Several wolf images on papers, an ioen laptop computer

Origins of the Cortes Community Wolf Project

There was an increasing number of wolf sightings and encounters on Cortes Island during the closing months of 2008. A number of posts in the Tideline over the course of the next two years mention ‘an awful lot of them on the island, in an awfully short time.’ There were mixed reactions. A Squirrel Cove resident wrote that 15 ran through one of their neighbours yards at 4 AM. Someone had a ‘magical encounter’ with a large black wolf, standing on the foot bridge over the channel connecting Gunflint and Hague Lakes, as she paddled through with her canoe. Another resident reported that three wolves killed her dog, only 70 feet from her house.

More than 150 people gathered in the Linnaea School, on January 17, 2009, when Sabina Leader Mense brought in two experts to share their experiences with wolves.  Conservation Officer Ben York thanked the audience for bringing him in to discuss the situation, rather than put an animal down. He also stated that some of the wolves on Cortes ‘are very habituated’ and ‘˜there is a level of tolerance for these animals that is endangering them.’

The other expert was Bob Hansen, a wildlife/human conflict specialist in the Pacific Rim National Reserve.

Hansen was also one of the principle speakers at the recent Wildlife Coexistence Gathering on Cortes Island.  He explained that prior to receiving Sabina’s invitation, his attention was primarily focused on the Pacific Rim community.

Bob Hansen at the Wildlife Coexistence Gathering on Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo

“I was approached by another champion, Sabina, because she’d heard about the Wild Coast Project.” 

“So now we’re  taking a step away from the West Coast. We were really laser focused. I was hesitant, and the management team was really hesitant, like – ‘you want to leave the park and  go over to the other side of the island?’  They did agree, and the only stipulation they made  was that the CO service had to be here as well.”

“It turned out that Ben York, was the CO. We’d worked together on Bear Aware in our area and he’d taken a new posting. By this time Ben had married our other champion Crystal.” (Laughter) 

(In the first article of this series, Hansen described Crystal McMillan as a force of nature in the Ucluelet area. Her Bear Aware group was so effective that she received a Premier’s Award. She insisted that all of her partners and collaborators also be recognized. So Premier Gordon Campbell presented the award to a group of people that included Crystal, Bob Hansen and Ben York.)  

“So Ben and Crystal came to our first Cortes community meeting in 2009.  That was a huge learning experience, and out of that came the Wolf Primer. You were working on the whole idea of identifying and getting to know individual wolves  and understanding which wolves were behaving in which ways.”

Some of the wolves were drawn by the sheep carcasses at the back of Blue Jay Lake Farm. During his slideshow presentation, Hansen praised the farmer for his innovative solution.  

Bob Hansen: “Under that blue tarp is a giant hill of moldering hay, and  he started disposing of his carcasses with that. It’s super hot, they break down really quickly, no more issues with the wolves patrolling  for dead sheep.” 

“That led to the more in depth workshop in two years, where Grace SoftDeer, ourselves and Ben York came, along with some of the researchers from the Wild Coast Project.  We stayed at Christine Robinson’s place. That was the storytelling workshop, another really rich experience.” 

“Then Sabina told Nitya Harris, a champion from the Metchosin-Sooke-Colwood area. Over  five years, 50 bears and 15 cougars had been destroyed in that area. Just like Crystal and Sabina before her, Nitya decided it’s time to do something.”   

Sabina Leader Mense: “We were introduced a few years after we started the  Cortes Community Wolf Project and Nitya said, ‘I want to do that. I want to do that in Metchosin where I live.’ We spoke with Bob. We spoke with Ben York.” 

“We had a grand scheme actually to head off into the interior of BC, because Ben told us that you should just copy what you’re doing with other communities. So the two of us said,  ‘we’ll go into central B. C. and we’ll just visit all these communities and convert them and get them going on wildlife coexistence.'”

“Bob had been in New York at the time.”

“Ben took on a very fatherly role, sat both of us down and said went, ‘No! You’ll be lynched. First words out of your mouth, in the first community you will be lynched,’ he said. Absolutely not, think of something else.'”  

