The Last Wild Wolves

Words by Ian McAllister / Photography by Ian McAllister

The rain pounded down on the roof of my boat; it sounded like a gorilla banging away up there. At the same time, the storm-force gust hit the boat broadside and almost threw me out of my bunk. But I knew that the salmon were now finally entering the forest and would get to their spawning grounds. And the wolves would be waiting for them.

This had been the driest season on the central coast since records had been kept – the driest for a hundred years. It was the first time in Waglisla had ever seen so many snowless mountain tops from the village. Even the lake fed systems had not contained enough water for the salmon to migrate upriver, so they had been pulling at the mouth. Marine predators such as seals, sea lions, halibut, whales, eagles, and humans had taken their fill.

I had been gone only a few months from the Fish Trap Pack’s territory, but I sailed up the inlet, I could sense that things had changed. It was strangely quiet.

With the Fish Traps Again

I stopped off to check the pack’s den site. I knew they were absent before I had even set the anchor, and not just because I couldn’t hear or see any birds in the forest. This den island does not have the salmon resources that the neighbouring one does, so before the salmon migrate upriver, the Fish Traps change location and swim across the channel to the spawning grounds. Islands that provide greater spawning density tend to support more resident competitors such as bears. The wolves thus avoid such islands in the spring and early summer while the pups are vulnerable.

The swim would be the longest the pups had taken so far, but I knew they would have made this aquatic journey with ease.

I was fortunate enough to watch the wolves make the swim one August. I can’t usually observe every pack member at once, but they were all on hand for this move. They made the crossing in single file, with adults bringing up the stern and the bow of the wolf flotilla. Wolves swim across channels and inlets as we cross sidewalks, looking both ways to make sure there is no oncoming traffic.

Many times I have come around the bend in a motorboat and unintentionally forced a wolf to turn around and abandon a crossing. Wolves need to be cautious, since moose and deer swimming between islands have been swallowed by orcas, and some humans armed with guns or gaffs would show little mercy.

When the wolves reached the opposite shore that August, they shook off the salt water and looked back the way they had come, waiting for Three Legs to arrive. I could only imagine how this new experience would be for the pups – a different set of islands, an expansion of their territorial world, a new playground to explore.

Back in the present, at the tide line I located the main trail to the den site. Just one fresh set of adult tracks crossed the mud flat; there were no pup tracks anywhere. Since thousands of tracks are typically associated with active rendezvous and den sites, it was clear that the pack had moved on in search of salmon.

I followed the trail along the edge of a small lake and approached the den. The forest understory on these islands varies from place to place, but I have found that wolves choose den locations in fairly thick vegetation, especially amid salal bushes, which crackle loudly, like rice paper, when you walk through them. It is almost impossible to approach the den site undetected.

The grass in front of the den was worn down to bare earth from the pups’ play-fighting, sleeping, digging, and exploring. A maze of trails led in and out of the base of two large, gnarled cedars, which were leaning over the tannin-darkened lake. The tops of fallen cedars poked out of the water, their bases secured deep in the muddy bottom. Gulls made their nests in the secure, mossy tops of these partially submerged logs. A loon called from the other side of the lake.

I have been to more than thirty den sites on the coast, and although they are almost always located in beautiful spots, this one was especially so. It was exquisite. Although I am sure that the pack chose this location because of its access to prey and fresh water and for security and ease of defence, I still couldn’t help thinking that a more aesthetically appealing place could not be found. It appears that the needs of wolves, when choosing a den site, converge with our view of beauty in the natural world. But it also makes sense that we associate beauty with necessity and utility.

Trails radiated from the den. Large, round balls of green and red mosses, a metre (three feet) in diameter, were scattered about and served as perfect day beds for the adults. The roots of the multiheaded red cedar that provided the support structure for the den below were covered in teeth marks from the pups’ insatiable desire to chew everything in sight. Among these day beds, rounded out from the warm bodies of the wolves, a rivulet of water cascaded down through moss and grass.

The den smelled dry and comforting. I shone a flashlight inside and felt the floor, which was hard packed, its edges covered with soft, shredded cedar bark, twigs, grass, and dry moss. Pup fur was scattered everywhere, and the larger guard hairs of the mother were snagged here and there on the roof of the den.

This site had been used as shelter for enough generations of the Fish Trap Pack’s offspring to buff the root-formed entrance smooth. At a now-famous den site in the Arctic, radio dating of bones from prey suggested that it had been used by wolves over a seven-hundred-year period. I looked around at some of these cedar trees and knew that seven hundred years was not an uncommon age for them.

Deer bones and feathers from what looked like a Canada goose were scattered about outside the den. I wondered whether the wolves would use the den the following year. They seem to reuse den sites but only intermittently, since the pack changes its breeding female and each has her own idea of the ideal den site.

In southeast Alaska, Dr. Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game located twenty-four den sites between 1993 and 2004. All were in old-growth forests and about a hundred metres from fresh water, and all were carved into the basement of an old tree. Only one of the dens was found under a fallen log.

Reanchoring the boat across the channel, I launched the canoe and paddled slowly into the bay. The excited calls of ravens, gulls, and eagles could be heard upriver. Salmon were jumping all around me, boiling over on the surface like river upwellings.

