A lone howl of a distant wolf is one of life’s truly unforgettable experiences. I have heard it only twice in my brief ten year stay in Northern British Columbia but on both occasions, I felt, for the briefest of moments, a kinship with those who have come before me, Europeans like me who pioneered this land centuries before and who perhaps, stationed at some lonely outpost, felt the same nerve tingling sensation run down their spines.
In our imaginations, wolves are often viewed as the iconic symbol of the wilderness. At the top of the food chain, we have a tendency to see them at the extreme end of an equilibrium which allows all of our notions of savagery to exist in harmony within the dazzling beauty of the natural world. But wolves only live in the wilderness. They have not adapted to skulking the city streets by night as have coyotes and foxes, choosing instead to hug the outer fringes of humanity in the frontier landscapes where man, with all his brutishness, collides head on with nature. At the edge of cultivation, the security and comforts of civilization are left for a primordial law where only the strong survive but where for some men, the promise of adventure can still be found.
Places like this still exist north of Highway 16 and stretch to the far reaches of the Yukon and the desolate landscapes of the arctic tundra. Here, one can still walk the broad valleys and conifer rich forests to hunt and trap in relative freedom in the spaces between pipe lines and mega mining projects.
I’ve seen such men staring at me from the pages of history books and black and white photographs for as long as I can remember. I can see them now, lean working men with steadfast faces hanging on to the traces of dog teams or with double headed axes in the notch of immense Redwoods. These are the men who cut, ploughed and dynamited civilization from the grip of nature and for better or worse, built the world we know today.
A contemporary example is Martin, a long-time wolf-trapper and outdoorsman with an easy-going nature. He is a classic hardworking northerner who oozes independence, resourcefulness and generosity. We have been corresponding for months, throwing emails back and forth and now he has finally agreed to let me accompany him on one of his regular trap line checks. We meet up at a busy gas bar cafeteria on the Alaska highway intersection at Kitwanga. It’s a chilly fall afternoon and the drip coffee smells a lot better than it tastes. Martin is friendly enough but clearly a little uneasy about our arrangement and needs to set out some ground rules.
“Listen Mark, it’s great the you are interested in what I do and I don’t mind you tagging along and snapping a few pictures, but it's best you don’t use my name or tell people where I live. I don’t want my family targeted by the leaf lickers, you understand?”
“OK, I won’t use your real name” I say in an attempt to quell any doubts that he might be having with the project “and let’s keep the location loose like ‘the Cassiar highway corridor’. You can also veto any pictures you don’t like. How does that sound?"
Martin nods and somewhat reassured we chat for a short time before he suddenly announces that there is no point hanging around and that we can finish up our drinks on the way.
“If you need to take the kids to the pool its best you do it here” he says as he stands up to leave. ‘There is nowhere else”
I glace towards a tired looking washroom and decide that if the need arise, I’ll take my chances in the bushes.
Out in the parking lot Martin swings open the doors to his pickup. It’s old enough to have bench seats and chrome fenders and when he turns the key it jumps to life like a sleeping dog woken by intruders. Inside it has a certain ‘heritage feel’ which only old northern trucks seem to have. Dog-eared copies of the hunting regulations and a handful of spent shot gun shells roll around the footwell. A sheaf knife and old spark plugs, parts of a rusty socket set and endless bits of other junk which only a resourceful man would value. Stuffed in the air vent is what looks like a forgotten speeding ticket which hardly seemed possible for a truck older than me and with all the aerodynamics of a garden shed.
“She’s a classic. Hasn’t let me down yet” says Martin as he helps to clear a place on the seat for me to sit down.
On the road and away from the cafe Martin starts to relax and open up. We talk about trapping and hunting and how American hunting channels have reduced the most ancient of human rituals into infomercials for high-tech toys and obnoxious hosts who revel in the kill and not in the hunt. He speaks about industry and makes valid connections between our insatiable appetite for consumer products and resource extraction projects which fuel commercialization and inevitably, large scale environmental destruction. Our conversation is riddled with contradictions and the answers which should be obvious seem as confused and allusive as ever.
My understanding from our conversation is that Martin does not see hunting and trapping as part of the problem. Yes, hunting reduces animal populations but only as far as regulations and the depth of his freezer will allow. He only hunts for the table and for the love of being out of doors, arguably the most honest of all human pursuits.
Kenny Salwey, the noted wilderness spokesmen, author and Mississippi river rat puts it beautifully when he explains “The very worst form of killing is not done directly to the critter. When we build our shopping malls or highways, our artificial world, we take away the critter’s homes, not just for today but forever. We don’t just kill one duck to eat. We kill ducks that would have survived and thrived and reproduced for generation after generation”
But trapping, and wolf trapping in particular, is something different and I ask Martin to explain how wolf trapping came about.
