Biologist Sadie Parr grew up in Toronto thinking she would one day help save gorillas and elephants.
Then she came West, and one day found herself in Golden, B.C., at a wolf education centre. The effect on her was profound.
“With every ounce of my being, fibre, I began learning about them and learning how I could effectively contribute to wolf conservation across Canada.”
Parr, 37, is the executive director of Wolf Awareness in Golden. She was in Central Alberta last week giving presentations about wolves at schools in Benalto and Sylvan Lake. While here, she met with Alberta wolf conservation groups.
In the schools, she told children about wolves and the important role they have in the environment, as a “keystone” species that affects many other species and processes in healthy eco systems.
The intelligence, sensitivity and social bonds of wolves is fascinating, says Parr.
“Wolves are still very much misunderstood, and highly persecuted, but I have to admit I have been thrilled in the school delivery programs where kids know a lot more about wolves than adults do.
“The key message is … these animals are extremely intelligent and sensitive and emotional and they have high intrinsic value in and of themselves, as well as a very important ecological role in maintaining health and balance in ecosystems.
“So that when we are causing harm to wolves specifically, many other species and systems will invariably suffer directly and indirectly as well.”
Wolves have been a hot topic in Alberta and B.C., as the two governments have undertaken major wolf kill programs to protect caribou.
In Alberta, the province has approved the killing of nearly 1,000 wolves since 2006 to protect the small Little Smoky caribou herd north of Edmonton. Unfortunately, industry has disturbed about 95 per cent of the range area of the caribou, which has made them more vulnerable to wolf predation.
The Canadian Press reported recently that three other caribou ranges in the same area have disturbance rates from 50 to 95 per cent — far higher than federal guidelines for usable caribou habitat. And energy leases are still being sold on those ranges. Forestry also continues.
In B.C., the province has approved the killing of 184 wolves in the South Selkirk and South Peace caribou herd ranges, said Parr.
Those ranges have also been affected by human activity, she said. In Alberta it’s oil and pipelines, and in B.C. it’s been logging in the past but now it’s commercial pursuits such as snowmobiling, and industrial development.
“Kill all the wolves you want, those caribou are not going to survive,” Parr believes.
“They (caribou) are a very sensitive species that can be disturbed and displaced by all of the activities that humans continue to do in those areas.
“If we kill wolves for caribou, we are going to create a whole bunch of other environmental problems that we’re going to have to deal with as well.”
When the top predator is removed, the ungulate population increases, stops moving and disease spreads.
“Killing wolves in the name of caribou recovery is going to have many adverse affects on the environment,” said Parr.
So how can the caribou be protected?
“Ideally, we need to go back in time and protect the habitat for all of the species … we’re not doing that. I do not support killing one species in the name of another one. I do not think that is an ethically sound decision.
“I see no evidence in the history of science where … killing wolves has increased ungulate populations in the long term.
“We are still destroying and fragmenting essential caribou habitat. We can kill as many wolves as we would like, in certain areas caribou are not going to recover because they don’t have the area to raise their young, to find the food they need and to avoid natural predators, of which wolves are only one of them.”
Wolves are a top predator. Their presence on a landscape influences many natural systems. Wolves not only help control the ungulate population, they also cause ungulates to move. This changes ungulate behaviour and feeding patterns, which helps vegetation and trees grow, which then creates shade for streams, which help fish and provides habitat for insects and butterflies and song birds, said Parr.
“It’s that tinkering with a keystone species — the wolf as a keystone species affects many, many other species that it shares that environment with.”
If wolves were left completely alone, “of course there wouldn’t be an overpopulation because look at the hundreds of thousands of years where predator and prey have lived in balance,” Parr says.
She is studying wolves in a remote and protected area with little human activity in the Chilcotin region of B.C.
The study will provide baseline information on what wolves are eating there. The area is also home to wild horses, plus other large carnivores such as bears. The results will be compared with the adjacent Nemaiah Valley area, which has more human activity.
Parr hopes the study will lead to better management practices for long-term conservation.
She says the Southern Selkirk caribou herd is in “an island of extinction” because it is in an isolated patch of habitat cut off from the larger northern herds, so they have no migration and no new gene flow.
“Killing wolves is the most cost-effective way to say we’re doing something to help recover caribou. … It would be a lot more expensive to deactivate roads and restore the habitat, and a large amount of time.
“If we start killing wolves now, are we prepared to kill them for the next 20 to 30 years, if not indefinitely, to keep those caribou on the life support that we’ve put them on in that small habitat that we have set aside for them?”
There are other predators in B.C. — wolverines and grizzly bears — that kill more caribou calves than wolves do, she said.
But killing grizzly bears has become publicly unacceptable. The grizzly’s profile has been raised in Alberta and that needs to be done for wolves too, she said.
Many people are surprised that wolves are not a threat to people, she said. In the past 200 years, there have been few documented cases in North America of people being killed by a wolf.
But more people are starting to understand the true nature of wolves, she says.
Parr’s priority is education and as long as people want to learn about wolves, “I’m just continuing to carry this torch.”