By Alanna Mitchell
CALGARY -- About a dozen native hunters have killed 460 wolves so far this winter in the Northwest Territories in what biologists fear may be one of the biggest and most concentrated commercial wolf hunts in Canadian history.
Many of the wolves are being chased to death by hunters riding snowmobiles, said conservation officers and biologists who oversee the subarctic area. The hunters track down a pack of wolves, manoeuvre them onto a frozen expanse of tundra, and then, as the animals search vainly for somewhere to hide, chase them until they collapse from exhaustion. Then the hunters shoot them.
The final tally of wolves killed will be significantly higher than 460 by the end of the season. Several hunters who are expected to be making large kills have not yet prepared the skins for export, so have not been included in the count.
The massive hunt is being driven by an unusually strong appetite for fur in the fashion industry and by hefty prices for wolf in the international fur market. As well, the wolves seem to be congregating in the lower Northwest Territories this winter as they follow caribou herds.
Biologists, who are calling the kill a "local genocide," say a hunt on that scale has far-reaching, dire implications for Canada's wolf population if it keeps up.
Some biologists are especially worried because the Northwest Territories government has no count of the number of wolves in the region and no data on what damage a kill of this magnitude could do to the nation's stock of wolves.
"You can't allow something like this to happen without a way of seeing what the impact is," said Ludwig Carbyn, Canada's most prominent wolf biologist and the Canadian delegate to the wolf group of the Swiss-based International Union of the Conservation of Nature.
He said that since the early 1920s, Canada has recognized the need to regulate commercial consumption of wildlife. Yet today in the Northwest Territories, resident hunters and natives can take as many wolves as they can get.
Paul Paquet, another internationally respected Canadian wolf biologist, said there is a desperate lack of hard data on wolf stocks.
"If you don't have good information and you make a mistake, it can be a disaster," he said. "You can see where that took us in the fishery."
The ethics of using snowmobiles to hunt is also being questioned. Hunting from snowmobiles is legal in the Northwest Territories and widespread. But it gives hunters a huge advantage over their prey -- so much so that it is banned as unsportsmanlike in other parts of Canada, including Yukon, where it carries a fine of up to $10,000 and the possibility of jail.
"I suspect that these harvesting practices are unacceptable to most people, including consumers of the fur," said Carolyn Callaghan, a wolf biologist who is studying the canines as part of the Central Rockies Wolf Project in Alberta.
The Canadian fur industry has come under intense criticism in recent years -- especially in Europe -- for the clubbing and skinning of seal pups and the now-abandoned practice of leg-hold traps. After boycotts and international condemnation, the Canadian fur lobby has taken pains to convince fur buyers that hunters today are humane.
The story of the vast wolf kill in the Northwest Territories has come to light only in the past few weeks as the number of wolf pelts certified by officials for export began to mount. George Bihun, a conservation officer in Stony Rapids, in Saskatchewan's far north, said his office has done paperwork for the export permits of 460 wolves captured and skinned by about a dozen local Indian hunters.
The hunters live in Fond-du-Lac and at Black Lake just below the Saskatchewan-Northwest Territories border, Mr. Bihun said. But they charter aircraft to ferry them and their supplies of gas to camps they have set up near Rennie Lake in the Northwest Territories, just where the tree line gives way to the tundra barrens.
Dean Cluff, a biologist with the Northwest Territories government, said he had to swallow hard when he first heard how high the wolf kill was around Rennie Lake.
"It's not going to be the extinction of the wolf," he said. "But there are other things we just don't know about."
Mr. Bihun went up to the camp and watched the snowmobile pursuit for himself. He said conservation officers have seen the number of wolf pelts exported from the Northwest Territories rise rapidly since hunters began using powerful modern snowmobiles.
"The last several years, we've seen a high number coming out," he said. "They're big-time pursuing the wolves. They're not out there trapping."
Lawrence L. Adam, a native hunter who lives at Fond-du-Lac, came away from his camp in the Northwest Territories a couple of weeks ago with 162 wolf pelts from animals he killed this season.
He said the wolf hunting this year is the best it's been in some time. "I guess I'm getting good at it," he said.
His nephew is still at the camp and won't be out with his wolf pelts for another few weeks.
In earlier, less productive years, they have been killing 150 to 200 wolves a year between them, sometimes using snowmobiles, sometimes not, Mr. Adam said. They also harvest white fox, mink and marten and have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their hunting camp over the years, he said.
"That's my livelihood," he said. "That's what I'm here for."
Until this year, an average of 915 wolf pelts were taken annually in all of the Northwest Territories. In 1995-96, 727 wolf pelts were taken.
"We don't have a shortage of wolves up here," said Ron Graf, manager of integrated resource management in the territory's wildlife and fisheries division.
Next door in the Yukon, where hunting by snowmobile has been banned since 1982, about 30 wolves are hunted each year and another 100 are trapped, said Doug Larsen, a biologist who is the chief of wildlife management there.
In Saskatchewan, where wolves can be caught only by licenced trappers who have trap lines, the 3,000 or so such trappers take a total of about 225 wolves a year, said Al Arsenault of Saskatchewan's fish and wildlife branch.
Even in the years when governments waged all-out war against wolves, dubbing them noxious vermin for their predations on elk, deer and caribou, they were rarely able to kill on the scale now under way in the Northwest Territories.
William Fuller, a biologist who conducted a "wolf-control" program for the territorial government in the 1950s, said he killed fewer than 300 animals at the peak of the program in the winter of 1955-56 south of Great Slave Lake. And he was using the now-outlawed strychnine, packing the poison into holes he drilled with a half-inch bit in the frozen carcasses of buffalo, and leaving them on lakes in the tundra as bait.
"These guys are killing more than we ever did in our attempts to poison wolves," he said. "It's anything but sportsmanlike. The wolves wouldn't have a chance."
He said in all his years of study, he has never heard of as large a commercial kill as that going on at Rennie Lake and added that hunters could never have caught that many with the traditional dogsled.
While biologists believe wolf numbers are plentiful in the Northwest Territories, they also say they used to be plentiful throughout North America (even Newfoundland). But humans' slaughter of wolves has been so efficient and so sustained that the animals have been all but wiped out in the United States and are now considered an endangered species.
In fact, northern Canada has what is considered the only vibrant wolf population left in the world.
"If Canada cannot maintain a sustainable population of wolves," Ms. Callaghan, "nobody else can."