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Power vs Dignity:
The Wolf in Alaska & the Yukon

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: October 6, 1998.

      This article was initially begun in response to a flurry of emails last winter (1997-1998). I had planned to post it months ago, but found that to tell the story properly took a great deal more time than I had planned. I have to preface this by stating that I am not a biologist. Neither am I a member of any "environmental" organization. And finally, I don't hunt. What is presented here is the result of research into human perspectives on one of my wild neighbours for whom I have a great deal of respect.

      Over the past few years, wolf-kills in the Yukon and Alaska have attracted attention throughout North America and Europe. The controversy surrounding these "wildlife management programs" is generated only partially by concern for the wolf as a life-form with its own dignity; much of the impetus for the anti-wolf-kill movement is generated by incorrect information and simplistic assumptions about wolves, and about conditions in the North. This is compounded by "environmentalists" to whom the wolf, and the North, have become temporary tools to help them assuage their guilt, and vent their anger, over past and present environmental destruction of their own areas.

      Wolves are one of nature's most successful predators, and have changed little physiologically over the past million years. They once had one of the widest ranges of any animal on Earth, with huge populations on every continent except Africa. Virtually all of North America was home to the wolf. Their success with humans has, however, been markedly unsuccessful, and their success as predators has led to their virtual elimination throughout most of the world. Only 2 of the 32 subspecies of wolf left have healthy populations: the Arctic wolf, and the timber or gray wolf of Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories comprise more than half of the 100,000 survivors world-wide.

      Wolves have been hunting in North America for millions of years longer than humans. The earliest relatives of the wolf were likely the miacids of 40 million years ago, but not until 15 million years ago did they start to develop as true canids. With their origins in the Western Hemisphere, wolves as we recognize them now had by the early Pleistocene extended their range into Eurasia by crossing over the Bering land bridge (Olsen).

      Until about 100,000 years ago, wolves and humans shared the forests and tundra around the world with little competition between them. "Fleeter and with more endurance than their human counterparts, wolves concentrated their diet on deer and the like (as they do now), while human beings preyed intensively on the easily captured giants [mammoths and rhinoceroses]" (McLoughlin).

      Although the causes are the subject of continuing speculation and debate, it is clear that between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, about 80% of large animals became extinct. Among the species that died out were specialized predators such as the sabre-toothed tigers which had depended on large game. The wolf, as adaptable then as now, was able to adjust its hunting techniques to whatever species survived.

      Unfortunately for the wolf, though, humans were also adaptable, and this period marks the start of the wolf's problems with humans that continue to this day. By 10,000 years ago, they were in direct competition for the same game. This situation also brought into clear focus the similarities between wolf packs and the early hunter-gatherer societies:

Both are comprised of social units that are relatively small in number. Both are capable of hunting over open ground or wooded areas, pursuing rather large game and exerting considerable physical effort over prolonged periods to accomplish their goals. Both use hunting methods that require a pack, or team effort rather than that of a lone hunter. (Olsen)

      Wolves and humans were also both opportunistic hunters, and when it was possible, they would take advantage of each other's kills. This was particularly effective for the wolves because of the mass-killing techniques occasionally used by humans, such as driving entire herds of herbivores over cliffs as at what is now known as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Only a few animals were used, "the rest being left to rot, in a manner sharply contradicting the modern myths that propose that Stone Age hunters were somehow so totally in tune with their environments that they wasted nothing" (McLoughlin). Wolves were sometimes intentional guests of humans. The Bella Coola Indians of the British Columbia coast would sing a song to invite Wolf when they had killed a bear; although they used the hide, they believed that Bear "did not wish to be eaten by humans" (Lopez).

      The combination of the wolf's adaptability, the similar social organizations and roles of wolves and humans, and the increasingly close relationship between the two species introduces a factor which continues to confuse humans' view of wolves to this day; the domestication of wolves and subsequent breeding of dogs. The oldest confirmed domestic dog found in the world is from Iraq, dated at 12,000 years BP (Olsen). In North America a great deal of controversy surrounds the issue; the oldest confirmed find is from the Jaquar Cave, Idaho, with an age of approximately 9,140 years, but skulls found in glacial muck north of Fairbanks may be slightly older, and a mandible from Old Crow, Yukon has been estimated at as much as 30,000 years old.

