Canada provides $2000 wolves


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The wolves are back, big time.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alberta - Someday, perhaps not too far off, residents of the region around Yellowstone National Park may know wolves the way Gerald Gustavson knows wolves.

"It'll happen one day, when you're out in the forest, and the sun's just going down, so shadows are dancing all around," says Gustavson, sipping rum in his spartan cabin in the Canadian outback west of the small town of Rocky Mountain House.

Outside in the dark, flying squirrels peck at seeds in bird feeders on the window sill.

"All of a sudden, you hear a wolf howl, and it's not far away." He continues, pointing over his shoulder, "and then you hear another howl, and it's over here.

"And one here, and over here," he says, aiming his finger at different spots around the room. "And they know that you're there. The hair just stands up on the back of your neck, I don't care who you are."

While Gustavson lives off wolves - specifically, by trapping them - he counts himself among those who value the predators that hold an almost mythical place in human imagination. And he is playing a lead role in restoring them to historic haunts.

Gustavson was among some 10 Canadian trappers in western Alberta stalking gray wolves at the behest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They contended with bitter cold, rambunctious oil prospectors and logging as they matched wits against their targets.

Tacked to a cork bulletin board in Gustavson's cabin is an envelope from the U.S. government. Inside is a purchase order: "Provide wolves for Yellowstone reintroduction." The pay? Two thousand dollars per wolf, or a maximum of $5,000, the most any one trapper can receive.

Beginning in October, trappers here sought wolves that government biologists would fit with radio collars to learn just how many wolf packs roam the forests, or "the bush," as it's known in Canada. Ten wolves wore radio collars by early January.

Gustavson presided over a 65-square-mile zone of government land, or "crown land," where he has an exclusive right to trap marten, lynx, beaver, coyotes and wolves. As he has perfected his pursuit of wolves, he says, his respect for the predators has grown.

"There's the image of the wolf as terrible," adds Gustavson's wife Elsie, who recalls exiting the cabin after a quiet night and finding fresh wolf tracks in the snow outside the front door. "But there's also the wolf that's beautiful and wonderful."

There's also the wolf that's smart. Sometimes when checking his snares - up to 100 surrounding a bait station loaded with road-killed deer, elk or moose - Gustavson finds the footprints of a wolf that walked up to a snare, took a look or a sniff, and then backed up and went another direction.

"They're finicky animals," he says. "Some guys have aftershave or deodorant or whatever. It all smells different to a wolf and it's all going to make them nervous."

If wolves had been exterminated from the Canadian backcountry, as they were in the American West, Gustavson would have wanted them brought back.

But - "and this is a big but'' - he says they must be controlled through trapping, hunting or other means.

"I'd want them around, but I sure wouldn't want them around if they weren't going to be kept honest," Gustavson says.

Trappers do not catch many wolves - last year they took 399 throughout the whole of Alberta, which has an estimated wolf population of about 4,000. But by nabbing some, he says, the 82 active trappers in the region keep the rest on guard.

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