Af­ter decades of con­flict be­tween hu­mans and wolves, the Yukon is find­ing its bal­ance with the top preda­tor, which is thriv­ing across the ter­ri­tory

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Eva Hol­land with pho­tog­ra­phy by Peter Mather

Af­ter decades of con­flict be­tween hu­mans and wolves, the Yukon is find­ing its bal­ance with the top preda­tor, which is thriv­ing across the ter­ri­tory

IIT’S A RARE THING to spot a wolf in the Yukon wild. While griz­zlies and black bears for­age on the hill­sides above the high­way, and moose stand knobby-knee-deep i n the murky ponds be­low, putting them­selves on easy dis­play for passersby, the ter­ri­tory’s wolves play hard to get, of­fer­ing only glimpses and hints: a dark flash on the river­bank as you’re pad­dling, a set of over­sized paw prints on the snow-covered sur­face of a frozen lake. But they’re out there. There are an es­ti­mated 5,000 wolves in the Yukon — that’s roughly one wolf per seven hu­man res­i­dents, or one wolf for ev­ery 96 square kilo­me­tres. Their range spans al­most the en­tire ter­ri­tory, from the bo­real for­est to the alpine and Arc­tic tun­dra; only the vast Klu­ane ice­field is wolf-free. While wolves have been driven out and ex­ter­mi­nated in many parts of North Amer­ica and only slowly, painfully, rein­tro­duced in some, in the Yukon they’re still thriv­ing. There’s noth­ing spe­cial or unique about the bi­ol­ogy or phys­i­ol­ogy of the wolves in the ter­ri­tory — they’re grey wolves, Ca­nis lu­pus, like the ones you might find in any num­ber of wild ar­eas. What’s dif­fer­ent, though, is their sur­round­ings: the ecosys­tem they move through so in­vis­i­bly is in­tact. “What’s Clock­wise from above: Prime wolf ter­ri­tory in cen­tral Yukon’s Ogilvie Moun­tains; a paw print on the bank of the Snake River; moose are a top food source for wolves; pups out­side their den in the ter­ri­tory’s south­west cor­ner. re­ally unique is that they’re com­pletely nat­u­rally reg­u­lated,” says Bob Hayes, au­thor of Wolves of the Yukon. Mark O’donoghue, a north­ern re­gional bi­ol­o­gist for the Yukon gov­ern­ment, agrees. “We have a nat­u­ral preda­tor-prey sys­tem,” he says. The wolves and their un­gu­late meals — moose, pri­mar­ily, and cari­bou and moun­tain sheep to a lesser ex­tent — are largely in bal­ance. Hu­mans, of course, haven’t al­ways been con­tent to leave that bal­ance alone. Wolves ex­isted in the Yukon as many as 47,000 years ago, ac­cord­ing to