“So Nitya came up with the Coexisting with Carnivores Alliance.’”

Bob Hansen: “Nitya took the model of ‘we all have to get together in a room on a regular basis and talk to each other.’ There was a sheep farmer, two councillors, a Habitat Acquisition Trust Director, CRD Parks, Ministry of Agriculture and the CO Service. There was also a forester and Helen Schwantje (the provincial wildlife vet). We would get together on a regular basis. Todd and I shared the results from the Wild Coast Project with them, and then with the community.  We  brought in electric fencing experts.  That group is still very active today.”  

“They’re quite involved with an initiative that Nitya brought forward for an Indigenous led stewardship corridor up the entire west coast of Vancouver Island. The Nations  are leading that now.” 

“Around the same time, Todd and I  talked about the need for a regional working group to just focus on human wildlife coexistence in our region.”  

In the podcast Hansen describes meetings involving Parks Canada,  the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, all three levels of governments, NGOs, Chambers of Commerce, tourism agencies,  the CEO service,  provincial parks,  ecotourism operators and interested residents.

“The Iisaak Sin Hay TiicÌŒmis Regional Wildlife Coexistence Network was born and is still active today. It has really helped guide actions in our region  and has been a great force for brainstorming and innovating and moving forward on co existent initiatives.”

“Two of the early recommendations was to establish a WildSafeBC program in the Tofino Ucluelet area, and the other was to establish a First Nations focused WildSafe BC program. That all came to pass. This is my seventh season with WildSafe BC as community coordinator. 

Wildsafebc Hitacu-Macoah was the first and is still the only First Nations focused WildSafe BC program in BC.” 

“Todd created an initiative to  take our knowledge right across the board, all of those different disciplines in an integrated way,  walking together with First Nations to a whole other level. Todd’s going to talk about that (in another article).

“Another lesson learned along the way was how important it is to engage and empower youth. So we came up with the Connecting Students with Wildlife Project, setting up camera networks in communities in Ahousat, Tofino, and Ucluelet. It’s teaching wildlife technician skills, ecology and coexistence, tracking and safety with children. Get them out in the field.  One of the students involved in that program just contacted us a few days ago for a letter of reference. He’s off to the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) to study resource conservation. He and his buddy set up their own research centre, wildlife monitoring area, camera network and education Facebook page for their neighborhood. They live right in the Tofino Wildlife Management Area, which has been one of the hot spots for conflicts. They just decided to do this and it is a super effective program.”

“Then I had the opportunity to join up with the Nuu chah nulth Youth Warrior Program and go out on field trips with those youth.  (One of the slides shows a group of Indigenous youth gathered around a campfire.) In this particular evening, we’re sitting around learning from Elder Raymond Hippie. He’s passing on important traditional knowledge to all of us about how to live with wildlife in a respectful way.” 

“The last several years, it’s basically all education. Last year, we delivered 33 training courses  to staff in the area and we engaged with over 2, 000 people .”

“The other lesson learned from the Iisaak Sin Hay TiicÌŒmis network  is the importance of having  a roadmap for the future.  It provides a way to measure progress.” 

Hansen returned to Cortes Island, to give electric fencing and bear spray workshops in February, 2024.

He was also one of the four presenters at the Wildlife Coexistence Gathering April 5-7, 2024. 

“I’ve found on this Human Wildlife Coexistence journey, that at times you’re completely overwhelmed and discouraged. Positive change seems to take so long but, I learned a long time ago, there’s no silver bullet solutions. Dynamics are dynamic and they never stop being dynamic. Everything’s going to keep changing,” he told an audience at the Linnaea Farm Education Centre on Saturday, April 6.  

“I also saw and learned and experienced how gains can be lost.  Efforts to improve in coexisting have to be consistent and persistent, because every single day we are always in relationship with wildlife. It’s a forever relationship.” 

”I find it’s important to look back, to appreciate how far I’ve come on this journey  and how much positive change has been achieved. Far from working alone, now I’m just part of many interconnected networks of community effort to make positive change.”

Links of Interest:

Top image credit: Working on a wolf project -courtesy Bob Hansen’s presentation

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