      The process of domestication evenually crippled the wolf strain involved, as their jaws got shorter and their teeth crowded, eliminating one of their main hunting advantages, powerful jaws combined with very specialized tooth development. Although some huskies continue to treat humans as equals (as do wolves in captivity), none of the 200 distinct breeds of domestic dogs are anything like wolves. This is most notable in the size of their brains - in a wolf-sized domestic dog, the brain is often as much as 20% smaller than in wolves (McLoughlin). Despite this, many humans today continue to think of wolves in much the same way as they do their spaniel. Unable to contemplate the wilderness because they have so successfully insulated themselves from it, they often try to use their dogs and wolves as a bridge to understanding, much to the detriment of the dignity of the wolf.

      Concurrent with the selective breeding of domesticated wolves was the slaughter of wild wolves. Wolves have been killed by humans ever since they started competing with each other for survival; the killing increased dramaticaly once the hunter-gatherer societies started herding and agricultural activities. Initially a matter of self-defense or of protecting domestic animals, the wolf somehow became a symbol of everything that was wicked, and it turned into an often mindless slaughter, reaching a sickening climax in North America. Between 1865 and 1895, "virtually every wolf from Texas to the Dakotas, from Missouri to Colorado" was killed (Lopez). In 1871, the first wolf bounty in the United States was offered by New York - the huge sum of $30 (about a month's wages) per wolf. No one knows how many wolves were killed during that 30-year period: "perhaps 1 million wolves; 2 million. The numbers no longer have meaning" (Lopez). It's important to keep in mind, because of the way it affects current attitudes towards hunting, that the wolf was not the only victim, merely the one that was the subject of vindictive slaughter, of "biocide." Adding in the buffalo, the passenger pigeon, antelope, Indian ponies and other animals, Lopez estimates that 500 million animals were killed on the American plains between 1850 and 1900!

      Wolves in Canada didn't escape the slaughter, it just came later, and as a result of the smaller number of people per square mile, wasn't as complete. But the attitudes were similar to those of the Americans; in 1886, the Dominion Fisheries Commissioner wrote regarding the game in Rocky Mountains Park (now Banff): "Skin hunters, dynamiters, and netters, with Indians, wolves and foxes have committed sad havoc" (Foster). And the 1892 Ontario Royal Commission on Fish and Game stated that the depletion of game was due to the advancing civilzation, "the ravages of wolves and the indisriminate hunting of the human assasin..." (in Foster). Despite the fact that wolf bounties were in place in Ontario by 1793, the West reacted much slower to "the menace," with Alberta placing a bounty in 1899, and British Columbia in 1909. But the carnage didn't peak until 1955, "when most of the wolf range in northern Canada was covered with poison bait stations (some of them poisoned wolf carcasses) served by airplane..." (Lopez).

      In the Yukon, a particularly ill-conceived poisoning program was initiated in 1924, as a supplement to the bounty which had been set the previous year. Although the poisoning only lasted 2 years, the "incidental kill" was extremely high and widespread, due to a lack of knowledge of how to use the poison. For 20 years following that disaster, poison wasn't mentioned. While the rest of the continent was conducting extensive wolf-kill programs, Yukoners used their isolation to their advantage:

Virtually the entire population of the Yukon from 1900 to about 1941 were wildlife users. The powers of self government allowed them to resist the imposition of many outside ideas about wildlife, which ideas in any case bore little relevance to the Yukon situation (McCandless).

      With the opening of the Alaska Highway, this isolation ended. A large percentage of the newcomers were from Alberta, and in 1945 they established the Yukon Fish and Game Association. They quickly became very influential with the Territorial government, and by 1946 were pressuring the government to reduce the wolf population so that there would be more moose and caribou for hunters. In 1948, the Alberta government unleashed "an astonishing arsenal of poison" on the wolves in that province. There is no record of the number of wolves that were killed by the 106,100 cyanide cartridges, 628,000 strychnine pellets, and 800 sodium fluoroacetate poison bait stations, but among the "incidental killings" were 246,800 coyotes (Lopez).

      In the Yukon, poisoning wolves had been illegal since the experiment in the 1920s, and there was still a general fear of poison, especially among the people who lived in the bush. But the newcomers increased the pressure on the government, and by the mid-1950s, a Territory-wide wolf poisoning program was in place. The program was again short-lived, but was cancelled for economic, not environmental reasons this time. Scientific knowledge regarding wolves, their impact on a wilderness area, and humans' impact on them, was extremely limited at the time; in the Yukon, wolves were being killed for strictly political reasons.

