Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence by Paula Wild
(Douglas and McIntyre $32.95)

Review by Dr. Loys Maingon

Wolves have been as successful as humans in populating every continent except Antarctica. Like homo sapiens, they are extremely intelligent and adaptable. The history and mythology of all cultures records our competition and coexistence with wolves. Wolves have been an integral part of humanity’s evolution.

As we enter the age of biodiversity collapse, or as biologist E.O. Wilson names it the “Eremocene”—the age of loneliness—understanding how and why we need to further that coexistence is more important than ever.
Paula Wild’s Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence is a very timely guide to understanding wolves, and how we might adapt our human behaviour to co-exist with them.

After its virtual extirpation over the last century-and-a-half in America and Europe, the Grey wolf (Canis lupus lupus) and its smaller cousin, the coyote (Canis latrans) are re-distributing throughout their previous domains, and even colonizing new environments. There is a growing concern about human interaction with these wild carnivores, in ecosystems increasingly shaped by, and managed by, people.

Wild’s book aims to encompass the Grey wolf’s distribution in America and Eurasia, but the focus is predominantly North American. It does not include extensive work done in Russia.

return of the wolf opens by discussing human attitudes to wolves, followed by chapters on 19th and early 20th century extermination and wolf behaviour. Wild includes considerations of the individuality and personality of “the wolf.”

Lest the reader get too sentimental, Chapter 5 describes how these carnivores make their living with their extraordinary sense of smell, and their ability to work with ravens to find and kill prey, which feeds both wolves and ravens as well as attending carnivores.

Chapter 6 gives a good overview of the complex relationship of wolves with domestic dogs and coyotes, on whom wolves preferably prey, though they will occasionally mate with either, as numerous genetic studies have shown.
Chapter 7, entitled “Wolf Wars,” is the pivotal point in Wild’s narrative. “Writing about wolves is writing about death,” she writes—namely the death of wolves whose interests clash with those of ranchers and hunters, and even hikers.

Here she introduces the key work of Troy Bennett, a shepherd who is largely responsible for the reintroduction of the wolf in France, and for much of the legislation that has made the controversial return of the wolf in Europe possible.

What Wild does not include in her discussion of Bennett’s work is the crucial question that drove Bennett to become an advocate for wolf conservation. Bennett describes his first encounter with a wolf that had been killing his lambs as a life-changing discovery of “the other” in wilderness, and it is worth quoting:

“Our eyes met and were locked, I was drawn into them. People talk about the wolves’ stare and how it holds you, how it holds its prey. When a wild wolf looks into your eyes it looks deep and you cannot look away. Something holds you there. Whether it is hypnotism or fear or something else is unsure. I didn’t feel fear, but I was held. In that look I felt something change in me, I felt an exchange of information, I don’t know what the wolf took from it, but I was left with something, a gift, as it were. I have deliberated over it many times, something primeval that was dormant in me was awakened that day; it’s not something I can write about, I cannot even put it into words. It was a feeling of the wild that I’d never imagined existed and it has stayed with me ever since.

“A huge fallacy is that healthy North American wolves do not pose any danger to humans,” Wild writes. The wolf as a potential predator on humans becomes the explicit topic of the last four chapters (9 through 12).
Absent from the discussion is why this so-called “huge fallacy” may not have been a fallacy for the previous two to three hundred years in America. There are no healthy wolves outside of their healthy habitat. The proper habitat of the wolf is wilderness. In order to adequately discuss the status of the wolf one has to weigh the less considered question of the current health of our wilderness.

Wilderness is as misunderstood as the wolf itself, in our increasingly suburbanized and digitalized global, largely disconnected, society. In some cultures, such as First Nations, there is traditionally no “wilderness,” because wilderness is co-extensive with cultural meaning. For “hunter-gatherers” the wolf is a totemic animal, and to be human is to be a potential wolf and a possible member of a wolf clan as deeply socially knit to kin and place as is the wolf family in a space shared with the human family.

Paula Wild provides a good general introduction but she homogenizes First Nations’ interpretation of the wolves as though all First Nations cultures interpreted “the wolf” in the same way. She also resurrects as fact Ernest Thompson Seton’s fictitious tale of Lobo, without taking into account the famous controversy over “nature faking” that it sparked among the giants of “nature writing” from John Burroughs to Theodore Roosevelt before the First World War.