“It’s pretty straightforward. Cattle are grazed out on crown land for the summer months. This provides the ranchers with free feed for their cattle and allows them to ‘free-range’ in small herds across large tracks of land. On the one hand it's extremely healthy and provides the consumer with a high-quality natural product, a far better alternative to feed lot beef. On the other hand, the cattle, being domesticated, tend to herd together in fixed areas for long periods of time. They overgraze the grass, crap in streams and destroy vegetation. They are even said to displace wildlife such as deer, moose and small game. You’ll see what I mean when we get out there.
“And the wolves just see these cows as a free lunch?” I ask.
“Yeah, definitely. A chicken coop with an open door is to a fox what domesticated cattle are to a wolf, and who can blame them? It’s not the fault of the wolves, they don’t know any different.”
“So why not stop free grazing?”
“You could, I guess, but ranchers have been free grazing and hating on wolves for centuries so I’m not sure how you would pull that off. It's not just about tradition. It's actually an important part of the rural economy. Most of the smaller farms and ranches wouldn’t be able to survive without free grazing especially up here where we are under snow for six months of the year. So free grazing is kinda essential to a lot of people’s livelihoods.”
“What about you? How did you get involved with wolves and the wolf control program?” I ask Martin.
“I’ve been wondering these woods for as long as I can remember, hunting and trapping mainly just for recreation. I got involved with a neat lynx capture-and- release program
which somehow led me to this. Being out in the bush so much you get to know a lot about animals and how they live and wolves are no exception. They have a very particular way of attacking their prey quite different from other predators like bears, cougars or other wild dogs. When a rancher calls to report a wolf attack, he takes pictures of the injured or dead cow and if it is deemed that it was wolves who are to blame, the Cattleman’s Association contact me to reduce the pack size. I go out and assess the kill site and stack out the area with leg hold traps. Strict legislation determines how many I can trap, where and for how long."
“So you get paid for trapping?”
“Yes, but it's not what you think. I get a small amount for each wolf which just about covers my expenses, gas and equipment and what-not, but I wouldn’t say I make a profit. I’m out here four or five times a week checking traps and over the course of the years I probably just about break even. Last season I had to buy a new snowmobile so any profit I might have made in the past just got eaten up."
“But if you are not making any money out of it, why do it?”
“Jesus, man, you sound like my wife! I ain’t doing it for the money, I’m doing it because I love being out here. If I weren’t trapping wolves, I’d find another excuse to be out in the bush. I just can’t imagine not doing this.”
“But surely you can make money out of the furs? Good quality wolf pelts make decent money.”
“I wish I could but like I said, this is a wolf control program, I’m not trapping for fur. Every wolf I trap I have to photograph, give its GPS location and provide evidence that I have destroyed the hide to make it unusable. I have to crush the skull as well."
“Seems like a waste?”
“For sure, but this is about controlling pack sizes and reducing attacks on cattle. If people were trapping wolves for their fur, we would have trapped them out of existence ages ago, just like you guys did in Europe. It's not perfect but this is the balance we have come to, or the price, depending on which side of the fence you sit on."
“Do you find a lot of people up here sit on the other side of the fence when it comes to wolf trapping?”
“Things have really changed up here recently. Lots of new people have moved into the area and they come with some pretty funny ideas about how we should live our lives. Wolf trapping, or just hunting and trapping in general, can be a bit tricky for them to bend their heads around. I don’t blame anyone from disliking wolf trapping. I just ask them to make an effort to look at both sides of the argument. I’m not doing anything illegal and I do my job as humanely as possible."
“I hear that pack numbers are on the increase. Is this true?”
“I don’t think anybody really knows but wolf attacks on cattle have gone up drastically in the past few years. There are loads of different theories out there. I’d say climate change and our milder winters have had a significant impact on animal behavior generally. As pack sizes grow, they have put pressure on some of their natural prey like moose. Most of the hunters I know reckon that the decline in moose numbers has a lot to do with the increase in the wolf population."
The drive out to the cow carcass is unexpectedly long. We wind our way through old logging roads and clear cuts until we come to a broad open valley. I’m starting to realize why Martin doesn’t make any money out of this. On route Martin stops the truck and steps out to check out some fresh tracks and a scent marker. He talks me through what he is seeing.
“Four wolves passed this way, marked this spot over here and moved off in single file," he says with a certainty as if it were taking place in front of us.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Well, the scent marker is very low to the ground and out in the open which probably means it’s a big female although hard to know exactly. Males prefer to piss up against something like a tree or a rock, just like us boys! The heavier set of rear paw marks show that she squatted slightly before taking a couple of steps forward and then scrapping the dirt back, just like a domestic dog. Where we stopped the truck, the ground is a lot softer and I counted two sets of tracks. Over here are another two sets. I was here a couple of days ago and the tracks weren’t here then so I think the wolves were here together at the same time, maybe last night."
