Photographer Zooms in on Unique Coastal Wolves of British Columbia

A wolf stands on some rocks in British Columbia
Coastal wolves stand apart genetically from their inland cousins, and they face different threats. (All photos: April Bencze).

 April Bencze / Instagram

Few predators are as controversial as wolves. They are idolized and despised to varying degrees. No matter who you are, you probably have an opinion about the canids that have lived alongside humans for as long as we have been on this planet. In our efforts to drive wolves farther into the wilderness while simultaneously claiming the wilderness for our own uses, we have been successful in driving wolves dangerously close to extinction. This is true even for grey wolves, which have drifted off to their own quiet coastal home. The coastal wolves of British Colombia found their home on the islands dotting the coastline, and have lived there long enough to be genetically distinct from their mainland relatives. Thriving on salmon and the carcasses of washed-up whales and seals, these wolves offer us a special glimpse into the natural history of the species. Yet despite their lack of threat to the lives or livestock of humans, we still threaten their existence.

Barely in the nick of time, we have figured out the importance of grey wolves to the balance of healthy ecosystems in North America, and conservationists have rallied around the species, doing all that can be done to bring them back to sustainable numbers. But those protections are still hard-won and easily lost. In the battles over legislation and protections, should these coastal wolves gain special protections that reflect their unique location and way of life?

Photographer April Bencze has been watching these wolves for over a year alongside photographer Ian McAllister, who is known for his extensive work documenting the lives of these animals. Bencze talked with us about what it is like photographing coastal wolves, what sets them apart from other grey wolves, the threats they face, and what can be done to protect them.

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A coastal wolf trots along the rocky kelp-strewn shore. April Bencze / Instagram 

Treehugger: When did you get started in nature photography? Has conservation always been part of your work, or was there a moment when you shifted from the animals as a complete story to animals as part of a larger environmental story?

April Bencze: A little over a year ago, I crawled from the ocean, where I spent the majority of my time as a diver, and began exploring terrestrial nature photography. The threats of pipelines and supertankers lured me to the central coast of British Columbia to do my part in preserving the coast, and I chose my camera as my tool to help tell the tale of these species and habitats at risk. Photography is a way to convey the importance of protecting our wildlife to ensure healthy ecosystems. When we trade their habitat for our economic gain, it is an incredible injustice that will directly affect our quality of life as well as theirs. The larger environmental story, the conservation of our last wild places and creatures, is what made me point my camera in the direction of these coastal wolves.

The moment I realized just how misunderstood these predators are is what truly solidified my focus on conservation photography. I was raised by a society that had me believe wolves are dangerous. I was alone on a beach when a wolf approached me and laid down a few feet from where I sat, trusting me enough to fall asleep in my company, and it really hit me. Few people will see a wild wolf in their lifetime, and most will fear them if they do. That is the moment I realized that sharing my experiences through photography is a way to bridge the gap in understanding the true nature of coastal wolves. It is my intention that these images help change how we view these animals and gain them the protection they deserve.

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The danger wolves pose is often overstated. As is the case with most predators, myths and legends have fogged the reality of these social animals. April Bencze / Instagram 

When did you start focusing on coastal wolves as your subject? How long have you been watching them?

The first time I saw a wolf was a year ago. It was an incredibly intimate and enlightening first glimpse into the lives of coastal wolves. Ian McAllister, who has spent the past 25 years exploring the coast and observing these wolves, and I were bushwhacking in a pack’s territory. Making our way through thick, wet salal, we stumbled upon a wolf den. We found ourselves a few yards from the mother who was nursing her newly born pups. A young male wolf stood up on a log nearby and held my stare. At that instant, a singular tale from Ian’s book about coastal wolves came to the forefront of my thoughts; these were the same wolves who would tear a black bear to shreds if it happened to wander too close to the den site. But the wolf held a calm stance and we quietly slipped back the way we came without so much as a bark or howl.

Since then, I have been enamored with the ancient relationship between wolves and humans, and our modern-day misconceptions of that relationship. It is a relationship I have no doubt will hold my focus for the rest of my life. Working with Ian and Pacific Wild has given me so much insight and opportunity to observe these wolves in a way I never thought possible. Since that first encounter, wolves have been a focus and I have been lucky enough to observe and photograph them on several occasions through the spring, summer, and fall.

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Coastal wolves feast on seafood, including salmon, mussels, clams and the scavenged meat of beached whales and seals. April Bencze / Instagram 

What makes these coastal wolves unique from other grey wolves? I understand they are considered unofficial subspecies?

