World Wolf Congress

By Andrew Ross

Dealing with wolves is a complicated matter. In addition to the intricacies in the science of wolves, there are the challenges faced by ranchers, hunters, trappers, the tourism industry, parks officials and the government. The theme of the first World Wolf Congress, “Bridging Science and Community,” is an acknowledgement of this.

The Congress–which recently took place at the Banff Centre–was intended to bring together not only scientists, but also other "stakeholders" with an interest in the way wolves are managed.

"We’ve invited people from the community that don’t normally come to this kind of a scientific meeting," explained Dr. Carolyn Callaghan, one of the congress’ main organizers. "We invited ranchers and trappers and hunters and artists and First Nations people, educators… so it’s the whole broad spectrum of the community coming together. And science is very often not disseminated to the community, so this is an opportunity for that to take place, and to facilitate discussions."

These discussions are needed because wolves have a long and often antagonistic history with humans. Wolves are large predators, and their preferred prey are elk–although when elk are not present, they will eat whatever large ungulates (hoofed animals) are available, including animals as large as moose and bison.

This causes two problems.

First, most National Parks are in wooded areas, such as Banff and the other mountain parks, but large ungulates graze on grasses, not trees. This means the majority of ungulates live in the prairie foothills outside the park boundaries. Since wolves tend to follow their food supply, they too are far more numerous outside the protected area of the parks.

The second problem is the major cattle-raising industry, which just happens to involve large ungulates. Thus, the cattle need the same kind of grazing land as the wolf’s natural prey species. Unfortunately, if elk are scarce, wolves will eat cattle. This tends to decrease the wolf’s popularity amongst ranchers.

So, wolves don’t live where people want them to (inside the forested, protected parkland), they live where people don’t want them to (on the prime grazing land in the foothills).

Thanks in large part to television wildlife specials, many people now take the view that wolves, like all apex predators, are an important part of the ecosystem. While they are an important part of the system, this does not imply that what is good for the wolves will be good for the system as a whole. In the Canadian context at least, there are other large carnivores in the system, and several complicating factors.

In addition to wolves, the Foothills ecosystem includes cougars and bears as top predators. If prey numbers are fixed, more wolves equals fewer cougars and bears, and vice versa. If wolf numbers increase, they tend to cause elk numbers to decrease. Fewer grazing elk means more birch sapling growth, which increases the rate of forest expansion. This in turn diminishes elk and ground-nesting bird habitat, while increasing beaver and tree-nesting bird habitat. All these interactions represent just one strand in the complex web of interrelationships in the ecosystem.

Even once we’ve sorted out the interrelationships and the human interests, another problem remains. People tend to think the appropriate course of action is preserving wild areas the way they are, but ecosystems continually change through natural processes.

For example, photos of Banff taken 100 years ago show there were relatively small areas of pine forest in the region, and these were generally well within the boundaries of the park. Today, the pine forest has expanded to cover all but the peaks of the mountains, and has spread far into the surrounding foothills. The question for policy makers is whether we should keep things the way they are now, try to return to the way things were "historically" (at the time of settlement), or allow them to progress as they are.

It is a difficult question to answer.

When the subject was broached in a panel discussion, the divergence of opinion was such that one could see tempers beginning to flare. Returning the environment to a "historical" state is problematic primarily because there is not a single historical state of the environment, so whichever state we choose will be arbitrary. If we go back far enough, the mountains were flat and Alberta was a tropical inland sea.

Keeping things the way they are now is troublesome as well. Natural, unmanaged ecosystems change, which is one of the driving forces behind evolution. Allowing the pro-cesses currently altering the environment to continue would be the most natural thing to do, but it runs counter to the interests of all industries in the region other than tourism.

What is needed is direction. This entails government playing an active role rather than sitting on the sidelines while the scientists, ranchers and hunters argue amongst themselves. Government representatives were conspicuous by their lack of involvement in the panel discussion. Congress organizers attributed this to an unwillingness to allow public servants to comment publicly on potentially controversial topics at an event attended by the media.

Dr. Callaghan was quick to counter suggestions of non-involvement by government, but when asked about the lack of government speakers on the panel, she relented.

"They were here as delegates, but the Government of Alberta chose not to allow their biologists to participate in the panel," Callaghan stressed. "So the comment would be, it’s a shame that–how can I put this diplomatically–we would hope for better participation [by government] in the future."

It would appear a human resolution is a long way off. In the meantime, the wolves will take care of themselves as long as we let them.