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Working Among the Wolves - Hakai Institute

Working Among the Wolves

Wolves evoke terror in city dwellers, but do field scientists have anything to fear?

Erin Rechsteiner was fast asleep on a Calvert Island beach when she had a dream that she was surrounded by wolves, up close, sniffing her. When she woke up and looked around, she saw that perhaps it hadn’t been a dream after all: there were three sets wolf tracks adjacent to her sleeping spot.

“I’ve never had them threatening me,” says Rechsteiner, a marine ecologist and research associate at the Hakai Institute. “They’re usually pretty shy and curious.”

Hakai researcher and coastal wolf expert Chris Darimont of the University of Victoria’s Applied Conservation Science Lab agrees.

Photo by Brian Starzomski

“Not in written history has there been a recorded wolf attack [on the central coast],” he says, adding when the wolves have attacked humans elsewhere in the province it’s been because they have gotten used to humans as a source of food, or they have been starving.

“Aggression is not behind the very few attacks that have occurred.”

Although wolves are quite rare in most of North America, gray wolves (Canis lupus) are a comparatively common sight on the central coast of B.C. These genetically distinct coastal grey wolves specialize in hunting black-tailed deer, but also rely on marine food sources such salmon and stranded marine mammals. As well, these coastal wolves are commonly spotted feeding along the shorelines on shellfish and even berries.

“It’s a carnivore that you think of as a tough animal, carefully eating one berry at a time,” says Rechsteiner.

Many field researchers have reported seeing wolves over the course of their work around the Calvert Island field station, and wolves have even been spotted within the boundaries of the station itself.

Photo by Erin Rechsteiner

“They’ve been mostly really positive encounters,” says Luba Reshitnyk, program manager for the new 100 Islands project.

But as with any wild animal, their behaviour can be unpredictable and can seem threatening. In one instance a wolf was circling two researchers, approaching them head-on; Reshitnyk and her team suspected that the wolf was part of an “anomalous” group that had become stranded on the relatively unproductive island. Although wildlife protection measures were already in place, like camp cleanliness, the team started traveling in larger groups as a precaution.

Rechsteiner theorizes that the human-avoiding behaviour of the wolves could be a result of generations of sharing the land with people.

“Wolves and humans have been living here for so much longer than we can imagine,” she says. “They just learned how to get along.”

Carmen Smith, a researcher in Darimont’s lab, looked into the question of how wolves interact with humans in the Calvert Island region by analyzing wolf scat.

Surprisingly, given that human activity in the area is focused predominantly around the Calvert Island research station, she actually found more human material in wolf droppings from more remote areas. Darimont speculates that the source of this material is washed-up debris on the beach; to the credit of Hakai researchers, the study concluded that they were not contributing much to the wolves’ diet when in the field or at the research station itself.

“In this way, the wolves ‘audited’ the researcher and station protocols with food and garbage and passed them with flying colours.”

Wolves of Calvert Island

Calvert Island is home to what is suspected to be one pack of wolves, which prefer to hunt river otter and mink rather than the species’ typical prey, black-tailed deer. They occasionally find their way onto the Hakai Institute’s grounds, but largely keep to themselves. The wolves are frequently spotted along the nearby beaches, however, and researcher Carmen Smith put together a catalogue of the known individuals. 

Smith captured them on camera with remote motion-sensing cameras around the north end of the island, from high up on the lookout to down on the aptly-named Wolf Beach, and compared images to try to distinguish them based on their markings.

With names like “White Toes”, “Muqwa” (Heiltsuk for ‘white’), and Smokey, the wolves can be identified and tracked as they appear at different study sites around the island, although Smith assumes that she did not catch all of the resident wolves on camera.