Death of a Modern Wolf
To most of us, wolf attacks appear to happen at random. But the staff of British Columbia’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve know better: the animals are now accustomed to humans, and it’s all our fault.
To most of us, wolf attacks appear to happen at random. But the staff of British Columbia’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve know better.
J.B. MNPKINNON FROM HAKAI
Morning surfers and beach walkers were still arriving at Florencia Bay, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, when staff from Pacific Rim National Park Reserve showed up and politely—this is Canada, after all— asked them to leave. When the coast was clear, literally, Parks Canada sentries blocked off each public access point. Then a two-person team was stationed midway down the bay— which is long and beautiful and curves back on itself at each end, like the razor clam shells scattered on the sand—with 12-gauge shotguns.
They were waiting for a wolf.
They didn’t have to wait long. The tawny male emerged from the forest around noon, recognizable by the ruff of black fur that framed his face. Perhaps sensing the lurking human presence, he ducked back into the forest, just like any normal wolf should.
An afternoon passed, probably the quietest that Flo Bay, as the locals call it, had witnessed in a long time. It was May 28, 2017, and ordinarily would have been a fine day to spend on the coast of British Columbia: sunny, warm, with a light breeze. But this day, resource conservation officers, who are members of the park’s conservation staff, were keeping a grim watch.
At last the black-faced wolf reappeared. By then it was dusk, the sun declining toward the broken tip of Quisitis Point to the northwest. The
animal had circled behind the officers, where it quickly picked up their tracks on the beach. Then it started to move toward them—and there was nothing at all normal about that.
TWO MONTHS EARLIER, I had joined Todd Windle, Pacific Rim’s humanwildlife coexistence specialist, for a walk in wolf country. As we prepared to set out, he armed himself with pepper spray and dropped various noisemakers into his pockets. “If we see wolves, we are actively going to try to scare them away,” he said.
Back in November 2016, Parks Canada had issued a bulletin warning of “bold behaviour” by wolves, including one that faced off with a runner and his two dogs until police sirens from the man’s 911 call finally scared the animal away. Similar incidents had played out sporadically since, and park staff were increasingly concerned that some Pacific Rim wolves had been given food by visitors. The most recent encounters had occurred not far from where Windle and I stood; one involved a wolf that approached a park employee even after a close-range blast from an air horn.
Windle led me to two wildlife trail cameras, each sensitive enough to be triggered by the body heat of even a bird. Yet when Windle scrolled through the photos, which spanned the late winter, most of the wildlife wasn’t wild at all.
“Dog. Dog. Dog. Two dogs,” said Windle, winding back through the months. Each hound and labradoodle was accompanied by its human. Suddenly: a wolf. The way it radiated sensory awareness, even in a photograph, brought the sheer obliviousness of all the people and pets into sharper relief.
FRESH-FACED, chestnut-bearded and every bit the kid who has grown up to do “the coolest job in the world,” Windle is fond of quoting the American ecologist Aldo Leopold: “Wildlife management is comparatively easy, human management difficult.” Pacific Rim may be a rain-soaked tangle of forest, sand and stone holding its own against the sea, but the park’s core, the Long Beach Unit, is just 25 kilometres long as the gull flies and sees 700,000 visitors a year. Immediately north of the protected area is Tofino, an earthy tourist town that still likes to pretend that it doesn’t need traffic lights; to the south is the hamlet of Ucluelet, 10 years behind its northern neighbour but quickly playing catch-up.
For decades, there were no wolves here. Vancouver Island, the largest island on the west coast of North America, once had a genetically distinct wolf population, but it was wiped out during a series of governmentsponsored extermination campaigns in the early 20th century. Yet enough animals endured on British Columbia’s mainland to swim across and
attempt to recolonize the island. Again and again, they were killed off. Only in the 1970s did they begin to survive long enough to reclaim the territory.
Vancouver Island’s wolves are a variety of grey wolf known as coastal wolves or sea wolves. Smaller than most grey wolves, they have shorter, coarser coats that often have reddish or golden tones as well as shades of white, black and grey. In other places, gray wolves hunt mainly ungulates such as moose, elk and deer, but coastal wolves also eat from the sea: waterfowl, otters, shellfish, even seals and sea lions. They fish skilfully for salmon.
Until recently, the planet’s surviving wolves were so closely associated with remote and wild places that they were pre-eminent symbols of wilderness. By the time wolves made their Vancouver Island comeback in the 1970s, it was unavoidable that they would be sharing their habitat with humans. The island’s population was rising toward half a million (it’s close to 800,000 today), with most residents crowded along the shorelines. The coastal wolves moved onto an island of coastal people.
There were other pressures, too. Pacific Rim park, founded in 1970, awakened the world to the rugged, mist-breathing beauty of Vancouver Island’s temperate rainforests. Today, the island is spangled with protected areas busy with fishers, kayakers, beachcombers and surfers.