After I reached the beach, I hoped that I could make it to my spot in the forest quietly, without causing a disturbance. Turning towards the forest, I stopped abruptly. Just past the golden and red crabapple trees, Ernest was sitting, waiting. As usual, he had placed himself right in my path, doing what Ernest does best – staring intently. There was no doubt that he recognized me.

After a quiet greeting, I circled off to one side of him. I knew I was not going to win a staring contest with the self-proclaimed gatekeeper of the pack. He had figured out at an early age (all of a few months before) that howling, growling, or generally being a wolf was not the way to discourage me and that alerting the adults did not elicit much interest.

I was pretty sure that the rest of the pack was pleased to have Ernest off their hands for a while, and if the oddball creature hanging out under the tree (me) was happy to entertain him, so be it. He was convinced that if the pack were to be protected, he would have to do it himself, so his general strategy was to boldly plant himself in clear view, sit on his haunches, and with both ears pointed forward and a furrow in his brow, stare directly at me without flinching. I heard somewhere that a human can outstare any mammal on the planet, and I have found this to be true – except with Ernest.

He was a peculiar wolf even as a pup, frequently straying from the pack and exploring the estuary on his own while the other pups preferred to stay in a group. He did not seem to be positioned low on the social scale; in fact, when all the pups were together he appeared to be the dominant or alpha sibling. I think he just had an independent streak in his personality and liked to sort out things for himself.

Watching him from inside the tree line, I wondered what role he would carve out in the complex and very social hierarchy in this family. Were strength and physical dominance more important than intelligence and social aptitude? Ernest seemed to have it all. I suspect that, as with our best leaders, a combination of these traits works best. Maybe some pups are destined to lead from an early age.

The responsibility appeared enormous. The alpha provides leadership for up to fifteen individuals, maintaining pack cohesion, strategizing hunts, and deciding, usually on an empty stomach, whether to move in search of prey or to remain patient, hoping for a successful hunt. Leadership among wolves is complex, and it varies according to season and pack. What seems to be common, however, is sex-based roles. Top males lead other males, usually in association with hunting and defending territories. But many times, as I have found when close to pups, it is the ranking female who takes the lead in defending the pack. One of the most important decisions to be made is the location of the birth den, the core site for the pack for many months, and it is chosen by the breeding female.

Ernest, for all his quirkiness, was also downright beautiful, with dark, striped highlights in his coat, bright grey-white eyes, and a swagger that separated him from his siblings. I had never encountered a young wolf like him before. He had such an unnerving sense of earnestness that he made me feel a bit sheepish for intruding on the pack. But once I was past him and settled in my spot hidden away under the trees, I very much admired him for it. It was as if he were trying not to be one of the pack, even if just for a little while. This behavioural variation is what makes wolf observation so interesting; each pack has such a diverse cast of characters.

Ernest’s staring strategy was quite effective. We eventually agreed that I would stick to my one spot underneath a patch of spruces and hemlocks, instead of wandering around the fishing rendezvous site, and in return he would stop staring at me.

Although I wanted to push the boundaries of this relationship with Ernest, I know that a human-habituated wolf, one that naively, unconditionally trusts people, will not live to be an old wolf, not even in this remote part of the world. Wolves here arguably suffer the least amount of human persecution in all of North America –  possibly in the whole world – but they still must be cautious.

Here, wolves are almost always killed indiscriminately and opportunistically. There are no limits to the number a commercial guide-outfitter can kill. Resident hunters are allowed to kill three wolves per year but do not need a special licence, though one is required for every other large-mammal hunt and even for geese and ducks. Because reporting is not mandatory in British Columbia, no one knows for sure how many wolves are killed by hunters, but it is estimated that about two to three per cent of rain forest wolves throughout the Great Bear Rainforest die this way each year. Closer to communities and roads, the number killed rises significantly.

The temperate climate means rain forest wolves have a less commercially desirable coat than wolves in the colder Far North or the interior of Canada, so trapping coastal wolves is not considered economical. But if deer or bear hunters, fishers, loggers, or landowners see a wolf, they may shoot to kill. Some guide-outfitters advertise wolf hunts and pride themselves on their ability to locate and kill wolves. Many hunters I talk to say they are teaching the wolves a lesson – as if a dead animal, no matter how intelligent, can learn a lesson.

Some hunters offer the excuse that they are helping to boost deer populations by killing wolves; they call this “ungulate enhancement.” But modern work on disease in ungulates has shown that populations without wolves and other predators are much more likely to suffer catastrophic disease outbreaks. In addition, wolves are obligate carnivores and must eat meat continually. If deer decline, so will the wolves, often quickly, thus allowing deer to bounce back in large numbers. This fact is an elementary truism of predator-prey dynamics.

On some of B.C.’s outer islands, smaller than the Surf Pack’s islands, wolves can reduce deer numbers while maintaining their own population by then switching to a marine-based diet. Such a diet has its limits, however, and the wolves will often move to other islands or die.

When humans kill wolves, the wolf population will often retreat and reproduce in greater numbers. Humans form the only species on the planet that eats itself out of house and home. Easter Island and the Pleistocene overkill are two such lessons, but our current unsustainable existence on Earth may be the most relevant example.