Coastal wolves are extraordinarily unique and an example of how the environment can shape a species’ life cycle and even genetics. The coast of BC is dotted with rugged outer coastal islands. Wolves, who can swim distances of up to 12 kilometers, came to inhabit these islands over time. While wolves on the mainland eat deer, mountain goat, moose, and beaver, these island wolves have adapted to a prey base of marine mammals, clams, mussels, and salmon. You can find these "sea wolves" feasting on whale and sea lion carcasses, eating herring eggs at low tide, and fishing for salmon in the fall.

Essentially, you have two very different groups of wolves, who throughout generations have passed down different behavior and hunting techniques. Coastal wolves learn to fish for salmon and scavenge the intertidal zone for seafood, while inland wolves learn to hunt terrestrial prey. The theory is that the difference in food sources and geography from coastal to inland has influenced genetic diversity in these two distinct wolf populations. In simplest terms, just as our own human species can be further categorized into different races we find the same kind of diversity in wolf populations.

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Through generation after generation of separation from mainland wolves, coastal wolves not only have unique behaviors but have become genetically distinct. April Bencze / Instagram 

Tell us about what it's like to watch these wolves? What is a typical day like, or what is a really good day like, for photographing them?

There are bad days and good days with anything, but my wolf experiences have certainly seen the range of extremes in a short amount of time. On one occasion, a day consisted of tracking a particularly elusive pack of wolves and somehow ended in 12 hours lost in the woods, a helicopter search and rescue, minor concussion, drowned camera, and not even a glimpse of a wolf. That was my worst day. A really good day of wolf watching is something I have been lucky enough to experience on a few occasions.

My best day began by slipping into the canoe just before 4 a.m., paddling parallel to the shoreline for hours without any sign of the pack. I returned to the beach and sat down in the sand, defeated, and feeling the beautiful morning light was mocking my lack of a subject. Any landscape photographer would have seen a gold mine as the light kissed the rugged west coast scene that morning, but to me, it looked empty without the pack patrolling the shores. In that instant, three wolves came out of the forest one by one, gathering around me. One of the males trotted off down the beach, and another laid down next to me and began to doze in the sunlight. The other, an intense young male, came face to face and held my stare for what felt like an eternity. He came too close to photograph and I just knelt there in the sand, eyes locked with his. After that, the wolves included me in their morning activities like I was a part of the pack. That was a really, really good day.

A typical day of wolf watching, in my experience, consists of anticipating where they might be and waiting, then waiting some more. Finding fresh scat or tracks is usually the highlight of the day, but they don’t make for great photography. Most days of wolf watching are really wolf finding, and I return with a blank memory card more often than not. I have been unbelievably fortunate when it comes to my personal experiences with coastal wolves. Ian McAllister has been following these packs for a quarter-century and knows the coast intimately. While sailing the coast, Ian has shared his knowledge with me and given me the rare gift of observing a wolf population that is still living very naturally in remote areas. Without Ian’s guidance, I have no doubt I would still be hiking around lost in the woods continually being eluded by these animals. I am grateful for the chance to understand the true nature of the wolves through personal experience.

coastal wolf
By turns elusive and gregarious, coastal wolves are an interesting challenge for any photographer. April Bencze / Instagram 

What are the issues these wolves face for survival? I would imagine that in addition to hunting and habitat loss due to deforestation, there is also habitat loss due to sea-level rise? Are they being studied?

I believe the biggest threat nature faces, in general, is indifference. We need to stand up and say, "Hey, we care, we understand that these wolves are vital for a healthy ecosystem, we don’t think it is right that anyone can legally kill a pack of wolves, pups included, and now we need to protect them." Otherwise, nothing is going to change.

Lack of protection, habitat loss due to deforestation, and environmental threats like oil tankers and pipelines are all challenges these wolves face for survival. I find it strange that wolves are alone in their lack of protection. You need a special license to hunt ducks, deer, elk, moose, and bear – all complete with strict regulations and seasons. Wolf hunting is all but an open season, some regions with loose regulations and others with none. Even in the remote areas I have gone to observe wolves, they are being killed. During my last trip we were sure the pack would be fishing and feasting on salmon from their river system as they do each fall, but this year we arrived at the river and there was no sign of the wolves. One of the pack members had been shot in the remote river valley. Shooting a wolf has a huge effect on pack dynamics, it can cause more breeding to happen as social order is upset, and the extremely social animals mourn the loss of a family member.

