Wolf Tales from Cortes Island

Cortes Island’s wildlife coexistence programs can be traced back to  human/wolf conflicts in 2009. Local biologist Sabina Leader Mense reached out to Bob Hansen, then wildlife-human conflict specialist with Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.  The Cortes Community Wolf Project is modelled on the Wild Coast program that Hansen had been running in the Pacific Rim for more than a decade. Hansen and Conservation Officer Ben York helped Sabina write ‘Learning to Live with Wolves on Cortes Island,’ a five-point primer which FOCI endorses and posts throughout the community.

Hansen returned to Cortes at Sabina’s invitation, for the first time since 2011, on February 3. He gave a workshop on electric fences and a demonstration on using bear spray at Linnaea Farm. There were also a lot of ‘wolf stories’ and new information. 

Adapted from Cortes Community Wolf Project image

Hansen talked about the dynamic lives that wolves lead; lives influenced by prey abundance, distribution, seasonality and where in their breeding cycle they are: mating, denning, rearing pups. There is no predicting when/ where wolves will be at any given time; i.e. no management of wild wolves. We can only manage ourselves!

Bob Hansen: “They’re (the wolves) studying us way more than we’re studying them. If they’re around a lot, they’re going to know exactly where you are and exactly where the dogs are at all times that they’re anywhere close to you. They spend every day of their lives trying to figure us out and file away our reactions when we encounter them. They’ve created their own culture of coexistence, they behave the way we teach them to behave. They’ll be teaching their pups how to coexist.” 

Sabina Leader Mense: “My real takeaway from what Bob has said just over the last couple of days that he’s been here, is the onus is really on us to behave in ways that do not put wolves at risk.” 

Bob said “the wolves take their cues from us.” So no interactions with wolves; no gawking to look or take a photograph; keep wolves wary of humans at all times.” 

The Cortes Wolf Primer states, “when you encounter them (wolves) in a residential area i.e. near your home, your neighbour’s, the community halls, stores, schools etc, wave your arms to make yourself look bigger, shout loudly and use noisemakers. Let the wolves know, in no uncertain terms, that they need to respect you and you will not tolerate their presence in this place!! Use your most aggressive body language; take on the alpha role.”

Bob Hansen: “That’s what we call hazing. You’re teaching them to stay wary. If they stay wary, they’re going to stay alive. If they lose their wariness, then anything could happen.” 

Cortes Currents: Do you have any idea how many wolves there are on Cortes right now.

Sabina Leader Mense: “We have identified 7 adults with their pups of the year. They won’t all stick together with the pups anymore.  The pups are old enough, they’re hunting with groups of adults. There will be four wolves here, two there, three here. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing with single day sightings coming in from Squirrel Cove, Whaletown, and the south end.” 

Bob Hansen: “What we’ve seen over the years is that when the prey (even a good sized black tailed deer) tends to be smaller, two wolves can clean it up in a couple of days. Even a single wolf can take down a deer given the right situation. So they don’t need to travel as a large pack.” 

“It’s not like in the Interior where they’re hunting moose or elk, where the whole pack gets involved in taking down a big animal. Out here on the coast, we almost never see the whole pack together. If it wasn’t for the cameras, we wouldn’t realize that there’s a large pack, but they now have cameras in some of the spots where they socialize and rendezvous. They’ll go off and hunt and then they’ll howl and come back together at a rendezvous site. They’ll get reacquainted and then they’ll go off in their separate directions again.”  

“If they aren’t socializing and aren’t sleeping, they’re traveling and hunting. Their territory can be very, very large. If there’s prey, they’ll keep returning to that general area. If there’s deer near your place on a regular basis, and it’s part of their territory, they’ll likely be stopping by and most of the time you won’t even be aware that they’ve been there.”  

Someone pointed out that there haven’t been many deer on Cortes lately. 

Cortes Currents: Will the wolves move away if the deer population goes down?  

Bob Hansen: “It depends on what the prey base is. In the diet research we did, seal pups were in the top four food items over multiple years, and we didn’t even anticipate that at all. River Otter was in the top three. Raccoons was always in the top three. Canada Geese here as well, and clams.” 

“They will find and utilize whatever food source they can discover, which is interesting because human activity does serve as a protection for livestock and that sort of thing. If you think about it, there’s chickens running around right now that would be easy to pick off and they’re not picking them off.  They’re keeping their focus on deer and all those other natural prey items.” 

Sabina Leader Mense: “A lot of people ask where wolf territory is, and where our territory is. What you can define as your territory is your home place, your enclosures for livestock and dogs and all public use areas where we gather: community halls, shops, schools etc. Consider everything else theirs. They may not be there right now, they may not be actively defending that area, but they could roll into that area tomorrow.” 

There has been a lot of discussion about whether dogs should be allowed to roam freely on Cortes, or kept on a leash when going off your property. 

