When Up Here's Peter Jickling was a kid, his family was in a fight that split the Yukon: should wolves be killed or spared? Now, he's found, the debate is howling again.
"Down there, Peter.” I pressed my face against the window and followed the direction my father was pointing. We were cruising a thousand feet above the eastern Yukon in a battered single-engine bush plane. Below us, I could see a line of dots tracing single file through the snowy boreal forest. I’d been preparing for this event, but now I couldn’t contain myself. I let out a scream of delight. I was 10 years old and had just seen my first wild wolves.
I was crazy about wolves back then, and I wasn’t the first. Throughout history, humans have been passionate about canis lupus, for a variety of reasons – for mesmerizing us with their power and cunning, for killing our pets and livestock, for haunting our dreams. Whether it’s the big bad wolf, the werewolf or the ferocious Norse beast Fenrir, wolves have long embodied our darkest fears. And for this reason, of course, we not only revered but scapegoated and persecuted them. Despite their intelligence, adaptability and high-reproduction rate, wolves were all but exterminated in Europe and the U.S. over the past three centuries. They went extinct in New Brunswick in 1883 and in Newfoundland in 1913, and were thinned considerably elsewhere in southern Canada.
One place they’ve thrived, however, is the Yukon. The territory is estimated to have 5,000 of the creatures – the highest density in Canada. They inhabit almost every corner of the Yukon, growing up to two metres long and 50 kilograms in weight, roaming in packs of eight or so members. They’re a big deal here, and integrally tied into the culture: Half of all Tlingit people belong to the wolf clan. Jack London celebrated them in two of his most famous works, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, depicting them as a symbol of the untamed wildness of the Klondike.
But their high population here doesn’t sit well with everyone. Many accuse them of keeping the caribou and moose populations low, and so, over the years, they’ve been subject to highly controversial management plans. The last wolf plan, adopted in 1992, was immediately followed by an extensive aerial wolf-kill in the vast Aishihik region, north of Haines Junction. Bitter divisions arose between conservationists, who thought wolves should be left alone, and hunters and outfitters, who wanted to see ungulate populations increase. Tempers flared, friendships ended. In one instance, a man who spoke out at a public meeting later found his tires slashed. Over time, the anger subsided. But now, with a new plan being rolled out, strong feelings around wolf management are resurfacing. And somehow, I’ve once again found myself in the thick of it.
I arrive at the Yukon Government’s environment-department headquarters at the same time as Harvey Jessup. He’s a sturdy man of about 60 who retired a few years ago as the director of wildlife management. He leads me up a set of stairs and through a maze of hallways and cubicles. The office is abuzz with people flitting to-and-fro. Everyone nods as we pass; at least a half-dozen say “Hi Harv.” One lady takes a quick look at him and says, “Here comes trouble.” Jessup smiles bashfully.
I’m here to talk to him about the newly proposed Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. Jessup and Karen Clyde, the manager of habitat programs, co-chaired the committee that wrote it. As we weave our way toward the boardroom, I wonder if Jessup was chosen as co-chair partly because of how likable he is. Nobody wants to see things flare up the way they did in ’92.
As a kid, I saw firsthand the stress and anger the wolf plan caused. I wasn’t raised by wolves, but I was certainly raised with them. Wolf posters adorned my bedroom walls and I wrote my grade three science report about them. My father, Bob Jickling, an environmental-education professor with published essays on wolf ethics, was a leader in the pro-wolf conservation movement. He was also a close friend of the Yukon’s wolf biologist, Bob Hayes, at least for a while.
In grade five, on a wintry day early in 1992, my dad pulled me out of school and drove us six hours to a government base-camp in the wilderness east of Ross River. I was there to tag along on one of Hayes’ experiments, but more importantly, I hoped to finally see a real, live wolf.
First, there was messy work to do. We took large chunks of cut-up caribou – the ribs, guts and bones, meat removed – and carefully weighed them. Then we loaded them in a ski plane and flew them to a remote lake, scattering them on the virgin snow. The scene was supposed to resemble the aftermath of a caribou killed by a wolf pack. We wanted to see who’d clean up the mess.
On our flight back to the site at the end of the day, my father pointed out wolves below, snaking through the snow like a dog-team without a musher. My face remained pressed to the fogged-up Plexiglass long after they were out of view. Later, as we were landing, the noise of the Cessna scattered the coyotes, foxes and ravens that were gnawing on the remains. We re-weighed the pieces to see how much the scavengers had consumed. Even though wolves chow down first, other animals obviously enjoy picking over the leftovers. The experiment showed that an animal killed by wolves contributes to the health of the whole food chain. And that’s what I proudly proclaimed in my science-fair project that year: that “wolves are important to the ecosystem.” I won a bronze medal at the Yukon regionals.