Habitat loss displaces wolves and in turn, upsets the territorial balance wolf packs have established over time. Sea level rise is part of the larger problem of climate change, which affects the population of sea wolves who live in accordance with the ocean. The marine diet of coastal wolves also makes this population vulnerable to marine disasters like oil spills and changing ocean environments due to acidification and climate change. With threats of increased oil tanker traffic and pipeline spills on the horizon, this in turn affects coastal wolves as much as it does the ocean.

coastal wolf
Because of their coastal habitat, these wolves face additional human-caused threats including oil spills and sea-level rise. April Bencze / Instagram 

What conservation efforts have been put in place or are planned for coastal grey wolves?

The Management Plan for the Grey Wolf in British Columbia was released in the spring of 2014, updated for the first time since 1979. It is largely considered a step backward in wolf conservation in British Columbia. Coastal wolves are a genetically distinct population of grey wolves who live in accordance with their marine environment. There are two populations of grey wolves that have different prey sources, behaviors, and appearances. The coastal wolf is known as an unofficial subspecies of the grey wolf, making conservation planning for this unique population something that needs to be addressed.

We should be celebrating these sea wolves, yet the Management Plan groups these two distinct populations in British Columbia as one. The coastal wolf’s tie to the marine environment was not taken into consideration during conservation planning for British Columbia’s grey wolves. These coastal wolves are also one of the last truly wild and undisturbed wolf populations in the world. Their remoteness has sheltered them from the mass extirpation the majority of other wolf populations have faced. Also, their lack of a thick coat due to the mild coastal temperatures has removed the motivation to use their pelts for fur coats throughout history, leaving this population of sea wolves relatively intact.

British Columbia has the unique opportunity to preserve this coastal wolf population and proactively protect an apex predator that helps keep the delicate rainforest ecosystem in balance. A proactive approach to their protection would save history from repeating itself; other places in the world have had to reintroduce wolves back into the ecosystem to restore balance after they had been removed via government-funded culls and lack of protection.

coastal wolf
As an apex predator, wolves play an important role in a healthy ecosystem. Protecting wolves has a trickle-down effect that helps countless other species. April Bencze / Instagram 

In general, the Management Plan for Grey Wolves in BC has not offered grey wolves adequate protection; in some areas of the province, there is no bag limit, meaning a single person could legally kill every single wolf in that region. In some areas, there is a bag limit of three. No special tag is required to hunt grey wolves; it is basically open season on wolves in BC. In some regions, it is not required that wolf kills be reported. This is a problem because population studies of grey wolves are nearly impossible to conduct in the first place; then you add the complexity of unreported kills. It is estimated there are between 5,300 and 11,600 wolves in BC, making for an estimated average of 8,500 wolves total in British Columbia. The management plan states that this is an increase from the 1979 population estimate of 6,300 wolves, an average taken from an estimate of between 2,500 – 11,000 wolves. This is a huge margin of error, and it is a number we are risking the future of our wolves on.

There were 1,400 wolves reported killed in 2009, and the human-caused mortality rate is only increasing. That does not account for the many wolves kills that go unreported. Yet the province offers them no protection and has even supported "wolf kill contests" where people receive prizes for killing the smallest wolf, the biggest wolf, and the most wolves. There is a culture that is supportive of the culling of wolves, and it is fueled by society’s misplaced fear that stems simply from a lack of understanding. With the government putting into place this new management plan in the absence of a credible population estimate, we are gambling with the future of our wild wolves.

coastal wolf
April Bencze / Instagram 

Wolf populations are only roughly estimated. Their elusive nature along with the fact that wolf kills aren't required to be reported makes having an accurate count particularly difficult.

This is exactly why I am working with Pacific Wild, an organization committed to the conservation of coastal wolves. Non-profit organizations like this are working 365 days a year to shine a light on these massive conservation issues before we find ourselves in a province with a hole in our ecosystem because we have lost our wolves.

As of right now, it is up to the public to demand a change in the way we manage wolves in BC, taking into account the unique coastal wolf population and the vital role they play in keeping the ecosystem healthy. British Columbia needs a protection plan for wolves, not a management plan. If a person can legally kill an unlimited number of wolves without reporting the kills; it is not a management plan, it is a cull.

With Pacific Wild there is a year-round wolf conservation campaign in effect, working on public awareness through Ian McAllister’s books on coastal wolves, images, presentations, and take action campaigns where we encourage the public to write letters and emails to the government bringing these issues to the forefront. However, these wolves need every voice they can get to speak for their protection.

Only with mass public awareness and tireless action can we bring these issues to the attention of those in charge of wolf management in British Columbia.

coastal wolf
April Bencze / Instagram 

More information about these wolves is available from Pacific Wild. If you want to help them out, you can check out their take action page for coastal wolf conservation to send a letter to the BC government.

coastal wolf
April Bencze / Instagram