arche­o­log­i­cal records — since the time when ex­tinct gi­ant mam­mals such as the woolly mam­moth roamed the grass­lands of what we now call Beringia, dur­ing the Pleis­tocene Epoch. But like the mam­moths, the Beringia wolves van­ished some­time dur­ing the tran­si­tion from the Pleis­tocene to the Holocene, 12,000 to 6,000 years ago. Mod­ern wolves, Ca­nis lu­pus, sub­se­quently mi­grated up to the ter­ri­tory from south­ern North Amer­ica as the ice sheets re­ceded, clear­ing the way. Wolves, a source of both fear and re­spect for In­dige­nous Peo­ples in the re­gion, were of­ten featured in im­agery and sto­ries. (Many First Na­tions peo­ple to­day, par­tic­u­larly in south­ern Yukon, be­long to the Wolf Clan.) Wolf-hu­man con­flict did not be­come a ma­jor is­sue in the ter­ri­tory un­til the 20th cen­tury, af­ter the Klondike Gold Rush brought thou­sands of new­com­ers to the area. Af­ter the gold rush, trap­pers in a boom­ing and bust­ing fur in­dus­try be­gan to com­plain that wolves were harm­ing their busi­ness; a grow­ing num­ber of sport and sub­sis­tence hun­ters blamed the wolves for the shrink­ing herds of un­gu­lates, too. In the 1920s, trap­pers were au­tho­rized to set out poi­sonous strych­nine baits for wolves, and a sys­tem of wolf boun­ties was set up. Even­tu­ally, the gov­ern­ment took con­trol of the strych­nine pro­grams, rather than al­low­ing trap­pers to free­lance the process, and ef­forts to poi­son the wolves into sub­mis­sion con­tin­ued for decades. In his book, Hayes de­scribes ar­riv­ing by he­li­copter on the scene of a strych­nine bait site in 1985: “There was 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.” Strych­nine use was re­stricted in 1972, but ac­cord­ing to Hayes, its use con­tin­ued il­le­gally in some quar­ters for sev­eral years, in­clud­ing at the site he vis­ited in 1985 (no one was ever charged in that case). Hayes, a bi­ol­ogy grad who had dreamed of be­ing able to study wolves some­day, ar­rived in the ter­ri­tory dur­ing those years. He wound up work­ing on birds, but was of­fered the po­si­tion of wolf bi­ol­o­gist for the Yukon gov­ern­ment in 1982. The job fell into his lap — he re­mem­bers a su­per­vi­sor ca­su­ally ask­ing, “Do you want to start work­ing on wolves?” The car­ni­vores were a hot topic at the time, with White­horse res­i­dents con­cerned about in­cur­sions into their yards and sub­di­vi­sions, and hun­ters in the South­ern Lakes re­gion of the ter­ri­tory up­set about low moose num­bers. Hayes took the job and kept it for 18 years. He wound up be­ing the face of Yukon gov­ern­ment wolf pol­icy dur­ing an ex­tremely fraught and tur­bu­lent time. He’d been on the job for a decade when, in 1992, the gov­ern­ment launched a new wolf man­age­ment plan. The 1992 plan in­cluded some pro­gres­sive and pro-wolf el­e­ments: for in­stance, it as­serted that wolves had an in­her­ent value in and of them­selves — be­yond their in­flu­ence, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, on hu­man con­cerns such as game avail­abil­ity or the safety of neigh­bour­hood pets. But it also le­gal­ized aerial wolf con­trol as a means to pro­tect un­gu­late pop­u­la­tions for hu­man hunt­ing. In the lead-up to the new plan, pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions were held around the ter­ri­tory to de­ter­mine the fu­ture of Yukon wolves, and tem­pers flared. One speaker at a pub­lic meet­ing had his tires slashed. Af­ter the 1992 plan was adopted, a large-scale aerial wolf-kill pro­gram was launched in the Aishi­hik re­gion, near Klu­ane Na­tional Park and Re­serve and the town of Haines Junc­tion. Hayes, as the gov­ern­ment’s lead wolf bi­ol­o­gist, was re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing the pro­gram. Dozens of wolves were shot from


heli­copters. Ac­tivists from out­side the Yukon mi­grated north, chained them­selves to the doors of the Yukon leg­is­la­ture, held protests on the high­way, and trailed Hayes from his work to his home and back again, view­ing him as Wolf En­emy No. 1. The de­bate over wolves got per­sonal. In a 2011 story in Up Here magazine, “Wolves in our blood,” White­horse-based writer Peter Jick­ling looked back on his own fam­ily’s in­volve­ment in the ter­ri­tory’s wolf wars. His fa­ther was a lead­ing ac­tivist for wolf con­ser­va­tion, and a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee that pro­duced the 1992 plan. He was also a close friend of Hayes, and the younger Jick­ling wrote about grow­ing up along­side the Hayes fam­ily: “The Hayeses and Jick­lings were an en­twined unit.” But the Aishi­hik wolf kill ended the friend­ship per­ma­nently. “One month the Hayes clan was there, the next month, they weren’t,” Jick­ling wrote. “It was tough for an 11-year-old to un­der­stand.” Since the 1990s, the furor over the Yukon’s wolves has mostly died down. Hayes left his post in 2000, and even­tu­ally be­came a po­tent voice against aerial wolf kills and other lethal wolf-man­age­ment meth­ods. Hayes was con­vinc­ing: he’d stud­ied the meth­ods even as he de­ployed them, and he ar­gued that killing wolves was, sim­ply, in­ef­fec­tive in ad­di­tion to be­ing po­ten­tially im­moral and cruel. His re­search found that while large-scale wolf kills did tem­po­rar­ily in­crease the stock of moose in a given area, al­low­ing hun­ters bet­ter chances at game, wolf pop­u­la­tions re­bounded quickly as soon as the killing stopped. “It only lasts as long as you kill wolves,” Hayes says. The re­sult is an ex­pen­sive and bloody cy­cle with limited ben­e­fits to hun­ters. “I be­lieve science has an­swered the ques­tion of the pe­ri­odic, broad-scale wolf