“Are these the wolves we are after?” I ask.
“No, I don’t think so. The wolves we are after will be hanging around the kill site. These ones might be drawn in by the smell. Hard to say for sure."
We spend a few minutes scouting the area. Martin is totally focused, reading the ground for any sign which will help him to understand what has passed this way. I am impressed by his attention to detail.
Getting back into the truck we drive on for another 10 minutes before we stop again. Martin gets out and points to some disturbed ground under a tree.
“Looks like cattle have set off one of the traps. I’ll reset it now while we have good light," he announces.
On hands and knees, he goes to work. First digging out the trap, he prepares the soil, relays the trap and finally places scent on a low hanging branch above the trap. I crawl around in the undergrowth trying to find the good photographic angle. As we get ready to get back into the truck, I ask him if he is likely to catch any wolves in that trap given that cattle keep triggering it off.
“It's not the cows which are going to be the problem!" he says “It’s you, crawling all over the place with your frigging camera leaving your scent everywhere. A wolf won’t come within 20 yards of that trap, but at least you got to see how I lay one."
I make my apologies which he shakes off with indifference.
It's not long before we arrive at the kill site. The rag tag remains of a cow lie scattered about the bush. A back bone and ribs are caught up in some bushes and tuffs of hair are strewn everywhere.
“Did wolves eat all of her?” I ask, thinking that there must have been a lot of dogs to have cleaned up such a huge animal.
“No, when I was here a couple of days ago, I ran straight into a grizzly feeding on her; scared the crap outta me," says Martin. "Just about anything that eats meat will have fed here at some point. Best watch yourself.”
He reaches behind the back seat of the truck and pulls out a defender pump action shotgun and begins to load OO buck shot into the tubular magazine.
It’s a gun designed for blasting holes at point blank range into nasty bank robbers and as he hands it to me, I know that a grizzly would have to be breathing down my neck to be close enough to be worth pulling the trigger. Still, I accept it eagerly, pump a shell into the chamber, check the safety and I sling it over my shoulder.
Martin looks at me in disappointment. “it ain’t going to do much good there," he says as he turns his back on me and walks off.
I check the setting on my camera as we set of along the trail. We can hear wolves calling eerily all around us, the closeness of the valley walls intensifies their howls. Generations of human evolution, myth, fantasy and Hollywood have conditioned me to fear wolves and I can feel my courage ebb away. Martin is ten yards in front of me. He turns and looks over his shoulder, like a father would when taking his son out hunting for the first time, making certain my gun is pointing in a safe direction. Satisfied we move on.
Every fiber of my being is on alert and as conscious as I am of every footfall and twig beneath my feet, to the acute senses of a wolf I know I sound like an elephant marching across a field of corn flakes. Forcing myself to relax I look around and for the first time since arriving, I begin to take in my surroundings.
We are in an area of cut blocks and early re-generated forest with small pockets of grass clipped and trodden short by repeated over grazing. The colors are subdued. There are no flowers to catch’s one’s eye, just a minefield of cow pats scattered unburied in every direction. The bushes are torn up by heavy browsing, and open patches of bare earth beneath the trees provide evidence of where cows gathered to wait out the long nights. It’s just as Martin said it would be.
A few yards on and without stopping, Martin points off to the left. He doesn’t say anything and silently keeps moving on. I have no idea what it is he is indicating to until I get there. By the side of a small tree is a wolf, crouched so low as if to make himself invisible. His paw is caught in a leg-hold trap and as I approach, he leaps back in defense. I look up to see where Martin has gone but he has disappeared around the corner. Daylight is fast fading so I grab a few pictures. The wolf is clearly agitated now and I begin to regret getting so close. He doesn’t growl or snarl at me like the movies would have us believe, but backs off as far as a few feet of chain will allow and then lies down. He is scared and defenseless. Every molecule of his being is screaming to run, to get away but there is no escape. We stare at each other for what seems like an age until unexpectedly Martin is by my side, a compact 22 tucked into his shoulder. He is whispering calmly under his breath, talking to the wolf in soft tones as he approaches. The wolf stands and as he does so, Martin raises the rifle and in one seamless motion he shoots. The wolf’s legs give way and he drops to the ground, twitching momentarily as all life does when it passes from this world.
Still speaking softly, Martin lays his hand on the wolf’s chest to check for life. He waits in silence. There are no heroics, no high fives and no trophy pictures. His gentleness and respect is at such odds from the drama which had just unfolded that I am slightly taken aback. It is not as I thought it would be.
