When spring comes to the Boreal forests of British Columbia, it brings life to recumbent plants that lay dormant all winter; black bears wake from months of deep hibernation, and Caribou feast on the season’s first flush of green vegetation. And as the low pull of the moon gently tugs at the restless tides along the windswept coast, you’re likely to catch another sight as well: here packs of wolves live along the shores where they swim from island to island, deftly navigating the currents as they search for food and isolated places to roam. These are sea wolves, “Canada’s newest marine mammal.” And although we’ve only just recognized this distinct group, their stability is already being threatened by negative human interactions.

These wolves have undoubtedly been around for a very long time, but until just a few years ago, scientists knew almost nothing about them. All wolves that live in the boreal tundra were thought to only ever hunt ungulates, things like deer and moose, but when they were observed eating salmon by the wolf biologist Paul Paquet, it soon became evident that not all wolves were the same.

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In 2009, it was discovered using DNA data that the coastal wolves are actually a distinct group, separate from their inland cousins.  Instead of hunting deer, they live off of the sea, eating fish, barnacles, disentangling masses of kelp to find the ripe herring eggs laid inside, and scrounging off the languid carcasses of beached whales. They’ve even been known to tackle seals that bask on the islands that make up British Colombia’s archipelago. Up to 90 percent of their diet can be sustained by sea.

More Tourists Means More Wolf Encounters

But wolves aren’t the only thing on the islands. Tourism has become increasingly popular in places like Vargas Island. People come from around the world to experience the pristine wilderness on the island where visitors can camp, hike, kayak, and watch as gray whales swim by on their way to summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea every spring. But the park is fairly new, having been established in 1995, and the recent influx of people has meant that wolves are becoming more and more naturalized to their presence.

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Wolves have learned how to open kayak hatch covers to retrieve food store inside and will often raid campsites at night looking for anything edible left out by unwary travelers. These behaviors have unfortunately led to violent encounters between the two, and while no tourist has yet to be killed, the British Columbia Parks Service will often cull the wolf responsible for the attack, both to check for rabies and in an attempt to prevent future attacks from occurring. According to the Yellowstone management plan for habituated wolves, “Almost all of the wolves that have shown aggression towards humans have lost their wildness by being repeatedly exposed to humans and losing their fear as a consequence.”

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Wolf Hunting

Hunters are an even more direct threat to the wolves on Vargas Island, as well as elsewhere. Wolf hunting is completely legal within the park and doesn’t even require a species license if you’re a BC resident. While hunting can obviously have a large negative impact on wolf populations, it also affects the frequency with which visitors get to observe them. A study published just this year in which wolf populations were monitored along the boundaries of Denali and Yellowstone National Parks showed that hunting wolves outside of the park significantly decreased the number of wolf sightings within them.

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What You Can Do to Help

But we don’t have to choose between the two evils of aggressive, habituated wolves and never getting to see them at all. Proper behavior around wolves can help reduce the chances they’ll become used to humans, making them likely for them to be aggressive toward them.

Yellowstone’s management plan identifies a few ways that you can help:

  1. When traveling to natural areas where there might be wolves, make sure that all of your food is safely secured. Wolves are majestic, but can be dangerous as well, and it pays to have a proper regard for them.
  2. You should never try to get close to a wolf or allow them to come within 50 meters of where you’re standing.
  3.  Read up on what to do if a wolf is persistent and does begin to approach you; you shouldn’t run from wolves, but rather group together if you’re with others and try to make yourself look bigger (stand tall, raise your arms, flail loose clothing, etc…), make loud noises, throw rocks, and back away slowly.

The presence of wolves in our parks and preserves is important in order to maintain the health of our ecosystems, and it reminds us that we are just another species in a much larger menagerie of life.

Image source: Paul Nicklen/Instagram