame.

Resident hunters blame First Nations. First Nations blame outfitters. Outfitters blame resident hunters.

And everyone blames wolves, whose hunting prowess has inspired admiration, fear and resentment.

Yet our many efforts to curb wolf numbers in the territory have proven to be a dismal failure. Not poison, nor trapping, nor aerial shooting has made any more than a temporary dent in wolf numbers.

Today, Yukon’s wolf population remains essentially unchanged from what it was believed to be 10,000 years ago. The territorial government believes we have approximately 4,500 wolves - one of them for every eight of us.

Wolves take too many moose and caribou calves, is the common refrain. Yet wolves are just doing what wolves have done here for thousands of years.

During that time, moose and wolves have co-evolved, shaping each other’s migration and reproduction patterns. Hayes suspects the Yukon timber wolf’s reliance on moose is the reason why our wolves are among the biggest in the world.

In wildlife management circles, wolf “control” is almost always a euphemism for kill. But we’ve tried it all, and none of it has made a lasting impact on wolf numbers.

Between 1982 and 1997, Yukon’s wildlife branch conducted broad scale wolf killing programs to boost the number of moose, “at great cost to taxpayers,” according to Hayes. During that time helicopter crews shot 849 wolves in the Coast Mountains, Finlayson and Aishihik.

In the Coast Mountains, moose numbers remained stagnant. Hayes believes that’s mainly because grizzly bears, rather than wolves, were killing most calves.

In both Finlayson and Aishihik, moose populations exploded - an apparent success. But, once wolf control stopped, wolf numbers bounced back within just four years.

As a result, Finlayson’s moose and caribou populations spiked, then spiraled back to where they started within a decade.

Aishihik saw similar results. The killing of 189 wolves allowed moose numbers to double and caribou to triple. But, within a decade of the wolf cull, these populations had sunk yet again.

The lesson learned? For wolf-killing to be effective, it would need to be repeated every few years. Hayes questions whether Yukoners have the stomach, or deep pockets, to keep it up. He clearly remembers how Yukon’s wolf kill program drew the condemnation of animal rights protesters across the country, who converged on Whitehorse.

“They burned tires on the Alaska Highway, chained themselves in the Yukon legislature, damaged our aircraft, followed me to work, and stalked my house,” he writes. “I had a real concern and fear for the lives of my family and crew. I lost a close friendship with a good family over wolf control that remains a raw memory years later.”

If we don’t shoot wolves, then what? Hayes sees more promise in a wolf sterilization program he helped run in Aishihik at that time. But this, too, would be a costly solution to maintain.

Haye’s preferred solution? “Leave them alone. Just leave them alone. Things will work themselves out.”

But, if Yukoners must kill wolves to allow moose numbers to grow, he’d like to see this only done on a small scale, near affected communities. To this end, Hayes offers a practical suggestion: end Yukon’s “archaic trapline ownership restrictions that give a few trappers the exclusive right to trap areas around communities, or not.”

Yukon has low moose populations compared to elsewhere in Canada for good reason. “The Yukon is a complete wilderness,” Hayes writes. Part of that means having to share big game with predators.

Hayes looks at how Alaskans have driven bears and wolves away from Anchorage and Fairbanks for many decades. The result: a dramatic rise in the number of moose nearby, of up to 100 moose for every 100 kilometres, compared to the Yukon average of 15 moose over the same area.

That’s a sevenfold increase in density. It’s also replacing wilderness with something else.

“It is wildlife farming,” writes Hayes. “Is that what we want in the Yukon?”

This is not merely a philosophical concern. Tourists flock to the Yukon in large part because of the allure of its wilderness. “They may not want to meet these dangerous beasts close up, but most tourists revel in simply knowing that grizzly bears and wolves exist and they could be just around the next bend in the river,” Hayes writes.

Yukon has one big advantage over Alaska, as Hayes sees it: there are far fewer of us. Alaska’s population is nearly 700,000, while Yukon’s population is close to 35,000.

It also helps that Yukon’s wolves are among the best-studied in the world. To date, scientists have tracked the movements of nearly 400 of them with radio collars.

“If we can’t do it here, we can’t do it anywhere,” said Hayes.

But that will likely require an adjustment of our expectations. Hayes frequently hears a telling expression in hunting circles: “I didn’t get my moose.”

There’s nothing wrong with the desire to live off of local meat. “But it’s not your moose,” said Hayes.

“We can’t all get a moose all the time, because natural predators are going to regulate that population.”

Hayes, it should be noted, is no tofu-munching animal-rights radical. He hunts. He’s never shot a wolf, but he knew when he accepted his government post that a big part of his job would be helping to kill them. He accepted the job because it was a chance to learn more about these fascinating animals.

