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Lose wolves, lose the wilderness

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.

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