      The elusiveness of wolves, combined with superstitions about them that stretch back into prehistory, have combined to make the wolf more an animal of our imagination than fact. The first truly scientific book on wolves was just published in 1944 (Adolph Murie's The Wolves of Mount McKinley), and the most reliable reference work available until very recently, David Mech's The Wolf, didn't start to dispell the myths until 1970. In North America, humans' attitudes toward animals in general are still in a transitional stage - no longer totally ignorant, yet not fully ready to return to most aboriginal peoples' view of animals as equals and partners. This particularly applies to wolves and our other 2 main symbols of the wilderness, grizzlies and bald eagles. Widely divergent viewpoints, ambivalence and controversy are the result of this transition, with the wolf, as always, caught in the middle.

      Despite the fact that in the lower 48 states, wolves are supposed to be protected as an endangered species, they are still regularly killed by government hunters to protect livestock. In 1992, the Animal Damage Control Division of the Department of Agriculture had 900 employees and a budget of $46,000,000; they succeeded in "eradicating" over 250,000 "nuisance" animals, including bald eagles, California condors and gray wolves (Backpacker, August 1992 and February 1993). When reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park was proposed, it was strenuously fought by neighbouring ranchers who are "in the business of raising things that wolves like to eat" (Backpacker, December 1992). And hikers were not at all happy about a proposal to close up to 25% of the park until the wolves were established. Six years later, the controversy continues.

      To understand the current situation in the Yukon and Alaska, southern attitudes toward wolves have to be viewed in the context not only of the hunting of other animals (for example, permit hunting of isolated pockets of mountain goats in British Columbia, and unrestricted hunting of the extremely rare mountain lion in Texas), but also as a small part of environmental problems such as the clear-cut logging of old growth forests on the west coast, and the sterilizing of lakes and rivers on the east coast.

      The environmental destruction in the heavily populated areas of the continent, and the world in general, is on such a vast scale that few people can even comprehend it. One of the consequences of that enormity is that people and their environmental organizations look elsewhere for problems that they feel are on a more manageable level of complexity. When the Western Canada Wilderness Committee was unable to stop clear-cut logging in British Columbia, they shifted much of their energy to a similar problem in Malaysia; Greenpeace has similarly shifted a large number of their programs to focus overseas. One of the major benefits of this policy is that when the decisions made are wrong, it's very easy to move on to a new project elsewhere. The North has sporadically been the target of their good intentions.

      Even though most people in North America will never see the Yukon or Alaska, "The North continues to be evocative. This is so because recent northern ...development has been a compressed reiteration of earlier national struggles and dilemmas, and because current outstanding issues in the North crystallize major national concerns" (Abele). The North is therefore seen as a place for North Americans to show that they have learned from their mistakes, that they now understand why wilderness must be protected, and how to accomplish it. Unfortunately for that idea, the Yukon and Alaska are not parks for their enjoyment - people live in the North, and people have an impact. Not only do those people need to earn a living in what remains largely a resource-based economy,

...man is subject to this immutable natural law: all animals must kill and eat other living things in order to maintain their own lives. The only escape from this universal truth is to terminate one's own life (Spomer).
      It's difficult (maybe impossible) for people living "Outside" to appreciate the difference between their lifestyle and that of many Northerners; even some people who move here never seem to grasp the differences. The wolf-kill clearly focusses on at least 2 of these differences: humans as natural predators, and the determination of most northern residents to end their virtual colonial status.

      Humans here are vastly outnumbered, particularly in the Yukon, where there are 31,000 people, 50,000 moose and 180,000 caribou. In a situation like that, "man as hunter fits within nature's scheme and need be no more ecologically destructive than any other predator species" (Spomer). While the average Northern hunter is unlikely to reach the state of the pre-contact Athapaskan natives who regarded hunting, and game animals and their meat as holy, he/she is far above the "blood-sport killer" portrayed by writers such as Farley Mowat. In the Yukon government's Hunter Education & Ethics Development course, instilling respect for the animals is heavily emphasized. Many environmentalists, though, consider all hunting to be immoral:

Is it morally acceptable to kill an animal just because you've raised it in captivity? If cruelty is the issue, it can be argued that stalking and shooting a white-tailed deer that has lived unfettered all its life is more humane than castrating a calf, punching a plastic tag through its ear, branding it with a hot iron, poking it with needles, confining it to a feedlot, prodding it ito loading chutes and trucks and hauling it over noisy highways to die in a 'disassembly' line (Spomer).
      One of the most interesting paradoxes of the environmental movement is that "affluent classes which give substantial aid to conservation groups are, in turn, prime users of the end products of those animals in furs, exotic leathers, ivory, or the special privilege of photographing or hunting them" (McCandless). The wolf kills in the Yukon and Alaska in recent years have highlighted that paradox: in 1992, the average price for a wolf pelt in the Vancouver fur auction was $83, but by January 1993, as world attention was being focussed on the killing, the price had skyrocketed to $375. Ken Darbyshire of the Yukon Trappers' Association explained to me that wolf pelts used to be sold as "strippers" (miscellaneous fur for clothing trim), but since the wolf-kill controversy started, they now sell as "trophy" pelts.