con­trol,” Hayes wrote in Wolves of the Yukon, pub­lished in 2010. “It has limited ben­e­fit to prey pop­u­la­tions, it does not last, and should be rel­e­gated to the past along with poi­son and boun­ties.” In 2012, the Yukon gov­ern­ment re­leased a new wolf man­age­ment plan that put an end to gov­ern­ment-run wolfkill pro­grams. And this time, the plan and the process lead­ing up to its re­lease were rel­a­tively un­con­tro­ver­sial. Ter­ri­to­rial bi­ol­o­gist Mark O’donoghue was one of the au­thors of the new plan. “We went to ev­ery com­mu­nity in the Yukon,” he says, “and I think that was one of the real con­sis­ten­cies we found — and it was a lit­tle bit sur­pris­ing that ev­ery­body pretty much said, ‘We don’t want to see any more of th­ese big he­li­copter wolf-con­trol pro­grams.’ ” The change in pub­lic sen­ti­ment was based on a mix­ture of eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions and con­cerns over the pro­grams’ high costs and low ef­fi­cacy. “Peo­ple did not want to see gov­ern­ment do­ing this.” Now, if there are strong con­cerns about wolf and un­gu­late pop­u­la­tions in a given area, that sub-re­gion’s trap­ping and hunt­ing quo­tas are al­tered ac­cord­ingly — a less blunt in­stru­ment. There is no ex­piry on the 2012 plan, no firm date on when it will be re­opened for pub­lic de­bate. For now, says O’donoghue, the plan is work­ing and the wolf pop­u­la­tion is healthy. It’s hard to say what the fu­ture holds. Bob Hayes thinks that some of the im­pacts of cli­mate change could ben­e­fit wolves, at least tem­po­rar­ily: some of the ter­ri­tory’s tun­dra is grad­u­ally be­com­ing taiga, moose habi­tat, and moose den­sity is in­creas­ing in north­ern Yukon. That’s good news for moose-eaters. Writ­ing in the con­clu­sion of Wolves of the Yukon, Hayes noted that “There are many wolves rang­ing through the Yukon to­day as there were a hun­dred years ago, a thou­sand years ago, five thou­sand years ago.” “They live ev­ery­where around us,” he added. Even if we rarely see them.

A Yukon wolf, the fe­male al­pha of her pack, emerges from the bo­real for­est near Dezadeash Lake, in south­ern Yukon.

A wolf on the hunt for cari­bou in north­ern Yukon’s Barn Moun­tains ( op­po­site) is in­ter­rupted by a north­ern har­rier pro­tect­ing its nest. Sib­lings so­cial­ize near their den ( above).

A fe­male wolf peers over wil­low bushes in the south­ern Yukon ( op­po­site). In northerly Vun­tut Na­tional Park ( right), a young wolf lopes across a snowy landscape.

A lone hiker along the Wind River ( top), where vis­i­tors are of­ten ser­e­naded by a pack that dens nearby. A large black wolf stalks the bo­real for­est ( above).

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