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CA NS: Fake letter about rogue grey wolves in N.S. sent government staff scrambling

Emails obtained by CBC News show effort to quash rumour before it spread

Brett Ruskin · CBC News

The morning of Oct. 7, 2020, began like any other Wednesday at Nova Scotia’s Department of Lands and Forestry. But then Bob Petrie sent an email about wolves.

At 9:58 a.m., Petrie, the department’s head of wildlife, emailed senior provincial officials regarding a letter to residents about a pack of wolves that had been purposely released into the province.

The purported wildlife bulletin said the eight wolves had unexpectedly “migrated to the Annapolis Valley floor in search of easy prey and livestock,” before offering tips on how to handle an encounter with one of the large canines.

“We do not know who has circulated it or why. There have been no [grey] wolves released anywhere in N.S. by anyone,” Petrie wrote.

A flurry of emails followed, according to documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request.

‘Squash rumour before it spreads’ 

By 10:15 a.m., the province’s corporate security manager was in contact with local police. 

At 10:16 a.m., Julie Towers, the deputy minister of lands and forestry wrote to staff: “Need to get comms out to squash rumour before it spreads.” 

About 45 minutes later, a tweet had been drafted to explain the situation. It was published at 11:23 a.m.

By noon — just two hours after Petrie sent out his note — front-line staff had directions for how to handle questions from the public, and spokespeople had their speaking notes for the media.

As word of the wolf letter spread, some government staff tried to find out details.

“Is this a thing that’s happening?” wrote Peter Bragg, executive assistant to the minister of lands and forestry, to communications adviser, Steven Stewart.

“It’s a thing I’ve spent some time on today. Yes,” replied Stewart.

“Spent time releasing wolves or spent time dealing with this letter?” Bragg joked.

Military apologizes to provincial officials

Provincial staff reached out to their federal counterparts within minutes of hearing about the wolf letter, but it took three days for the Canadian military to contact the province to offer an explanation.

“It appears the Canadian Armed Forces may be able to shed some light on the situation,” wrote Maj. Duncan Neish around 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10.

It’s not clear whether military officials actually arranged a meeting with provincial staff over the Thanksgiving long weekend, or whether provincial staff learned the source of the letter through the media. 

On Oct. 12, department staff repeatedly shared a CBC News article explaining the letter was the work of military reserves in the Aldershot area. 

Some time between Oct. 14 and Oct. 16, Brig.-Gen. Roch Pelletier spoke to Derek Mombourquette, minister of lands and forestry, to “apologize personally,” the emails show.

After a few days, provincial staff became adept at forwarding wolf-related questions to the Canadian military, including questions from international media.

“This is the second day of the New York Times following up on the grey wolf letter story. I’m wondering if our departmental folks have been in touch with the military to let them know this is getting international attention now,” wrote communications adviser Chrissy Matheson. 

“This could be embarrassing for them.”