As a species, the wolf in North America has faced the twilight of its existence again and again. Upon the earliest arrival of western Europeans on this continent, wolves were seen as dangerous, vermin, even evil. Public perception was certainly not aided by stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” ” The Three Little Pigs,” and numerous films where they are portrayed as blood-thirsty man-eaters. Little was known of the incredibly sensitive nature of the wolf, its close family bonds, intricate social structure within packs, and positive impacts on the ecosystems they call home until those truly concerned about the extinction of such noble creatures began studying their behaviours.
And it truly is a recent change – a slow shift in the belief that the wolf is evil, to the now well-known fact that wolves play an integral role in keeping the environment in balance: hunting the weak, keeping herds of deer, elk, and other animals in check, protecting foliage from over-grazing; providing food for other animals that reap the benefits from leftovers of wolf hunts; and competing – quite successfully – with other predators, keeping their numbers in balance as well.
Politics and the Almighty Dollar: the True Threat to Wolves
But perceptions are difficult to change, especially where dollars are involved. Even in very recent years, wildlife “control” officers in the U.S. have embarked on wolf killing sprees in support of ranchers who have deemed the wolf a threat to livestock. Even compensation programs do a disservice to the wolf as most often livestock on open ranges die of many other causes, yet the wolf is blamed. Even if a wolf is found to be feeding on a carcass, only a forensic biologist would have the skill to determine if the wolf or wolf pack was responsible for the kill. Through compensation programs, ranchers will often insist lost livestock were as a result of wolf kills so they may be compensated, attributing many more livestock deaths to wolf hunts than is accurate. In true eye-for-an-eye fashion, a wolf thought to have killed livestock, is killed by wildlife control officers.
The Wolf as Endangered Species
The wolf in North America has been listed and de-listed as an endangered species several times in recent decades, bringing wolves in and out of protected status – often as a result of political pressure and faulty legislation as opposed to any good science. This has led to approved hunting programs where hundreds of wolves in recent years have been hunted just close enough to extinction – but not too close that they once again receive protected status.
The Hidden Life of Wolves
I spotted in my local library a book with a cover that seemed to stare right into my soul, the photo on its front of a wolf, its eyes staring intently at me, not menacingly, just with intent, wanting to know more about me and wanting to let me know more about it. The Hidden Life of Wolves (2013, National Geographic Society) profiles the life of the Sawtooth Pack, a group of wolves introduced into a large, enclosed area within the Sawtooth mountains of northern Idaho. Authors (and filmmakers) Jim and Jamie Dutcher describe their experiences observing the pack, living closely with them, learning their social behaviours, and seeing first-hand the truly positive affect they had on the ecosystem around them. They also describe the larger context of the wolf “issue,” the reintroduction of wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, and the subsequent benefits of such. All the while, bringing into focus the complex issues involved in man’s coexistence with the wolf.
My Relationship with Wolves
Despite those who believe wolves are to be feared, it is actually an incredibly rare experience and true privilege to see a wolf in the wild. I can say I have been so lucky.
Cycling along the Icefields Parkway near Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park in late April, 2016, I noticed a row of cars parked alongside the highway. As I approached and noticed several people standing outside their vehicles, cameras pointed to the edge of the woods, I of course thought, “bear.” Getting a little closer, I recognized the familiar dark fur of a black bear browsing through the foliage on the side of the road. I’ve seen many bears in Jasper and it is always special, but being on my bicycle I decided to keep pedalling.
Having had a long enough ride on this day (an incredibly sunny, unusually warm day for this early in the year in the Rocky Mountains, allowing me to put in a good 3 hour ride on my road bike on perhaps the most picturesque highway in the world) I decided to turn back about 20 km south of Athabasca Falls. Arriving near the same spot where the black bear had been, I slowed to peer into the ditch to see if it was still nearby (though the cars had now gone). However, my eye caught movement on the other side of the road, about 20 metres into the low brush. Expecting to see the familiar hump of black fur, I was surprised to see a clump of grey fur moving through the foliage. Slowing nearly to a stop, I looked closer and was astonished to see a large, grey wolf emerge from the brush, staring at me as intently – perhaps more – as I was at him (or perhaps her).