That was also the year my dad was asked to be on the committee tasked with drafting the wolf-management plan. The ’92 plan was the culmination of nearly a century of wolf-control tactics in the Yukon – some ethically questionable, others downright evil. The theory driving these campaigns was simple: Wolves are humans’ main competition for game. Among other travesties, in 1954, the Yukon’s Game Branch laced some 1,400 kilograms of meat with strychnine pellets, scattering the bait at more than 70 locations. “The grim truth,” says Hayes in his recently published book, Wolves of the Yukon, “is that strychnine is a most deadly poison, causing dramatic and extremely painful symptoms for any beast that might ingest it.” And of course, even though wolves were the target, many other animals drank the Kool-Aid.
In 1985, nearly 13 years after poison-baiting was banned, Hayes received a report of someone illegally poisoning wolves near Kluane Lake. He flew to the site and was appalled at what he saw. “We were hovering over a stand of high shrubs when the wash of the helicopter blades blew up a cloud of tiny feathers. It looked as if someone had blown apart a dozen pillows. As we slowly circled, dead animals began to appear below. There was a sow grizzly bear crumpled in the trees, two wolves, 10 ravens and six magpies. There were hundreds of dead chickadees everywhere.” No one was ever convicted of the crime, but locals had their suspicions: A prominent outfitter in the area had recently lost horses to wolves.
Given this history of animosity toward wolves, my father was determined that the 1992 plan be a radical break with the past. He helped infuse the document with surprisingly progressive elements. It noted that many people prefer wolves alive, not dead, and that wolves have inherent value and shouldn’t be managed only in relation to human goals. And there was this clause, which my dad was particularly proud of: “Future management of caribou, moose and sheep and their habitat must have the objective that populations are not allowed to reach levels where wolf reduction might be considered necessary.” In other words, it was no longer acceptable for humans to over-harvest ungulates and then kill wolves as a way to rebalance the ecosystem.
But not all my father’s battles were won. Most notoriously, the final plan permitted wolves to be culled by shooting them from aircraft. And indeed, when territorial officials adopted the plan on August 31, 1992, they quickly embarked on “the Aishihik aerial wolf-control experiment.” Over the next six years, 189 wolves would be shot from low-flying helicopters in the southwest Yukon. My father felt that the plan’s principles had been betrayed. He condemned it, becoming a regular fixture on the opinion pages of The Yukon News and the Whitehorse Star.
In those days, he made wood-block prints for our family Christmas cards. Normally, they featured a picturesque Northern scene, like a mountain vista or winding river. But in 1992, against the protests of my mother, the Jicklings’ hand-crafted card depicted a dead, bloody wolf with a pair of human boots looming overtop.
It was a tense time for everyone. A group calling themselves Friends of the Wolf invaded the territory with publicity stunts, chaining themselves to the doors of the Yukon Legislature and burning tires on the highway. They menaced Bob Hayes, who was in charge of overseeing the Aishihik wolf kill. In his book, he recalls members of the group following him to work and lurking around his home. “I had a real concern for the lives of my family and crew,” he wrote. And, he goes on, “I lost a close friendship with a good family over wolf control that remains a raw memory years later.”
I can only assume the family he’s referring to is my own. During the late ’80s and early ’90s the Hayeses and Jicklings were an entwined unit; we ate Thanksgiving dinner together and went on joint family vacations. During my pre-adolescent years, Hayes acted as a kind of fun-loving uncle. I can remember a summer evening when my sister and I had set up a homemade high-jump pit in our backyard. Without warning, Hayes barreled out the backdoor and cleared the bar with a flamboyant forward-rolling maneuver that predated the Fosbury flop. My sister and I were thoroughly impressed.
All this ended sometime during the Aishihik wolf kill. One month the Hayes clan was there, the next month, they weren’t. It was tough for an 11-year-old to understand.
Now, a generation later, I’m the one writing about wolves. When I first spoke to my father and informed him of my research, the phone line crinkled with nervous static. He wasn’t thrilled, and honestly, neither was I. By writing about wolves – and how they affected our family – I knew I’d be opening old wounds. But we finally reached an agreement. He said, “You do what you need to do and I’ll do what I need to do.”
