The wolf is a symbol of the Yukon wilderness. Bob Hayes just wrote a book about this magnificent animal. Wolves of the Yukon is a poignant story explaining how wolves and humans fit into the Yukon landscape. I strongly recommend the book. It is a great contribution to our understanding of the animal and it shows clearly the conflictual relation the society has with true wilderness. Bob Hayes was the Yukon wolf biologist for 18 years. Wolves are more than subjects for him. They are a passion. In the following interview he talks about them and share some of the unforgettable experiences he had in the Yukon wilderness.
Damien Tremblay: You studied Yukon wolves for many years. You spent countless hours of low level flying over the Yukon wilderness. You have seen the Yukon has few people have. Years later you write a book on your career and passion. In my standards you had a “dream job”. How do you reflect on all those years of experiences?
Bob Hayes: I came to the Yukon to work with wolves, but never really expected it would come true. The ‘dream’ element was studying wolves in a vast wilderness that was largely unchanged since the end of the ice age. That was the remarkable opportunity few wildlife biologists have. Most contemporary biologists study systems that have been altered by our presence, but in the Yukon we have intact habitats with few people. This is special because it is a natural laboratory where we can learn about how systems evolved where large carnivores are naturally regulated.
DT: What are the characteristics of the Yukon wolf?
BH: The Yukon wolf is one of the largest races of gray wolf in the world, largely because it mainly preys on moose, which are, of course, large bodied prey. Yukon wolves are also mountain wolves, terrain that at first seems to be daunting for a predator to navigate. But mountain terrain is a great advantage for wolves because windblown ridges and slopes allows for easy and rapid travel through their territory. As a consequence, wolves can easily find where moose, caribou, and Dall’s sheep are located in mountains. Yukon wolves have exceptionally high kill rates, and as a result keep prey populations at low abundance throughout the Yukon.
DT: Can you tell us about a day, in your wolf studies, that you will always remember. It can be a seminal moment, or an adventure….
BH: Perhaps the most memorable event happened in the summer of 1977 on the Firth River delta. We had been searching for a group of about 10,000 Porcupine caribou that had disappeared in a heavy fog bank south of Herschel Island. Unable to find the herd, we landed our helicopter on the west shore of the river. While we were preparing a lunch I looked across the noisy river and watched as a few animals, then a hundred, then thousands of caribou emerged from the fog only a hundred meters away. The lead animals were bulls, with great racks of antlers still in velvet. The herd milled at the edge of the water, then eventually moved off upstream and disappeared like an immense apparition.
DT: When you mention “the Yukon is a complete wilderness”, what do you mean?
BH: What completes our wilderness is the essentially unchanged landscape and the natural predators that roam here. The habitats of large mammals are still mostly intact, and there are as many wolves, grizzly and black bears living in the Yukon today as there were thousands of years ago. This notion of a complete wilderness is why many of us live here. There are few places left on earth that have remained so unchanged. As the world continually loses or fragments its wilderness, the Yukon’s natural state is becoming more and more valuable to retain. I believe the economic and ecological value of our complete wilderness far outweighs the short-term benefits of mining and other activities, and great care needs to be taken to ensure we do not compromise this treasure.
DT: You participated in wolf control programs (killing of wolves), that were supposed to increase game for hunters. Today you say they are not worth it. In a few words, can you tell us why?
BH: If you kill lots of wolves over a large area you will increase moose and woodland caribou. That is the results of wolf control programs in the Yukon. But as soon as wolf control stops, wolves rapidly colonize and their numbers recover within a few years. Wolves immediately begin to prey heavily on moose and caribou, reducing prey abundance again. While there is a short-term benefit to prey, in long run controlling wolves is futile unless you want to continually kill them in large numbers. I don’t believe we have the reason or the right to permanently remove wolves from any area of the Yukon so hunters can benefit from elevated prey. It is morally wrong.
DT: In your book you give many historical examples of wildlife mismanagement. Today, do you think the wildlife legislation is protecting adequately the Yukon wildlife?
BH: The largest challenge we face is finding a way to develop trust with First nation hunters to fairly share the little hunting opportunities that exist in the Yukon. After nearly twenty years of land claims, there is still no First Nation that has developed legislation to limit the number of animals their citizens take. Until there is open, cooperative and transparent mandatory reporting of hunting by all users, we cannot adequately protect wildlife.
DT: In 2008, you survived a grizzly attack. (Learn more here.) You give an important credit to your dog for saving your life. Knowing the wolf and the dog are genetically so close, I like to think that maybe it is the spirit of the great timber wolf who was protecting you that day. Since that attack do you do things differently when you travel in the Bush?
BH: I believe some kind of spirit was ultimately looking after me that day, but the remarkable behavior of my dog Charlie was what saved me from the bear. Bears hate wolves, and by extension, they hate dogs. I was fortunate to be with a good dog who knew bears, and who took the bear’s interest off me momentarily so I could escape up the tree. I have not changed my travel in the bush very much, except to keep my bear spray close and handy.