At the same time, logging companies were rapidly felling unprotected old-growth forests. Each cleared area offered 15 to 20 years of good forage for deer as new growth filled in, and
Deer were starved out of the forests to crowd along shorelines and into rural yards. The wolves followed.
then decades in which dense stands of maturing trees choked out vegetation on the forest floor. As more and more of the island reached the latter stage, deer were starved out of the forests to crowd along shorelines and roadsides, and into rural yards and even towns themselves. The wolves followed.
In Pacific Rim park, wolf sightings were recorded perhaps only a halfdozen times up to 1997. But by the end of 2003, just six years later, the number of worrisome encounters between people and wolves in the Pacific Rim area had accelerated to 51; wolves had killed at least seven
dogs, and one person had been badly wounded in an attack. Remarkably, similar reports began cropping up elsewhere—in Alaska, in the Canadian Rockies, in Ontario. Wolves were in campgrounds, on popular beaches, in backyards. As Bob Hansen, a veteran park warden who was named Pacific Rim’s human-wildlife coexistence specialist in 1997, put it, “We are in a new wolf era.”
That era has a name: the Anthropocene, or Human Epoch, a new geological epoch that scientists argue began around 1950. Its signature is the dominance of human influence on the planet’s systems, from climate change to deforestation to the rise of the chicken as the world’s most numerous bird. Every species now has its Anthropocene story.
And so, as Windle led me into a surreal landscape of rainforest rising from shifting dunes, we were on the trail of the modern wolf. Windle stooped to read a set of tracks. “These are dog, not wolf. Off leash,” he said, and laughed ruefully. “That’s pretty much our number one attractant with wolves.”
The relationship between wolves and dogs is complex: wolves can seem curious about them as canine cousins or attack them as territorial invaders. In Pacific Rim, they mainly, as Windle delicately put it, “target them as a prey item and consume or partially consume them.” In every case that he was aware of, the attacks had been made on dogs that were off their leashes.
TO THE CASUAL READER of daily news, a wolf attack, whether on a dog or a human, is a bolt out of the blue.
On July 2, 2000, a kayaker who was sleeping under the stars awoke to find a wolf sitting on his sleeping bag.
To Pacific Rim staff, such incidents are almost invariably the culmination of a process.
Consider, for example, the only known wolf attack on a person in the Pacific Rim region, which took place in July 2000. The attack happened outside the park, on Vargas Island, a popular destination for the outdoorsy. For more than a year, rumours had circulated that visitors were feeding wolves, including pups. The wolves were becoming habituated, meaning they were losing their natural wariness of humans, and they’d learned that they
could scavenge our litter, raid our supplies or even be offered treats.
“They had been hand-fed pieces of a whale carcass that was sitting there,” Windle told me, remembering one of the more worrisome reports. In the weeks leading up to the attack, at least four serious encounters occurred between people and aggressive, fearless or food-seeking wolves in the area. Finally, on July 2, 2000, a kayaker sleeping under the stars awoke in the night to find a wolf sitting on the end of his sleeping bag. Another camper scared it away, but it returned, this time pulling on the sleeping bag with its teeth. When the kayaker began shouting and fending off the wolf, it attacked. By the time the wolf was chased away again, the man had bite wounds to his back, hands and head. It took 50 stitches to close the cuts on his scalp.
The following morning, conservation officers killed two wolves on Vargas Island. If they had been humans, we would have said that they were “known to the authorities”—they were the food-conditioned pups, all grown up. WHEN WOLVES RETURNED to Vancouver Island in the 1970s, they didn’t just find a different landscape—the people, too, were changing. The older settlers, prone to shooting wolves on sight, were giving way to a new breed of human that actively wanted to interact with them. Around Pacific Rim today, stories abound of people who tried to lure wolves into their basements with dog food or approached wolves to take selfies.
The strategy for peaceful coexistence with wolves seems straightforward.
Many people believe that getting close to wild animals is a way of living life to the fullest.
Keep a clean camp. Never ever feed wolves or leave food out. Avoid hiking alone and at dawn, dusk and after nightfall. Keep your children close and your dog on a leash. Similar rules, focused on food storage and garbage management, radically reduced conflicts between humans and bears 20 years ago.
Many visitors follow these guidelines for wolf coexistence, but more than enough do not. Toughest of all for people to accept is that they should frighten away wolves they see, at any distance: “Scare, don’t stare” is
a phrase coined by the mayor of Ucluelet. Instead, deluded by forces ranging from Disney to wildlife documentaries, from spiritualism to social media, many believe that getting close to wild animals is a way of living life to the fullest.
Windle understands the magnetic appeal of wolves. Earlier in his career, he guided wildlife watching tours, and if he saw a wolf, he’d linger, basking in the animal’s wild mystery. Only later did he realize that, while a wolf is a rare sight to modern human eyes, a modern wolf may be encountering people all the time. “To have an interaction with a wolf is pretty powerful,” Windle told me. “Every person calls it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They don’t realize that the wolf has that same once-in-a-lifetime experience that day, and then another once-in-alifetime experience later that day, and again the next.”