So now, in the same building where those controversial decisions were made 20 years ago, I sit down across from Jessup and Clyde and nervously fumble with my tape-recorder. I worry that, given who my father is, the co-chairs might view me with suspicion. But Jessup insists things have changed. “The 1992 plan was timely and controversial,” he says. “The new plan is timely but not very controversial.”
He has a point. In August, a draft of the new plan was released for review. I was struck by its acknowledgement that aerial wolf kills are ineffective. It states, “It was believed prey densities would remain high once wolf reduction stopped. This was not the case.” Despite being targeted from the air, wolves quickly bounced back.
Plus, the public has lost its appetite for large-scale wolf kills. “Aerial control is no longer a recommended management tool,” reads the plan. “Strong public opposition, high financial costs, the short-term impacts on wolves and ungulates and the lack of community involvement weigh against this approach.”
Bob Hayes’s research during the Aishihik wolf-control program was largely responsible for this change in tone. He kept meticulous records of wolves killed, and of the recovery rates of ungulates thereafter, and concluded that aerial wolf kills are scientifically and morally unsound. “If you want wilderness, you actually want lower abundance of moose and caribou,” says Hayes. “That’s the right way to manage the system, not to tweak it and try to generate really short-term abundance.”
It’s clear Hayes isn’t the wolf-foe people made him out to be in the ’90s. His new book, and his recent statements, prove this. He’s glad the new plan condemns aerial wolf kills. But he disagrees with much of the rest of it. “There are backwards steps here in terms of wolf conservation,” he says. “There’s little in the new plan that says, ‘Hey, these animals have an intrinsic right to be here.’”
Consider bag limits: When the ’92 plan was put in place there was a bag limit of three wolves per season for Yukon hunters – a hard-fought compromise, according to my father. But that limit was later raised to five per season, and then to seven. Now, the new draft plan proposes nixing the bag limit altogether, with the caveat that limits can be reinstated in certain areas.
Karen Clyde doesn’t think that’s bad. She says every wolf harvested will still be recorded, and regulations regarding wolf hunting can be changed at any time, even mid-season. “These regulations allow for more flexibility,” she says, “but it in no way means free game on wolves.”
The new plan would also get rid of a requirement that each hunter pay $10 per wolf that they kill. And, it will allow community-initiated wolf-control programs. Clyde says this was added due to public demand: “People want to get moose and caribou, but are unable to do it because of harvest pressure and wolf predation.” Jessup stresses these programs would be small in scale. He says intensive wolf hunting and trapping programs in small radiuses around communities will simply allow hunters to be more successful.
Some Yukoners say the plan doesn’t go far enough. Dan Reynolds, president of the Yukon Outfitters Association, argues the current number of wolves hunted and trapped in the Yukon – an average of 215 per year since 1992 – is too low, and should be raised sevenfold, to around 1,500. (At the same time, he’s quick to state that wolves have inherent value. In a letter to the wolf-plan committee he wrote, “We believe in looking after the wildlife and the environment first and that each animal, regardless of species, is important.”)
Late this past September, another voice chimed in. The Whitehorse Star published an opinion piece, titled “We ponder a wolf humiliation program,” which says of the new plan, “The clear message is, we can’t be bothered to manage human overhunting, we’d rather just kill wolves.” The author is a Yukoner who now teaches at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He’s my father, Bob Jickling. Despite being out of the territory, he still feels a deep kinship with the wolves of the Yukon.
Given how wolves split our families apart, I was hesitant to contact Bob Hayes for this story. When I finally did, I started the interview almost apologetically. “Listen,” I stammered. “I know there’s a lot of history here, and I really appreciate –” Hayes cut me off. “It’s time to move on,” he said.
And he has. His recent book is a renunciation of past wolf-management practices, including ones he supported and carried out. But even more, it’s a celebration of the animals he’s worked with all his life, and of their special role in the Yukon. In one passage, Hayes writes, “Today, thanks to writers like [Jack] London, we see wolves as the embodiment of complete wilderness. Without wolves there is a missing element of wilderness.”
According to some people, that attitude is taking hold in the Yukon. Clyde told me that during consultations on the new plan, she was struck by hearing how much seasoned hunters and trappers revere wolves. “There’s a really strong respect for wolves in the Yukon,” she says.
My dad begs to differ. And as for me, I don’t know what to think. My 10-year-old self – the one who squealed upon seeing those wild wolves – would like to believe Clyde. Surely, in the Yukon of all places, we can treat wolves right. Surely we can stop persecuting them and become their champion. If so, it would give me hope for both species.