Lessons from Wolf School and the launch of our new series

We are continuing the conversation on science, ethics, and wolves from Wolf School through a written article series called Wolf Stories.

When I watched the first season of Wolf School as a graduate student in 2020, I never imagined I would be hosting its second season nearly three years later. Now, as director of Raincoast’s Wolf Conservation Program, it’s a dream come true to have the opportunity to engage with experts and provide accessible educational programming for people who have a desire to learn about wolves and wolf conservation. With the success of season 1, it was an easy decision to dive back into it with a second season but this time with a heightened emphasis on the ethical dimension of wildlife management and conservation.

Wolf School has a central thread that educates people about Raincoast’s wildlife welfare ethic that states the need to apply animal welfare principles to wildlife. For season 2, I felt it was important to deliver a series that expanded this thread by exploring the inextricable link between science and ethics in wolf research, policy, and conservation. Over the course of six live webinars, we hosted a range of experts from conservation ethicists and biologists to wildlife photographers and wolf educators, including our partners from the Wolf Conservation Center.

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Introducing Wolf Stories

One of the most enjoyable and educational parts of my job is time spent speaking with Raincoast senior scientist Dr. Paul Paquet. Many of our conversations have centered around the need to bridge science and ethics in the work we do on behalf of wolves. One of the ways in which we plan to do this is by creating a platform for a diversity of perspectives to talk about these issues as they relate to our treatment of wildlife and conservation more broadly. 

Wolf Stories will be a series of conversations contributed by expert philosophers, ethicists, Knowledge Holders, animal welfare scientists, conservation biologists, and many others to increase the understanding of the ethical, philosophical, and social dimensions of predator management and its complexities as a conservation action.

Our main goal with Wolf Stories is to stimulate conversation and improve public understanding about animal welfare and environmental ethics and how it relates to wolf management and conservation. Additionally, the information gathered from this series will inform Raincoast’s ethical policies and practices and be used to engage decision-makers and community members.

Overview of the classes

The role of ethics in understanding key conservation issues

Population biologist and conservation ethicist Dr. John Vucetich kicked off the first class with an introduction to environmental ethics and how it relates to environmental sciences and natural resource management. The topic of the intrinsic value of non-human animals, and nature in general, is central to environmental ethics. Wolves play a profound role in maintaining biodiversity, but as John points out, the reason to protect wolves should not be contingent on their instrumental value to ecosystem health, for example. The reason to protect wolves is that they are entitled to be treated fairly, and that includes not killing them without a good reason.

John shared his perspective on not only how we ought to value wolves, but also how we ought to behave when conservation issues arise related to wolves. Threatened by conflict with humans and intolerance, wolves are perhaps the most politically charged of all wildlife. In considering what it is about wolves that drive so much passion from people, John explains, “wolves are symbols of all things that we love and cherish about nature and they’re symbols of all the things that we hate and fear about nature all at the same time.” Wolves are symbols of government control, and they bring out a conflict between people as much as they do a conflict between humans and wolves. This level of symbolism and perpetuation of a negative image can lead to unfair outcomes for wolves, and ultimately put their survival at risk.

Through an ethical lens: where wildlife welfare and photography combine

In class 2, wildlife photographers, Marcie Callewaert John and Melissa Groo, talked about the ethical concepts and practices of conservation photography, emphasizing the importance of placing wildlife welfare first. They also discuss the value of storytelling in their work. As a marine naturalist and place-based educator, Marcie uses photography to teach people about wildlife and the interconnectedness of the ecosystems in which they live. Melissa considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. She uses photography to showcase the complexity of emotions expressed by our non-human counterparts, aiming to evoke empathy and compassion in the viewer.

For both photographers, the goal is not to alter an animal’s behaviour by their presence. Melissa suggests entering the field equipped with basic knowledge of your subject’s behaviour, such as what alarm calls sound like for that particular species. Being able to read an animal’s behaviour can allow photographers to assess how they might be affecting their subject and when it may be time to retreat from an area. However, there are cases where you do want to change an animal’s behaviour, Marcie points out. 

Animals, particularly larger carnivores, that show signs of habituation or food-conditioning are more likely to come into conflict with people and consequently be killed by animal control officers. In many cases, when done properly, hazing (i.e., aversive conditioning) can save an animal’s life. Non-human species are currently experiencing an extinction level event, and as Melissa and Marcie emphasize in their discussion, wildlife photographers and filmmakers have an obligation to acknowledge it.

Back to the wolves: exploring the ethics of captivity for conservation

In class 3, Regan Downey, Director of Education at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC), discussed the ethics of carefully managed breeding and reintroduction programs for Mexican gray wolf recovery in the US. Wolves are social, sentient beings. They’re also individuals with distinct personalities, preferences, and needs. Regan emphasizes that in captive recovery programs, the needs of the individuals must be considered in addition to the needs of the species. However, the relative weighting of animal welfare and conservation commitments does not come without its own challenges and ethical dilemmas. 