At a time of global biodiversity collapse, as recently pointed out in a study fittingly entitled, Protect the last of the wild, Canada is nevertheless the second most important of only five nations still blessed with “relatively intact” ecosystems.

Meanwhile, as reported by the World Wildlife Foundation, Canada has lost a staggering 60 percent of its wildlife since 1970. Wilderness continues to be eliminated to this day at a rate unprecedented since the great Cretaceous extinction.

Between them, Russia, Canada, Australia, the USA, and Brazil house much (70 percent) of the 23 percent global wilderness that remains today. While Canada’s position as a wilderness champion may sound reassuring to Canadian readers, the practical reality is far more chilling. While most of our urban and agricultural development is clustered around the 49th parallel, the natural resource exploration and infrastructure that supports our cities, extends all over our would-be “wilderness.”

We rate among this planet’s highest per capita energy consumers, and we have a disproportionately high impact on wilderness. The state of Canadian ecosystems can be measured not only by the impacts of the Athabasca Tar Sands Project, or Site C, but by the disappearance of iconic flora and fauna accompanied by an increase in after-the-fact “management by crisis.”
In B.C., spotted owls, a wilderness conservation emblem, have collapsed to a population of less than a dozen. Caribou populations across Canada are collapsing, largely due to decades of forestry and oil and gas extraction. The general attitude is that they are “too expensive to save.”

Half of B.C.’s Chinook salmon populations have been found to be “endangered” by COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), at a time when the future of iconic resident killer whales of the Salish Sea hangs in doubt through Chinook collapse, intensified recreational and commercial boat traffic, and the threat of future oil tanker traffic.

The declines of polar bears and caribou are just the most widely publicized concerns. If there is a fit for “the wolf” today, it is in this precarious human-made context. It is not a simple question of a fallacy, as Wild puts it, “that healthy North American wolves do not pose any danger to humans.” It is a question that we cannot expect to have healthy wolves, or healthy humans, in an increasingly endangered and ecologically “unhealthy” wilderness.

Wilderness is a mirage in the Canadian psyche, not unlike “the imaginary Indian.” We assume that “The True North” still exists, and that the all too numerous mega-resource projects like Site C or the Athabasca Tar Sands can continue infinitely without having a cumulative vanishing impact on the very wilderness which jingoistic national pride claims as “the Canadian experience.”

In so doing we forget the fragility of nature, the elusiveness of wilderness, and the individuality of wolves, wolf populations, and wolf families.
Wild devotes much of her book to convincing the reader that communities can come to live with “the wolf.” She provides good examples and case studies, such as the community program on Cortes Island, to educate the public on how to dissuade wolves from preying on pets and humans.
The techniques of exclusion she proposes are known as “hazing” (the benign use of noisemakers, harmless projectiles, repellants, etc.), which are growing in popularity in North America as wolf and coyote encounters increase. These have been used with general success with coyote populations, which have been increasingly settling in urban centres.

These techniques work in the early stages, but research also indicates that they may lose their effectiveness as wolves and coyotes become increasingly habituated to urbanized environments, to the point that their genetics change.

The undiscussed problem is that with our own population growth, we are turning rural landscapes into a vast economically and ecologically unsustainable suburbia. Negative wolf-encounters should be taken as symptoms of an “unhealthy” environmental condition driven by mankind. Wolf-hazing should only be considered as a stopgap measure until humans learn to manage their own behaviour and the associated destruction of wilderness.

Meanwhile, Return of the Wolf should be read and welcomed as an invitation to rediscover that green inner fire known only to the wolf and the mountain. 9781771622066

Dr. Loys Maingon is an avid naturalist and a professional biologist. He is the current webinar host for the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists. Maingon owns and operates an endangered plant nursery and oversees a number of regional conservation programmes on the Tsolum River near Merville. He is also research director of the Strathcona Wilderness Institute and runs the environmental impact consulting firm, Aardscan Biological and Environmental Ltd. Arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1993, Maingon remains a strong advocate of social, economic, and environmental change. He contributed a chapter to Clayoquot & Dissent (Ronsdale, 1994). His complete, 5,000-word review of Return of the Wolf is accessible on-line via The Ormsby Review.