Agree with Hayes or not, Wolves of the Yukon ought to be required reading for anyone who plans to weigh in on the wolf control debate, which should heat up soon.

Contact John Thompson at

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15 Comments

trapperjustsouthof60 wrote:
10:07pm Tuesday February 1, 2011

The last response was a classic example of an emotional response. 
The Beaver, another notorious vegetarian, not only eats itself out of house and home if left unchecked, they will die out during the winter because not enough storage has been put away to sustain their numbers.  They also flood large areas of forest which also dies off.  The argument can be made that if you had enough wolves, that they would cull the beavers…. but if you have that many wolves, they would have already culled everything else, because Beaver is not a main stay of wolves.  We know of an area near us that used to have 30 Beaver colonies as resent as 7 or 8 years ago.  This valley was never trapped before.  There is only 1 small colony left and we don’t think they will make it thru this winter do to lack of forage.
We know that man lived off of Nature for over a million years as a hunter/gatherer.  It’s only since the development of cities and high yield farming that there has been an impact on floral and fauna due to loss of habitat.  The trapper, hunter, berry picker are not the enemy of wildlife. On the contrary they live in it and appreciate it far more than an urbanite.

Malamute wrote:
9:00pm Sunday January 30, 2011

Cull and kill to manage nature is the ultimate solution for man who is a natural born killer.No imagination. No compassion. Only blood thirst; and in the process man consumes nature to death. A vicious cycle starting with man’s self glorification and ending in apocalypse of no wolves, no nature. A scorched earth looms in man’s greedy eyes.

trapperjustsouthof60 wrote:
5:48am Saturday January 29, 2011

It’s all about balance.  Rational decisions are newer made using sentationalisium or worst yet emotions.  Man-kind is the only animal who is actually aware of what Mother nature is capable of. The list of species that have gone extinct for one reason or another is longer that the list of surviving species.  Wolves do torture large ungulates to death, but they have not other way of killing large prey and I certainly don’t begrudge them their method.  For the same reason I don’t begrudge urbanites occuping the best wildlife habitates in North American (even the chinese don’t build cities on the most fertile land).
In order to sustain a natural balance of predator and prey, large highly successful predators (wolf,cougar,coyote) must be culled, in a small scale specific manner. I personally witnessed a coyote population explosion in the Black Mountain area of Kelowna, BC in the late 70’s.  Deer numbers dropped drastically, all of the smaller prey species (pheasant, grouse, rabbit, beaver etc suffered population crashes.  Within a year or two the coyotes had mange (a skin disease) and were dying like flies.  This is mother nature on a small scale.  If those coyote had been controlled, not eradicated, chances are populations would have remained stable.

Mike Grieco wrote:
4:37pm Friday January 28, 2011

Wolves and other wildlife don’t need us to “manage” them; they manage just fine on their own. Leave them be.

trapperjustsouthof60 wrote:
10:40pm Sunday January 23, 2011

Our hearts just sink every time we see wolf tracks following a moose,caribou,sheep or elk..and now we heard they are after Buffalo also. Yes it’s nature but sometimes it’s a little hard to take.  We wish the anti’s could see what actually goes on out there, especially when they just kill for sport. A lion family kills quickly…. and most hunters do.  But wolves can’t kill quickly… it take days and days.  They have to follow the animal, eatting at it’s asshole and then pulling the intestinal track out.  The whole back legs of the animal are chewed at.  The prey is still standing there, can’t move but totally aware. The vital areas of a Moose are 5 ft from their ass. That’s a lot of meat to eat before they can allowed to die.

Bruce Hemming wrote:
8:06pm Sunday January 23, 2011

I found this posted in American paper.
“I live in Canada. So when yellowstone got some of our wolves, we thought it was a bit weird but understood what they wanted to do. This was active management.
I live in Canada the land of the lowest population densities on earth. But we actively manage our wolf populations. It is simply naive to think we can go back to nature the way it was before the white man. To have the number of wolf density Yellowstone has is insanity, cruel and inhumane. Already your ungulate population there has collapsed—and could go extinct. People don’t understand that wolves can absolutely kill everything in a small area dominated by many wolves. And then they die off. Starving to death. It can take a 100 years for any sort of equilibrium to be restored—and that only if there are vast areas nearby that can trickle populations back. The last report I heard from Yellowstone was scientists excitement over the rise of the beetle population., inferring it was from the wolves. Beetles! Yellowstone! Your park is so ruined of wildlife your excitement is about BEATLES!
No offense, Yellowstone is nice with the geysers and all, but its a postage stamp. Without active management of the wolf populations you are asking for trouble. Live and let live is an abdication of responsibility and stewardship of the environment once you factor in predation. Even for Canada. How much more-so in places like Montana.”

rational wrote:
8:54am Sunday January 23, 2011

The wolf expert is not protecting his job. He’s retired. Try again. Attack the argument, not the person. It is much more effective.

