Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

AN EVENING AT THE WOLF HOWL

Last month I was privileged to a unique experience – I talked to some wolves. Well, I didn’t actually do any talking, but I did – along with about 30 others – eavesdrop on a conversation between biologist Rhonda O’Grady and a couple of wolves at the edge of Gatineau Park.

It was the latest in a series of “wolf howls” O’Grady has held for the Friends of Gatineau Park. It began with an information session at the Park’s Visitor Centre in Old Chelsea, and then we took a bus ride out to a “secret” location next to the Park.

Filing out of the school bus into the cool, moon-brightened night, we walked down a dirt road in as perfect a silence as a mob of humans could muster. The noise from the highway slowly faded behind us, as we were enveloped by that stillness characteristic of late fall, when the world seems hushed and waiting for the first snow. Our eyes adjusted to the pale blue light, our bodies to the rhythm of our feet. When O’Grady stopped at a point in the road, overlooking farmers’ pastures and, beyond them, the dark, treed hills rising into the Park, we knew to gather around her and wait for her to howl.

O’Grady let out a long, well-practiced howl, her hands cupped around her mouth and directing the sound up into the night, carrying to wolves’ ears up to 10km away. We waited anxiously, unsure if anyone would answer her call, or if they would be close enough for our inferior human ears to pick up.

After about ten seconds we were rewarded with an answer – a high-pitched voice, likely a young wolf, unable to restrain itself from answering O’Grady’s hello. Seconds later, a lower voice added itself to the choir – a mature adult wolf. O’Grady made a stab at the translation: “Be quiet, child, and don’t talk to strangers!”

EDUCATION

O’Grady does these howls as a form of education. She’s got her work cut out for her, for the mythology surrounding wolves has centuries behind it. Long after we stopped burning witches, we still persecute wolves beyond any reasonable justification.

People who know nothing about wolves may fear them. But the fact of the matter is, wolves are about as dangerous to humans as bunny rabbits – a human has never been killed by a wild wolf in North America.

Another popular rationalization for killing wolves is that they kill livestock. It is true — wolves do take some livestock. Yet many question the effectiveness (to say nothing of the morality) of culls. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s website, Wildlife and Waterfowl Management Strategies for Farmers, includes the following advice: “Hunting, trapping and snaring… may not reduce the incidence of predation over the long term…While it may be useful for dealing with one problem predator, it does not prevent others from moving into an area, finding livestock and acquiring a taste for it.” Instead, the CFA recommends nine-wire fencing around livestock, or – and here’s thinking outside the corral – llamas. (Apparently, llamas – all 250 to 500 pounds of them – can be quite aggressive towards predators, chasing them, putting themselves between them and other livestock, and giving a shrill alarm.) 

Ranchers who do lose animals to wolves should be compensated for their losses – as they already are in some jurisdictions. This money could come from conservation groups, government, or it could simply be reflected in a slightly higher price for meat. Organic food is a good example of people willing to pay more for a product that hasn’t been produced by killing everything in its path. Why not apply the same principle to livestock and wolves?

If this seems too high a price to pay for wolves to once again take their place in the natural order, we should remember – as we are apt to forget – that extermination carries its own high price: an ecosystem out of whack. And then we should factor into the equation tourism; as the wolf has gained in popularity, as perhaps the quintessential totem of wilderness, more and more people want to experience the presence of wolves in their world. When Yellowstone National Park reintroduced wolves from Canada a few years back, its attendance jumped by 13%, and the wolf howls in Algonquin Park regularly attract tourists in their thousands.

The other major argument against wolves is that they kill the ungulates (deer, moose, etc.) that we like to kill. To this line of thought, I can only offer the following stats from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society:

Average annual number of deer killed by wolves in area around Algonquin Park (1987-1991): 58

Number of deer killed by hunters in same area around Algonquin Park (1996): 5,440

Didn’t anyone ever teach us to share?

Copyright Sean Butler 2004

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 2004

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