      Wildlife management is not an exact science - biologists just don't know what all the variables are, or what the precise consequences of a given action will be. The ecological balance of the North isn't easily broken down into formulae. In his preface to Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat says that "unfortunately, my major thesis - that the wolf does not pose a threat to other wildlife, and is not a danger or a competitor of any consequence to man - remains largely unaccepted." It remains unaccepted because it is far too simplistic, and in some cases is clearly just not true. In the case of the Yukon's Aishihik caribou herd (one of the herds affected by the latest series of wolf kills), from 1983-1988, hunters killed 9% of the caribou that died, wolves killed just over 29%, and grizzlies were responsible for over 48% of the deaths, according to Renewable Resources data. Those statistics of course beg the question of why wolves were targetted instead of grizzlies - the answer lies in the fact that while wolf populations fluctuate drastically and recover quickly, grizzly populations are very stable.

      The commonly-noted "interference of outsiders" involved in the anti-wolf-kill movement brought to the surface long-standing resentment by many Northerners of the amount of political power held by Ottawa and Washington, in areas that many feel are more properly controlled locally. Of particular note is the regulation of resources. In the Yukon,

The National Energy Program treated the Territorial North as an internal colony. Developed without northern consultation, the NEP deployed northern energy resources 'in the national interest' using regulations and subsidies to implement a particular economic strategy (Abele).
More recently, the Yukon was excluded from the discussions on the critical national Meech Lake Accord. Here again, in the political arena, the wolf becomes a symbol instead of a living being. An informal survey of taxi passengers that I conducted in Whitehorse at the height of the 1993 wolf-kill controversy showed that an overwhelmingly high percentage of Yukoners, even those with no clear stand on the wolf kill itself, were adamant that the situation could best be analyzed and handled by locals, and that the interference of "do-gooders from Vancouver" was not welcome.

      Many of the leaders of the environmental organizations that have campaigned against the wolf-kills here did so only as long as the media attention lasted. The success of their campaign in Alaska in 1992, using a tourism boycott, bouyed their hopes for a similar outcome in the Yukon the following year. When however, only 30 people showed up at a rally in Ottawa, 10 people turned out in Washington, and even the Yukon Conservation Society refused to side with them, Paul Watson and Bill Hipwell soon left the Territory (Yukon News, Feb. 5, 1993).

      Though the media, and the environmental organizations outside have largely moved on to new projects, management of all Northern wildife continues to be a controversial, emotional issue for residents of the Yukon and Alaska. All of our newspaper archives have extensive coverage of the continuing discussions, but little attention is now being paid by the media outside. Most residents have apparently decided to trust that the dedicated biologists, who by their own admission in many articles don't have all the answers, are nonetheless following a path that will eventually allow humans, caribou and wolves to live side-by-side in relative harmony, with each allowed to maintain the dignity of their species.

References & Further Reading:

  • Abele, Frances - "Canadian Contradictions: Forty Years of Northern Political Development," in Interpreting Canada's North: Selected Readings (Toronto: Copp and Clark, 1989)
  • Foster, Janet - Working for Wildlife: The Beginning of Preservation in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1978, 1998)
  • Lopez, Barry - Of Wolves and Men (New York: Scribner's, 1978)
  • McCandless, Robert G. - Yukon Wildlife: A Social history (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985)
  • McLoughlin, John C. - The Canine Clan: A New Look at Man's Best Friend (New York: Viking Press, 1983)
  • Mech, David - The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species
  • Mowat, Farley - Never Cry Wolf (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1968)
  • Murie, Adolph - Wolves of Denali (Seattle: University of Washington, 1985)
  • Olsen, Stanley J. - Origins of the Domestic Dog: The Fossil Record (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1985)
  • Rezendes, Paul - Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks (Charlotte, VT: Camden House, 1992)
  • Spomer, Ron - "Why Hunt?," in Breakthrough, September 1971

©1998-2024 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.