Bruce Hemming wrote:
3:27am Sunday January 23, 2011

This expert is spreading his job security and going with the Y2Y plan Yukon to Yellowstone. In this plan NO PREDATOR CONTROL IS ALLOWED. To ignore 10,000 years of history is fool hardy man for the last 10,000 years has always control wolves where ever they are. This provides us the livestock to eat,  to raise families safety and to enjoy hunting. The trapper said it best trappers are needed to control the numbers this does not wipe the wolves out but keeps them in balance with the land you know like the Natives did long before white man came here. So when a “so called” wolf expert talks about not controlling predators you know he is bought and paid for and only worried about his job not the truth.

Malamute wrote:
2:55am Sunday January 23, 2011

Trapperjustsouthof60 falls in the trap of self glorification. When a wolf kills it is described as “torchered” - I have my doubts about trapper’s word choice? - but when man kills it is fine. The moose is saved for man’s bullet. For sure a very skewed argument. Man is butcher. Wolf is nature. Leave nature alone. Traplines destroy nature.

trapperjustsouthof60 wrote:
6:16am Saturday January 22, 2011

We are trappers and have held this trapline for 4 years and have harvested 1 young moose.  We like to hear and see the tracks of wolves.  The 1st 3 winters we left them alone but we recorded more and more wolf track sightings with considerably larger packs involved.  This along with an obvious decline in moose population, led us to buy snare material and make an effort to cull some of those wolves.  I know I won’t make a big dent in the wolf population and I wouldn’t want to, but, when you kill 1 wolf in early winter , you are saving at least one moose from being torchered to death that winter.  HERE IS THE POINT THAT NO ONE HAS COMMENTED ON, WOLVES CAN OUT MULTIPLY UNGULATES BY A RATIO OF AT LEAST 3 TO 1…. and that is on the conservative side.  I agree with Bob Hayes, large scale wolf culling, done periodically, is not the answer.  It may even cause greater fluctuations and is a waste of tax-payers money.  Small scale trapping does work , if it is ongoing.  I am totally against using aircraft or vehicles of any kind to shoot from to kill any kind of animal.  Poison is even worse.  In my uneducated opinion, it is the responsibily of the trapper who holds the tenure in which a village, town or city lies within, to control problem animals, be it wolves, beaver, or rabid foxes. Canada’s trapline system is far superior to the U.S’s where anyone can trap anywhere…amounting to no responsiblity.  I will buy Bob Hayes book.

rational wrote:
6:55pm Friday January 21, 2011

Actually, Mr. Hayes was not talking out of both sides of his mouth. He was presenting Yukoners with two options. Leave the wilderness alone, or, manage it like a farm.

Humans are animals, but we are a species out of control. We are destroying the biodiversity of the planet. Wolves are not having the same effect. When a species passes the carrying capacity of its environment, the population will decline. Humans passed the carrying capacity of the planet over a decade ago: we are living on borrowed time.

Finally. There are nearly 7 BILLION humans. I’m sure we can live with a few more wolves.

southram wrote:
1:34pm Friday January 21, 2011

Very interesting article, typical talk about wolves.  Mr. Hayes is however talking from both sides of his mouth, on one hand he says leave them alone, they will sort things out themselves, on the other he says change trapping rules, does he want to trap himself but does not want to buy a line and he also suggests there is more moose around people and settlements, hey man, you can’t sit on the fence, give us a direction that could work, you can not have it both ways.  We are all part of this eco-system, who was suppose to be king predator?  I am wondering if this man has not been in the beuracracy to long.

rational wrote:
6:48am Wednesday January 19, 2011

I believe the foremost expert on wolves in the Yukon has spoken. Wolf kills do not work. Wolves are an important part of the ecosystem: they help keep herds of caribou and moose healthy. The Yukon is some of the last great intact wilderness on the planet. We owe it to ourselves, our grandchildren and all living things to be responsible stewards of this treasure. Slaughtering wolves to turn precious wilderness into a farm is not good stewardship.

The key message here is wildlife only needs ‘management’ because of human misuse and pillaging in the first place. Remove human mismanagement and nature will balance.

Galena wrote:
9:29pm Saturday January 15, 2011

Malamute if that is your comment name it is better than being a malamute tied up outside in most Yukon communities as at that point the malamute just becomes wolf bait.

Malamute wrote:
7:05am Saturday January 15, 2011

I am reading Barry Lopez’s book “Of Wolves and Men” and was shocked to learn about Canada’s poison war against wolves during the 1950s. Lopez says that wolf control is the violent expression of a terrible assumption that man have the right to kill other creatures. I agree with Hayes that wolves should be left alone.

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