Often, people get excited thinking they’ve seen a wolf, when in fact it is a much more common coyote. I’ve seen many coyotes, and even with its thicker winter coat a coyote is nowhere near the size of a wolf. This was no coyote.
Amazed at both my incredible luck in seeing this elusive creature, and bad luck for not having a camera with me, I stopped pedalling and kept gliding as slowly as possible. Expecting him to dart off into the woods upon seeing me, I was amazed at what happened next: Staring at me with a level of intensity I’d never seen in a wild animal before, the wolf started trotting after me. Just a few feet from this incredibly beautiful animal, rarely seen in the wild, I felt truly privileged. Yet it seemed so odd. I knew wolves wanted little – if anything – to do with humans. They are incredibly elusive. It was then that I had an uneasy feeling. Perhaps it was simply a level of uncertainty, being alone on this road with this wild animal now following me, but I almost instinctively picked up my pace. As he crossed the road behind me, still trotting and getting a little closer, I picked up my pace a bit more, actually glad that this was a downhill section of the road. As I increased my distance, the wolf seemed to lose interest and simply continued into the ditch on the other side of the road.
I still don’t know what to make of this encounter. I’m most certain it was curiosity that drove this wolf to come closer, even follow me for a bit. I have even thought I was silly for feeling as I did. I’ve made the joke to others that perhaps this wolf thought I was an elk on a bicycle! But I forgive myself, there on the road with such an impressive – and seemingly confident – creature staring right through me, following me as I rode along on my bicycle feeling quite exposed. I’m just glad to have been one of the few on this earth today to have seen a wolf in the wild.
Tracks in the Snow: Wolves and Me
It was late winter 2015 when I first came closest to wild wolves. Hiking the trail up to Dorothy Lake just west of Jasper townsite, snowshoes strapped to my back, I noticed tracks in newly fallen snow along the trail. The snow was deep, the tracks not well enough defined for me to tell if they were dog, coyote, wolf, or – slightly concerning to me – cougar.
Arriving at Dorothy Lake itself, I was glad to see the newly fallen snow had created a fresh, white canvas for me to lay down my own tracks. I felt truly blessed to be the only human there for many miles around, and certainly the only one to cross the lake since a thick, fresh snowfall had left a quilt-like covering across its expanse. But though I may have been the only person around, a pair of individuals HAD crossed the lake just before me: Starting from the end of the same trail that had led me to this frozen vista, a pair of tracks led across the lake. Deciding to follow their path, I strapped on my snowshoes and headed out. Following the tracks across the lake, I marvelled at how recently they must have been laid. I could see the tracks reaching the other side of the lake. I had just missed seeing the wolves that had gone before me.
Confirming the Presence of Wolves
Wanting to be sure of what I had been tracking, once down from the hike I decided to email Parks Canada biologists to see if these had in fact been wolf tracks. From their reply, I was delighted to learn of the Pyramid pack:
Sent Monday, March 2, 2015 to firstname.lastname@example.org
“Hi there. I was snowshoeing Sunday, March 1, 2015 up to Dorothy Lake and spotted these tracks (see the attached photos). The tracks followed the trail a bit then onto and across Dorothy Lake. There appeared to be two sets crossing the lake.
Can you tell me if these are wolf, coyote, or otherwise?
Reply from one of Parks Canada’s Biologists based in Jasper:
These look like wolf tracks… This might have been from the Pyramid pack (a pack of 2 or 3 grey wolves that cover some of the main valley). They would use the area where you were hiking all the way over to the Maligne hostel and probably north and south of town too. We don’t know a lot about those two wolves; they are not collared, although they may be in the future. We monitor wolves for a couple of reasons – learning how they respond to human tracks (they often choose to walk along trails that have been packed, especially if they’re moving uphill) and getting an estimate of wolf density (number of wolves over 1000km²),
Thanks for reporting your sighting!”
Wolves: A Future Unknown
Thanks to passionate wildlife ecologists and conservationists, we now know of wolves’ family-oriented social behaviours , of the critical role they play in keeping wild ecosystems healthy, and despite centuries of public perception we can see they are of little or no threat to us at all. Having been one of the few to have experienced wolves in the wild, I can say that not only for the sake of our wild spaces, but for our own, I certainly hope that wolves are NOT in the twilight of their existence, but rather at the dawn of a new beginning.