He stopped cold: he’d found wolf tracks, fresh ones. Even to my untrained eye, they were easy to distinguish from dog prints, not so much for their large size (though some nearly match the span of my hand) as their greater sense of purpose—the straight-line efficiency of an animal going about the daily business of survival. We followed the tracks for only a few paces before they were overlaid with boot and dog prints. When we emerged onto a beach, I promptly counted 20 people on foot, plus seven surfers and a dog. A quiet shoulderseason day. Windle took in the scene.
“In many ways,” he said, “I think the wolves show a lot of restraint.”
While a wolf is a rare sight to human eyes, a modern wolf may be
encountering people all the time.
Three days later, in this same spot, a wolf attacked a Jack Russell terrier, which walked away with only a broken jaw after its owner and several other people drove the animal off. Nonetheless, it was the first known attack by a wolf on a leashed dog in Pacific Rim’s history. The wolf in question was described as a large male with a black face.
TWO MONTHS PASSED. Then, on May 14, just two weeks before the pair of resource conservation officers would be deployed there with 12-gauge shotguns, a young woman named Levana
Mastrangelo walked down Flo Bay beach to check another wildlife camera.
Mastrangelo had placed the camera as part of a geography field course she was taking, choosing as her site the mouth of Lost Shoe Creek, where water spills out of the rainforest to rush across the sand.
Mastrangelo removed the camera and, joined by three other students, sat down to load the photos onto her laptop. Then she happened to glance across the stream and saw a living, breathing wolf.
“I took a couple photos, and it just felt really wrong,” Mastrangelo told me. “I put down my camera and I just kind of watched her, and that’s when I got the message. And the message was that this wolf is very sad. This wolf needs help. It was saying, ‘Help me. I’m going to die.’”
Mastrangelo was more inclined to think deeply about the encounter than
Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ, most of us might be. Her mother had been born into the or Ucluelet First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the southern half of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, but as a child had been removed and placed in Canada’s residential school system. Only in the past three years, as a university student, had Mastrangelo begun to reconnect with her Yuułu ił at roots.
Working as a researcher for the Yuułu ił at government and later as its lands and resources coordinator, Mastrangelo had learned that her family came from Quisitis Point. She also Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ. learned that wolves are sacred to the
In fact, they are the central figures in one of the world’s most extraordinary cultural rites.
“I put my camera down and watched the wolf,” says Levana Mastrangelo. “It was
saying, ‘Help me. I’m going to die.’”
Anthropologists have compared the Tlo:kwa:na, or Wolf Ritual, to similarly epic Indigenous ceremonies around North America, such as the Hopi Snake Dance and Sioux Sun Dance. Performed by various Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island and the Washington coast, the ritual can last 10 days or more. In it, people take on the role of wolves in order to capture young people for initiation into important cultural practices.
“In our traditions, we don’t kill
Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ wolves,” said Mastrangelo, who now represents the in ongoing
talks about wolves with Parks Canada and other governing bodies in the area.
Written records from the early 1900s Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ describe the rite’s importance to the
town of Hitacu, just across a narrow inlet from the broader community of Ucluelet. In those days, Hitacu’s relationship with wolves was so close that Tlo:kwa:na initiates, howling as a part of the ceremony, might be joined by a chorus of living wolves in the nighttime forest, and incorrect performance of the rite—even singing the wrong words to a song—was said to cause wolf attacks. It’s a tradition, Mastrangelo explains, that asks us to look first at human behaviour when wolves’ behaviour changes. From the perspective of Tlo:kwa:na, human-wolf conflict is a message to think harder about human-wolf coexistence.
As Mastrangelo contemplated her encounter with the wolf at Lost Shoe Creek, she found more and more meaning in the wolves’ behaviour in Pacific Rim. She realized, for example, that November was the traditional season of the Wolf Ritual, and it had been November when Parks Canada issued its warning about “bold behaviour” by wolves, which led into months of human-wolf conflict.
“That’s when they made their first appearance. That’s when they made their first kind of attack, their first initiation, like, ‘Hey, we’re here right now, and this is what’s happening,’” Mastrangelo said. “That was actually more profound than people may think.”
ON MAY 28, THE TWO resource conservation officers were waiting on Flo Bay. That morning, a wolf had attacked a
Parks Canada doesn’t reveal the names of staff who kill wolves. It’s
an unpleasant, last-resort act.
golden retriever as it was being walked—the park’s second attack by a wolf on a leashed dog. The incident took place on the beach below the Green Point Campground, one of Pacific Rim’s busiest locations.
Once again, the wolf involved was a large male with a black face—a wolf with a history. He had been seen heading south, toward Flo Bay.
Parks Canada doesn’t reveal the names of staff who kill wolves in such circumstances. It’s an unpleasant, last-resort act, and many people are typically involved in the decision.