Wolves vi­tal to en­vi­ron­ment of the north

Winnipeg Free Press - - TANK - MARTIN ZEILIG

ALTHOUGH he has stud­ied wolves (among other crea­tures) in the wild for many years now, wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Gil­bert Proulx is still in awe of those iconic and elu­sive apex preda­tors.

He refers to the wolf as a “spirit an­i­mal.” Proulx, the di­rec­tor of science at Alpa Wildlife and Re­search Man­age­ment Ltd. in Sher­wood Park, Alta., is a self-de­scribed “field-ori­ented sci­en­tist” with an in­ter­est in wildlife ecol­ogy and man­age­ment.

He was one of four key­note speak­ers at the Sec­ond In­ter­na­tional Wolf and Car­ni­vore Con­fer­ence, held Oct. 18-19 in Thomp­son. The first such con­fer­ence was held in 2012.

About 50 peo­ple from Canada, the U.S. and Rus­sia at­tended the con­fer­ence, which was or­ga­nized by Spirit Way Inc., a non-profit com­mu­nity-based or­ga­ni­za­tion whose man­date is to de­velop Thomp­son tourist ini­tia­tives and com­mu­nity-pride projects (in­clud­ing a scenic 2.5-kilo­me­tre walk­ing and bik­ing path­way from the Her­itage North Mu­seum to the Miles Hart Bridge).

The con­fer­ence was opened with a bless­ing by Cree el­der Jack Robin­son, who said Thomp­son is a “truly won­der­ful” com­mu­nity and a per­fect place to set up a wolf cen­tre. “If you learn about wolves, you learn about your­self,” said Proulx, whose ad­dress at the con­fer­ence was ti­tled,

“Are wolves re­spon­si­ble for moose and cari­bou de­cline?”

By chance, the con­fer­ence took place during Wolf Awar­ness Week, a time set aside “to cel­e­brate these im­por­tant an­i­mals, high­light the threats to their sur­vival, and spread the word about what you can do to help wolves stay pro­tected and help hu­mans learn to live along­side them,” ac­cord­ing to on­line in­for­ma­tion from the U.S.-based or­ga­ni­za­tion De­fend­ers of Wildlife.

“We knew that there was a wolf aware­ness week, but it was purely by co­in­ci­dence that the con­fer­ence was held at the same time,” said Volker Beck­mann, the event’s man­ager and a vol­un­teer project di­rec­tor with Spirit Way since its in­cep­tion in 2004.

“We wanted to give peo­ple the op­tion to go to Churchill to see po­lar bears be­fore­hand and to see the north­ern lights.”

He noted that Thomp­son is start­ing to be­come rec­og­nized as a cen­tre for wolf and car­ni­vore ex­per­tise, and added that Spirit Way is work­ing on a strate­gic plan for a Wolf Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence.

An in­for­ma­tion sheet that was in­cluded in the fact-filled folder handed out to all con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants listed 11 rea­sons why Thomp­son and re­gion is known as the Wolf Cap­i­tal of the World.

Among those facts are that thou­sands of wolves roam in the wilder­ness of north­ern Man­i­toba, the pub­lic wolf art on dis­play in Thomp­son (specif­i­cally the 10-storey Robert Bate­man wolf mu­ral), dozens of beau­ti­fully painted wolf stat­ues and a large rock-face wolf sculp­ture that re­flect the in­ter­est, sup­port and re­spect for this an­i­mal species.

Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples have “a strong his­tory, re­spect and con­nec­tion” for the wolf in their cre­ation sto­ries, and the con­struc­tion of a world­class wolf ex­hibit at the new Bo­real Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre will let peo­ple see and learn about live wolves year-round.

“We want to cre­ate a wolf econ­omy to cap­ture the tourists go­ing to and from Churchill,” Beck­mann ex­plained.

All of the speak­ers at the con­fer­ence, in­clud­ing sev­eral grad­u­ate stu­dents and wildlife man­agers, gave con­cise Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tions.

Be­sides Proulx, the other key­note pre­sen­ters were Rus­sian po­lar-bear spe­cial­ist Nikita Ovsyanikov, who spoke on po­lar bears and cli­mate change; Erin McCloskey, a bi­ol­o­gist and the au­thor of the 2011 book Wolves in Canada; and U.S. wildlife bi­ol­o­gist David Mech, whose pre­sen­ta­tion was ti­tled “Are wolves re­spon­si­ble for moose and cari­bou de­cline?”

Sadie Parr, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Wolf Aware­ness, gave a terse Skype re­port on western Canada’s “mis­man­age­ment” of wolves.

She noted that wolf-re­duc­tion ex­per­i­ments in Al­berta and Bri­tish Columbia au­tho­rized the shoot­ing of wolves from he­li­copters “in fail­ing ex­per­i­ments” to in­crease de­clin­ing cari­bou num­bers un­der the guise of con­ser­va­tion.

“Be­gin­ning in 2005, around Al­berta’s Lit­tle Smoky cari­bou herd range, more than 1,000 wolves have been killed in stran­gling snares, gunned down from he­li­copters and poi­soned us­ing elk and moose meat laced with strych­nine,” Parr said.

Mar­ion Mor­berg, the mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing pres­i­dent of Spirit Way, em­pha­sized that the con­fer­ence re­newed her pas­sion for Thomp­son as the wolf cap­i­tal.

“Be­cause we all live here, we’re all very naive to the is­sues about wolves and the en­vi­ron­ment,” Mor­berg said.

“How for­tu­nate our com­mu­nity is to have a vir­gin, in­tact bo­real for­est. So, it’s vi­tal that we pay at­ten­tion, oth­er­wise it will dis­ap­pear on us. This is one of the last places on Earth for wolves to roam wild. For me, per­son­ally, it’s all about keep­ing our for­est in­tact and healthy.”

She also be­lieves that not only would jobs be cre­ated for the North, but wildlife tourists and re­searchers would be at­tracted from around the world.

One came away from the con­fer­ence im­pressed with the vi­sion, en­ergy and com­mit­ment of those in­volved with Spirit Way. They are play­ing to their strengths as a com­mu­nity set within the bo­real for­est. It could be a model for 21st-cen­tury eco­tourism devel­op­ment in other parts of Man­i­toba.

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