The Cortes Wolf Primer states: “Dogs must be leashed when walked; unleashed dogs are seen as prey by wolves. Take an airhorn and/or bear spray along as an extra precaution when walking dogs, as dogs are a magnet for wolves. Wolves view all dogs as a territorial threat.”

According to wildlife-human conflict specialists, when wolves see a dog on a leash they do not view the dog as prey, rather it is identified as belonging to  the person at the end of the leash and this dramatically reduces conflict between wolves and dogs. Sabina refers to this as, “the power of the leash!”

There have been a number of recent occasions when Cortes residents have given wolves mixed messages. First by letting their dogs loose in wolf territory and then, when the wolves responded, either picking the dogs up or putting them on a leash. Luckily there haven’t been any incidents but, as is their custom, wolves have been known to escort intruders outside their territory.     

Bob Hansen: “It’s mating season right now, so higher testosterone in the males, In our record keeping of aggressive encounters between dogs and wolves, it spikes at this time of year. They may be slightly more predisposed to challenge rather than defer to a dog in their territory.”

Sabina said the rules are different when humans, unaccompanied by dogs, encounter wolves. For example if you meet on a path and the wolf moves off into the forest, it has given you permission to proceed. Feel free to do so, but do not make eye contact; no interaction. If the wolves stand their ground, do not proceed, they may be defending pups or a kill. If you feel wolves are uncomfortably close, defend your personal space the same way you would haze them in your neigbourhood – keep them wary of you and leave the area.

She is asking people not take pictures of Cortes Island’s wolves. 

Cortes Currents: Why? Do wolves interpret this as a threat? 

Sabina Leader Mense: “No, it is not a threat at all. We’re simply saying don’t stop and have the interaction. You’re never to interact with a wolf. If you see a wolf, in close proximity to yourself, yell, ‘Get the hell outta here! Scram!’ They need to be wary of you. Wild, wary and alive!” 

Wildlife cameras provide the necessary photographs for research with no human interaction.

She pointed to the shooting of the world famous wolf Takaya as an example of what happens when wolves get accustomed to the presence of humans. After being documented by a photographer for years, Takaya left its island home and swam across to Victoria. The Conservation Officer Service caught him in someone’s backyard. Takaya was released back into the wild where, having lost his fear of man, he was easily shot by a hunter. 

Our thanks to Bob Hansen for his Wolf Tales and once again engaging the Cortes community in the wildlife coexistence conversation. Bob is one member of an extended community of professional expertise that advise the Cortes Community Wolf Project on wildlife coexistence.

Learning to Live with Wolves on Cortes Island

We need to keep our wolves WILD; here’s what each of us can do!

  1. Never feed wolves -It is illegal and completely irresponsible to feed wolves as it endangers you, your fellow community members and the wolves!
    *Take care not to leave meat or seafood scraps out near your home or in your compost pile. Dispose of these responsibly; dig into a pit or feed to the crabs.
  2. Do not feed deer or raccoons; they are prey species of wolves.
    Food conditioned deer and raccoons WILL attract wolves to your doorstep and your neighbours. Be responsible to yourself and your community.
  3. Keep yourself safe – HAZE wolves !!! when you encounter them in a residential area i.e. near your home, your neighbour’s, the community halls, stores, schools etc. Wave your arms to make yourself look bigger, shout loudly and use noisemakers. Let the wolves know, in no uncertain terms, that they need to respect you and you will not tolerate their presence in this place!! Use your most aggressive body language; take on the alpha role.
    *Take an airhorn and/or bear spray along as an extra precaution when hiking alone off the beaten track or working the beaches at night.
  4. Keep your pets safe – Dogs must be leashed when walked; unleashed dogs are seen as prey by wolves. Take an airhorn and/or bear spray along as an extra precaution when walking dogs, as dogs are a magnet for wolves. Wolves view all dogs as a territorial threat.
    *Ensure all pets are secured overnight in sturdy, predator proof kennels outside or kept inside your house at night.
    *Keep outside pet feeding areas clean; never leave uneaten food in them.
    *Do not take your dogs with you when hiking in natural areas frequented by wolves i.e. Carrington Bay, Von Donop Inlet, Hank’s Beach, Marina Island, etc.
  5. Practice good animal husbandry – Ensure all livestock are secured inside sturdy, fenced (min. 6′ high) enclosures by day and predator proof shelters by night. Free-ranging livestock are seen as prey by wolves.
    *If wolves approach livestock during the day, HAZE them; scare them away, shooting over their heads if necessary.
    *After butchering livestock, dispose of carcasses responsibly; buried deeply and ideally well away from residential areas.

As a community, work together and CONSISTENTLY follow these guidelines! We must keep our wolves WILD in order to live together with them. Report routine wolf sightings to the FOCI office at 250 935 0087 and report wolf encounters of concern to the COS at 1 877 952 RAPP (7277).

Links of Interest:

Top Wildlife Cam photo: courtesy Sabina Leader-Mense

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