Following Regan’s presentation, we moved over to the enclosures at the WCC to meet some wolves. Seeing the Ambassador wolves again reminded me of the harmonious howls of Alawa, Nikai, and the late Zephyr that were streamed live during last season’s episode. It was a very special moment. As humans, we tend to struggle with empathy and compassion when it comes to protecting and saving wild creatures. Regan explains that by having Ambassador wolves who are well cared for, the WCC is able to help the public to better connect to their wild kin. Building human tolerance, respect, and appreciation for the presence of large carnivores is a critical piece to wolf recovery and conservation.

When we made our way over to the WCC’s endangered species facility, there were no wolves in sight. Regan explains that this is what we want to see, or rather not see. In order for red wolves and Mexican gray wolves to be released into the wild they have to show fear of humans. Illegal killings led to a major decline in the red wolf population in 2011-2012 and continue to be a threat to the recovery of both species in the US. 

Carnivore research and animal welfare considerations

In class 4, canid specialist and professor Dr. Shelley Alexander talked about her research on wolves in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, coyotes in the foothills of Alberta, and painted dogs in Africa. I particularly enjoyed her take on the concept of ‘habitat’ as both a cognitive and affective landscape. This diverges from the traditional idea of habitat being just a resource, and suggests that animals have not only a cognitive understanding of where things are within their environment, but also a memory of their positive and negative experiences on that landscape. Viewing habitat in this way allows us to think more deeply about how animals may perceive and respond to their changing environment in the face of climate change and habitat loss.

Shelley also emphasizes the importance in recognizing the individuality of the animals we study as she speaks of a wolf pack she studied early in her career in Banff National Park. This family would regularly use a highway underpass to access points of their home range, and when the breeding male of the pack was killed on the highway, the wolf who took his place refused to use the crossing. This story showcases how the personality and preferences of an animal can play a critical role in shaping the dynamics of a population. The loss of that individual changed the capacity of that family to use all of the resources that they once had access to, essentially reconfiguring their entire lives. 

Alpha females: five generations of leading wolves in Yellowstone National Park

In class 5, acclaimed author and retired National Park ranger, Rick McIntyre shared stories and lessons from his latest book The Alpha Female Wolf. Our discussion centered around Yellowstone National Park’s 06 female who was once called ‘the most famous wolf in the world.’ She was a strong, intelligent, competent wolf who could take down large prey animals such as elk by herself, which is extremely rare as wolves usually hunt in packs. When it came to raising her family, she was patient, cooperative, and steadfast. Leaders like 06 exemplified the important and influential role that female wolves play in pack life.

For me, the sudden death of 06 was difficult to read and to hear Rick retell the story was even more heartbreaking. Over a decade later, many other Yellowstone wolves have met a similar fate. In 2022, 25 wolves, nearly one-fifth of the Yellowstone population, crossed park boundaries and were legally killed by hunters and trappers.

When I asked Rick about what gives him hope in the midst of such tragedy, he shared a story of a young kindergartener he encountered while working for the park service. This boy was eager to tell Rick that he knew the man who shot 06 and that his own father just purchased a license to kill a wolf. As Rick struggled to come up with an appropriate response, the boy added, “but I hope he doesn’t.” As Rick explains, despite being surrounded by anti-wolf rhetoric, something or someone exposed this boy to the story of 06, and it had changed him. This is what Rick tries to emphasize when he shares her story, “she died under tragic circumstances, but her death meant something; it changed people,” and this was 06’s legacy.

Coastal wolves and the social license to hunt

In class 6, Dr. Chris Darimont, Raincoast Chair of the Applied Conservation Science Lab at UVic, wrapped up the series by describing a scientific study of “one of the coolest animals on the planet.” Coastal wolves are a unique strain of wolf that inhabit the beautiful coastal temperate rainforests in British Columbia. The ‘Rainforest Wolf Project’ was a decade-long ecological and genetics study led by Chris and Dr. Paul Paquet, alongside partners from the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation. The data extracted from tufts of hair and mountains of scat ultimately revealed what First Nations have always known – coastal wolves are distinct from their mainland cousins. Some of the wolves out there are eating 95% or more of their foods from the ocean environment, Chris says. This collaborative research re-affirmed there are genetic, ecological, and behavioural differences between coastal and mainland wolves that live in close proximity to each other.

The final class also explored the social license to hunt, which is the informal but powerful permission society grants to – or can withhold from – those who exploit resources that are so-called ‘publicly-owned’. Chris discusses this concept in the context of large carnivores and how sport or trophy hunting may be eroding a broader social license to hunt for food as it is vastly incongruent with societal values. Although it is the “fringe minority of hunters” who hunt for trophies, recreational hunting is the largest source of mortality for wolves in BC. One way we can permanently protect wolves and other large carnivores from being commercially trophy hunted is through the acquisition of commercial hunting tenures. We are currently raising funds to stop commercial trophy hunting in more than a quarter of the Great Bear Rainforest.

I had so much fun hosting this season. Not only did I learn so much from our guest speakers, but I also learned about our supporters and how deeply so many of you feel for wolves and the issues they face for their survival in British Columbia and around the world. We would like to continue creating meaningful wolf education programs for the future. 

Please give us your feedback

If you participated in Wolf School, please take a few moments to fill out a survey, we would greatly appreciate your feedback. It should take less than 5 minutes. Don’t miss out on your chance to win a Raincoast hat, just in time for summer!

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.