Martin is starting to check the wolf over, peering into his ears, prizing open the jaws to inspect his teeth. I ask him what he is doing.
“I’m looking to see what condition the animals are in and to learn as much about them as possible. Every encounter sheds a little more light on their behavior, health, pack sizes and so on. To be good at this job you have to understand them, and that’s what I am trying to do.”
I kneel down, rest my hand on top of its head and trace the contours of the wolf down to the leg hold. Expecting to see torn up flesh and exposed bone and am amazed to realize that there isn’t so much as a hair out of place.
“It’s the rubber pads and the spacer” says Martin noticing my surprise. “They prevent the steel from digging into the flesh. A lot of people don’t wanna believe it but when set properly, these traps don’t seriously harm the animal. Every now and again I catch a coyote by mistake. When I release them, they take off as if nothing has happened. I’ve caught my own hand more than once. There is some really crazy stuff on the internet and some really shitty trappers out there who make us all look bad, but that’s not me”
That evening we catch two wolves. After taking some pictures with his phone and marking the GPS location Martin loads them onto the pickup and resets the traps. It’s dark by the time he is done and exhausted, I am glad to be on my way.
As we drive home, I try to touch upon the politics of wolf trapping but it’s clear that Martin doesn’t want to get too deep. I am a little relieved. The magic of life is so often trashed by politics and I am thankful for Martin's good humor and down to earth perspective on life.
A few days later I send the images to Martin for approval and as a result he agrees to let me join him again in the winter trapping season. In the weeks running up to our next meeting I have time to reflect on some of the issues surrounding wolf trapping.
Research shows that wolves provide an essential balance to the ecosystem by taking down weak animals and thereby providing a valuable food source for a huge variety of scavenging animals, birds and invertebrate. From nature’s point of view, domestic cattle have been bred by man to be weak and manageable which perversely puts them at the wrong end of the natural selection stick and easy prey for wolves. To persecute wolves for taking down free ranging cows is a little like throwing a juicy steak to your pet dog and then shooting him for eating it.
Interestingly, figures published in the US show that only 0.2 percent of livestock deaths are attributed by wolf predation, the remainder being caused by respiratory and digestive problems, disease, environmental factors and when giving birth, making the targeting of wolves difficult to justify. The US is not Canada, but this does provide an idea of the prejudice that exists within government agencies and pro hunting communities in North America.
The waters are further muddied as hard data on the numbers of animals killed by trapping are hard to find. According to The Association for the Protection of Fur Bearing Animals, in 2009 (the most recent data I could find available from Statistics Canada), the total number of fur bearing animals trapped in Canada (including wolves) was 730,915.
I should mention that I have no affiliation with this organization and only use them to illustrate that based on my understanding, the preservation of species is based less on the premise of hard research and proactive conservation and more on the protection of legislation which protects the rights of industry, ranchers, trappers and hunters.
In an interview with Brenda Peterson, the author of ‘Wolf Nation, the life, death and return of the American wolves’ she suggested that the US wildlife service acts more like a ‘SWAT team’ against wildlife as it seeks to protect industry and sportsman alike. Our own Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources - Fish and Wildlife department appear to share the same mandate as it “establishes legislation, policies and procedures for managing fishing and hunting activities, and for the allocation of fish and wildlife resources for recreational and commercial use of fisheries and game” Little wonder that trappers such as Martin who supported by the state and an historic and cultural hatred of wolves are now surprised to find themselves at the sharp end of a conservation movement determined to protect Canada’s remaining wildlife. Even as an ex urbanite with TV fantasies of living and hunting in the wilderness like a later day Dick Proenneke, I find it increasingly difficult to have any faith in our government led wildlife agencies let alone industry. The decline in wildlife in recent years is so obvious that to make excuses or shirk responsibility seems to me, almost criminal.
While trappers and sportsmen shoulder some of responsibility they are the easy targets, the low hanging fruit in the long running conservation debate. In truth, we are all to blame. Manmade pollution in plastics and other substances is literally choking our oceans. Our stubbiness to continue to pursue outdated farming and ranching practices which generate billions of tons of carbon emission in support of an ever-increasing global population is simply staggering in its stupidity. And taking into account environmental concerns as a whole, I have barely scratched the surface. Yet, as a population we continue to elect politicians with no environmental credentials or even a vague desire to stand up for wildlife. As a result, wolves, caribou, salmon and other vulnerable species are victim to a raft of idiotic government sanctioned ‘conservation’ projects which pander only to the needs of industry.
Wolf control programs such as the one that Martin is involved in is a microcosm of wildlife conservation in Canada. As consecutive euro Canadian governments have failed to protect our nation’s most valuable asset, it is perhaps time to hand over stewardship to the First Nations. If nothing else, they could not do a worst job than us.