Wolves find an unlikely champion

Bob Hayes probably knows more than anyone about the Yukon's wolves. And about killing them. Hayes served as the territory's wolf biologist for nearly two decades, until 2000.

Bob Hayes probably knows more than anyone about the Yukon’s wolves. And about killing them.

Hayes served as the territory’s wolf biologist for nearly two decades, until 2000. During that time he helped oversee efforts to shoot 849 wolves, “at great cost to taxpayers.”

Often, the efforts were futile. When they did work, their effects proved temporary. Within several years, the wolves always came back.

Hayes’ insights are contained in a far-ranging book, Wolves of the Yukon. Its release is timely: the Yukon is revisiting its wolf-management plan this spring, and there are growing calls for a return of the wolf kill.

Wolves are frequently blamed for declines in caribou and moose. And no small number of rural residents have left dogs chained up behind their cabins only to find their pets have become wolf food.

Since retiring, Hayes has spent the intervening decade pondering our efforts to curb wolf numbers in the territory, with poison, aerial shooting and surgical sterilization.

But he goes back further than that. His book begins 20,000 years ago, on the desolate, wind-swept plains of Beringia, where wolves learned to chase down caribou and muskox, and to stay clear of mammoth, the giant short-faced bear and the Beringia lion.

The oldest wolf fossils in the Yukon have been dated to be 47,000 years old. It appears the Beringia wolf, which had distinct, bone-crushing teeth, died off about 10,000 years ago, “a victim of being too much scavenger and too little hunter.” The North American timber wolf colonized the Yukon about 2,000 years later.

They’ve been with us ever since. Today, Yukon’s wolf population remains essentially unchanged from 10,000 years ago. The territorial government believes we have approximately 4,500 wolves – one of them for every eight of us.

The story of our desire to kill wolves is also an old one.

Wolf culling is an ancient practice for Yukon First Nations, who traditionally would crawl inside dens to kill or take all but a few pups to help limit local populations. Hayes knows a conservation officer who found an arrowhead inside one den that was carbon-dated to be 850 years old. But the practice could be much, much older.

Elders tell tales of raiding wolf dens, for several reasons. One would be to steal away pups to breed with working dogs. Another would be to reduce wolf competition for big game.

Usually, one pup would be left “so the spirit of the wolf is appeased and the person is kept safe from bad luck.” Similar practices are found in Kyrgyzstan, suggesting that the wolf cull predates the passage of First Nations people across the Bering land bridge at the end of the Pleistocene, some 12,000 years ago.

Yukon’s wolves have adapted to their environment. 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.

Wolves have exceptional vision. No wonder, then, that they prefer to hunt at night. Hayes suspects that the dark fur markings of Yukon’s wolves is an adaptation to provide camouflage during these night hunts.

An old wolf is five or six years old, although Hayes once encountered a 13-year-old male swatting fish out of Alligator Lake for its mate. The wolf was shot a short time later when he made the mistake of venturing on to a road.

Hayes sees moose as the “perfect prey” for Yukon’s wolves, but some packs have other specialties. Wolves in Kluane eke out a precarious existence by preying on Dall’s sheep, while those who live near the North Slope earn a living as “vagabonds,” as Hayes calls them, following the wide-roaming Porcupine caribou herd.

The eating is good for those who den at a spot where the caribou will return. If not, they usually starve.

The Porcupine’s plummeting population has raised big fears by conservationists and hunters alike. As usual, wolf control is touted as a way of allowing the human hunt to continue.

But controlling these wolves would be especially impractical, Hayes contends: “Killing wolves throughout the 250,000 square kilometres range of the Porcupine herd is a daunting logistical, ethical and political challenge. The scale is massive, and would involve many hundreds of wolves across three political boundaries. And, more to the biological point – such actions will have little benefit to the wandering caribou herd.”

Wolves are frequently accused of killing indiscriminately. But rarely has Hayes seen wolves killing a moose and then abandoning it. Usually, an abandoned carcass means they’ve been chased away by bears. Leftovers are quickly gobbled by ravens.

Government efforts to kill wolves started with a strychnine program in the 1920s. Like a later poisoning program in the 1950s, it never worked. To reduce a wolf population, you need to kill a lot of them, otherwise new pups quickly replace the poisoned animals.

But people, fed-up with wolves, have continued to try to poison wolves illegally. They’ve killed plenty of other wildlife in the process.

Hayes recalls seeing the “grim results” of one case of illegal strychnine poisoning near Kluane Lake in 1985. Peering down from a helicopter, “dead animals began to appear below.”

After landing, he inspected the site and found “a sow grizzly bear crumpled in the trees, two wolves, 10 ravens and six magpies. There were hundreds of dead chickadees everywhere I looked – on the ground and in the willow branches, their tiny white feathers scattered like a dusting of fresh snow.”

Nobody was ever charged for the poisoning, “but locals pointed to a well-known outfitter in the area who had lost horses that year to wolves.”

Much grumbling about wolves stems from declining moose numbers in southern Yukon. Yet the arrival of moose to this area may be a modern invention.

According to accounts by elders and early non-native explorers, there were few moose in the Southern Lakes area up until 1900. Instead, aboriginal people hunted caribou and sheep.

Elders have suggested this change came about thanks to careless, non-native trappers who started forest fires that created habitat ideal to moose during the Gold Rush. Hayes believes there’s more to it than that.

He proposes that moose were wiped out in the southern Yukon during the White River volcanic eruption about 1,000 years ago, and only returned after a general warming trend across northwestern North America in the early 1900s.

Hayes strives to offer a level-headed, objective assessment of wolf-control programs. He succeeds, but this reader is left wanting more. The entire discussion of modern wolf control is crammed into the final chapters of the book.

Raucous protests in Whitehorse, during which Hayes lost close friends and found himself stalked by animal-rights radicals, are compressed into a single paragraph. We’d like to hear more about his own conflicted feelings at that time.

One gets the sense Hayes holds back because of his training as a scientist. But his perspective on wolves is surely formed by feelings, as well as facts.

Hayes does an admirable job writing from a wolf’s point of view in the beginning of most chapters, making use of his own observations and the field notes of others.

He ends by offering an interesting philosophical objection to wolf control that’s done to boost moose numbers: “It is wildlife farming. Is that what we want in the Yukon?” It’s a question that others are sure to ask as the review of the Yukon’s wolf-management plan gets underway.

The book is available at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore, Well-Read Books and the Chocolate Claim in Whitehorse. It can also be purchased online, at www.wolvesoftheyukon.ca.

A book launch is being held on Thursday, January 20, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Chocolate Claim. Hayes will give a talk, starting at 7 p.m.

Contact John Thompson at