Not much fuss over wolves in Canada


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

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alberta - Canadians who live around wolves have a simple attitude toward the predators: No big deal.

As fierce debate continues in the United States over the place of wolves, Canadians who live with the animals can't figure out why their neighbors to the south are making such a fuss.

Calvin Mallette considers the question: Do wolves perturb him at all? He answers with a question of his own, "Have you seen one?" He figures, correctly, that the answer will be no.

Few people ever see the wolves that roam the foothills around this bustling town on the flanks of the Canadian Rockies. Even fewer report run-ins with the furtive predators, though many might shoot wolves on sight, as many in the Western United States fire at coyotes.

It is here that U.S. biologists came to collect wolves for shipment to Idaho and Yellowstone. There is the occasional death of a domestic cow here, and there is good evidence wolves trim game herds. This month, the Alberta government announced plans for more intensive wolf control in the southern foothills of the province, where wolf numbers are swelling and ranchers have reported about 30 cattle and sheep killed by wolves since March.

Still, in a region where the economy is based on agriculture, oil and gas production and tourism, as it is in the American West, wolves provoke hardly a whisper of public concern.

"My own opinion is, I don't know why you want to bother bringing wolves down to the states," says Mallette, lingering along the main street of Rocky Mountain House, a west Alberta town of about 5,000. "Nobody even knows they're around anyway."

Working in the oilfields of northern Alberta, Mallette has only once seen a wolf. A black animal that wandered out from the edge of the forest, it turned and ran off.

The primary difference between wolves in Canada and the populations to be re-established in the Unitied States lies in the terms of their control. Canadian wolves are hunted and trapped, though not intensively, and are poisoned when they attack livestock.

Those reintroduced to Yellowstone will be subject to control, but only under certain conditions, such as when they kill livestock.

If experience in Canada is any guide, however, wolf forays into livestock may be the exception rather than the rule.

In summer, livestock graze west of Rocky Mountain House in a government forest reserve that butts up against Canada's Jasper and Banff national parks, just as cattle roam U.S. ational forests surrounding Yellowstone. But rarely do livestock fall prey to wolves that range over territories both inside and outside the national parks.

"There is lots of potential, but the actual number of incidents are relatively low," says Eldon H. Bruns, head of wildlife management for the eastern slopes region of the Alberta fish and wildlife agency.

Ranchers report two to three cases of livestock damage each year, he said. In cases of chronic attacks, government agents poison wolves with strychnine pellets buried around a carcass where only wolves will find them. But the government will not poison farther than 14 miles into the forest reserve.

"The policy is we're not going to poison every wolf in Alberta just because they're killing livestock," Bruns says.

Many hunters would like wolves controlled to reduce the pressure the predators put on game populations. Studies in Alberta have shown that wolves can cut the number of elk calves by close to 75 percent from spring through fall, Bruns says.

Wolf packs were found to consume annually some 12-15 moose, deer or elk per each wolf in the pack. A medium-size pack of six wolves, then, would kill 72-90 prey animals a year.

Studies of Yellowstone in advance of wolf reintroduction suggest wolves will cull game herds but will not devastate them.

In some spots, Alberta wildlife managers have not opened hunting seasons for female elk and deer since 1969, about the time wolves began a comeback following decades of persecution.

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