The Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) of British Columbia’s Coastal Rainforests


The lack of intensive research on population size and location markers has left little room for gray wolf information and development of protection plans in British Columbia. Gray wolves colonized North America and Canada 700,000 years ago and ranged wherever prey was present. More recently, wolves have become vulnerable through human activities such as hunting and logging. Widespread industrial development has restricted the roaming areas in which wolves would naturally reside, and the long-term decline of wolf populations can be directly linked with industrial forestry and extensive timber removal across the British Columbia region. Annually, it is estimated that wolf mortality rates caused by humans reaches 2.3% of the total population of 406-473 wolves over a 19,300-km² area. Contributing to the 11% of human related mortality rates of wolves in British Columbia. Many studies have shown a positive correlation between decline in deer and wolf populations, and therefore, conservation of gray wolves heavily relies upon support and protection of its primary prey, deer.

Background of Research Project

The purpose of this project is to obtain a higher quality insight into the distribution of gray wolves in the British Columbia region and the vulnerability of wolves to industrial forestry and human land use.

Study Area and Methods

The central coast of British Columbia is defined by deep fjords dividing valleys and watersheds, from Vancouver up to the Alaskan border. The study area is approximately 19,300-km² and is roughly situated South to Gribbell Island, North to Cape Caution and parallel to the Pacific coastline. Only few settlements exist in this area with First Nations people as the majority of the population. Typical climate is characterized by wet and temperate weather conditions and annual precipitation exceeds 350-cm in most areas across the region. Non-invasive methods in this study use radio telemetry techniques and sampling methods collecting genetic material and observing wildlife trails, logging roads and forest ridge lines.

Results and Discussion

Of all wolf observations collected, 25% of all sightings on the BC coast were black in colour, and more black animals were sighted on the mainland in comparison to the islands. 19 out of 48 grey animals observed had a brownish red tinge, this distinctive tone of red coloured wolves tend to be more common in Ontario and Quebec. Mainland areas of British Columbia have greater coverage of rock, ice and other unproductive areas and are less desirable for deer. Of deer pellet and wolf scat surveys, population approximations are 406-473 wolves in the 19,300-km² area during the late winter. The study area contains less prey biomass, possibly due to large expanses of rock and ice. Wolves killed prey on or next to forest trails. Of the seven observed carcasses of prey killed by wolves, four were deer, one of which was a fawn. Otter and porcupine remains were also found and the skeletal remains of a black bear surrounded by wolf scat containing bear hair were found in a forest/estuary transition zone. In addition, little evidence was observed that suggests wolves select old growth forests near lakes and streams in terms of habitat preference. However, areas of old growth forests were strongly preferred by wolves, avoiding clear-cuts and roads, near large bodies of water. Litter sizes observed were relatively small and all dens were situated in low elevation old growth forests within 100-m of fresh water and typically under the roots of fallen trunks of large diameter trees. These are likely used as protection against predators or humans. Further data shows that 76% of wolves killed were in areas closest to Prince Rupert, the most populous settlement on the coast. In addition, they were likely killed by resident hunters, reaching a total of at least 250 wolves killed in the last 24 years, or 10 wolves annually.

Conservation Concerns

Large scale clear cut logging poses the greatest threat to the wolf population in BC and will likely reduce the forests long-term carrying capacity for both deer and gray wolves. Industrial forestry companies also target the low elevation old growth forests that wolves tend to be attracted to. For example, declining wolf populations occur in areas increased timber removal areas in Alaska. In addition, logging and forest removal provides a wider scope for humans to exploit wolves and deer in their natural habitat. The depletion of deer across the BC region would have serious consequences for the First Nations. They rely on food resources from hunting, fishing and gathering from the natural wilderness that is being threatened by extensive deforestation. The primary impact on gray wolves in BC is habitat loss through logging, forest removal and destruction of the landscape. Deer are resilient to relocate, and it is difficult for them to migrate to new watersheds due to the rocky and ocean dominated coastline of British Columbia. Consequently, deer die from malnutrition. Therefore, roaming areas of wolves is typically limited to natural breeding and roaming grounds of deer. Large scale clearing events will likely not provoke movements into adjacent watersheds. Explosives and machinery used to build roads and buildings, push animals to abandon their ranges and territories. In addition, forestry workers often carry firearms for protection against wolves. They have been observed shooting wolves during work hours, permitted legal conduct for at least nine months of the year in BC for those with a hunting licence. Road expansion and logging also bring garbage issues; wolves consume garbage left behind by humans, which was found in nine scat samples in the study. Intestinal tracts become blocked and possibly lead to starvation, death and ulceration of delicate tissues by jagged fragments. These are examples of health related issues wolves can experience due to human activity.

Evaluation of Management Strategies

The Ministry of Environment (MOE) and Ministry of Forests (MOF) focus on conserving deer populations, with aims to conserve gray wolves in the process, by creating ungulate winter ranges (UWRs) that deer will reside in. These UWRs restrict timber supply impacts; however, timber companies involved in the designation of the areas UWRs cause conflict of interest, and potential boundaries may be required to be readjusted. In addition, analysis of UWRs in the BC region is limited, with a few UWRs in the study area, and projected new ones to have been established by 2003. As of 2000, MOE and MOF have no goal of total UWR numbers. Wolf hunting is prohibited between June 16th and July 31st, during the reproductive season, preventing unlawful killing of wolves. However, this period is not sufficient enough to promote sustainable wolf populations. Furthermore, a lack of census reports on the gray wolf population in the BC region means limited information about population sizes, distribution and annual kills. Over-exploitation in Alaska has led to surplus number of wolves being killed annually exceeding 45% of the wolf population in some years. Further studies have suggested that wolves can tolerate annual moralities of between 20-40% before population is unable to sustain itself. Furthermore, human population growth and urban expansion is estimated to increase illegal and legal hunting. Statistics taken from the Central Coast Regional District shows hunting grew by 11.6% between 1986-1991 and a further 12.6% from 1991-1996. Hunting activity halts wolf population regeneration and promotes declines in species distribution and population at a rapid rate.

Suggested Action

Ideally, large scale clear cutting of forests along the BC coastline should discontinue immediately. There should be alternative methods of obtaining timber so there are no long-term lasting effects on the wildlife. Continued study in the BC region is suggested to gain a wider insight into the demographics and behaviour of gray wolves. Data is necessary to begin further conservation schemes and land use plans. Furthermore, a better perspective on the value of these animals is required. Following colonization of the wolf species in North America 700,000 years ago, the past 200 years have eliminated much of the population through timber removal and extensive land use. Long-term management schemes are likely to benefit the wolf population in BC and prevent further decline to a vulnerable and significant species. Forestry companies such as MOE and MOF have the means to prevent population decline by developing initiatives to obtain timber with alternative methods that are less damaging and disturbing to the wolf population. Buffers preventing industrial activities of at least 2-km from known or estimated den sites would also be a suitable management strategy to promote wolf populations and limit disturbance from human activities. In addition, hunting regulations could be improved with higher quality information on wolf populations and distribution, in order to preserve the species. Due to the high demands of timber and immediacy of road plans in the study area, opportunities to create conservation plans to preserve and create area for wolf-deer systems are quickly diminishing. Management plans are required immediately if this significant species is to continue to exist across the British Columbia region.

Wolfs in:

  • Source Darimont, C.T., and P.C. Paquet. 2000. The Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) of British Columbia’s Coastal Rainforests: Findings from Year 2000 Pilot Study and Conservation Assessment. Prepared for the Raincoast Conservation Society. Victoria, BC. 62 pp.