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WOLF COUNTRY: Eleven Years Tracking the Algonquin Wolves

John B. Theberge and Mary T. Theberge

McClelland & Stewart Inc., 481 University Avenue, Suite 900, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 2E9, Canada, 1998, hard cover, 292 pages, $34.99 CAD, ISBN 0 ISBN: 0771085621. Available from Amazon.com

Reviewed for naturalSCIENCE by

Lu Carbyn

Canadian Wildlife Service, 4999-98 Ave., Edmonton, Alberta


John Theberge and I attended a conference together in Banff National Park sometime in 1976. During a break, I went into a local bookstore to browse and catch up on the latest. John Theberge was ahead of me, and I overheard a conversation between him and the owner of the store. They were discussing Dr. Theberge's Wolves and Wilderness, a book that had been released in 1975. John stated, matter of factly, that he was writing another book on the subject. I had forgotten about that incident until I received a copy of the other book for review a few weeks ago. Theberge kept his word. The quality of Wolf Country made the wait worthwhile.

Twenty two years had elapsed from the date of intention to the time of publication. In the meantime, a plethora of wolf books has appeared on the market. Some written by wildlife researchers, but most by writers without firsthand experience in the field. The book by John and Mary Theberge stands out from the rest. It is based on careful and meticulous research by the Theberges and numerous collaborators. It is the extension of work started by the late Douglas Pimlott. Focused on the Algonquin ecosystem, it takes the reader into the field, outlines the difficulties in logistics, and describes the highs and lows, the successes and failures.

The technical information presented has few loose ends. The research is careful and meticulous. Much new and important information has come to light over the eleven years of work. Outstanding are the exciting findings of the nature of the Algonquin wolves themselves—closer to red wolves (Canis rufus) than the more common timber wolf (Canis lupus). This finding, if supported by more evidence, will have important implications for carnivore conservation.

Pimlott often stated the importance of the individual in research. What better example could there be than the work by his star student—where would our knowledge about these unique wolves be without the persistence of John and Mary Theberge? The book is filled with fascinating information. An example is provided by their impressive accumulation of data about the way wolf packs in Algonquin tolerate each other at deer yards.

Deer yards are areas where deer congregate, often in large numbers, to facilitate winter survival. The concentration of deer attracts wolves. In Algonquin, different packs of wolves at deer yards were seen to tolerate one another, whereas, in many other areas where wolves have been studied, rivalry between packs leads to fighting and the killing of pack members, as with human gangs in large urban areas.

Why the Algonquin wolves behave differently is unknown, but it may be the result of high wolf mortality (human caused or otherwise) causing the packs to be more tolerant than if they had been larger or of a different age structure. We will not know unless long-term studies are carried out. Governments generally consider long-term studies a waste of money, so efforts such as those of the Theberges have an important role. Perhaps future governments will see merit in supporting long-term well executed predator-prey studies; although, in 32 years as a civil servant, I have seen precious little evidence of such wisdom.

John Theberge is not only a biologist but a reflective person, a scholar and a philosopher. This side of his personality is expressed in the book's description of the "lichen encrusted rocks with a view over McDonald marshes" where Mary and John spent time "to wonder about the web, to wonder about how soils and forests and herbivores and the Algonquin wolf fit together, to ask questions and design ways to answer them." Statements such as "Moose give their atoms another fling with life, in wolves, before they are handed back to decay organisms and the soil" captures much wisdom and drama. The descriptions are vivid and the language entertaining.

To some scientists the writing may be too anthropomorphic, as for instance the talk of "loyalty" in wolves, or wolves "deciding" to change rendezvous sites. Others may object to generalizations such as the observation that ravens do not consume a lot from kills. The question is, how, without experimentation, do we know? Extrapolation of results from one area to others is always a risk: objective findings from one area gives the person a perspective not necessarily applicable to other areas. Reproduction is a case in point. It may well be that multiple litters are not common in Algonquin, yet studies elsewhere have recently indicated that they occur more frequently than we were led to believe in the past. The clue lies in the dynamics of population, in complexities of food webs and in a host of ecosystem "eccentricities," often subtle and not always quantifiable. This book shows us why.

The Theberges wear their hearts on their sleeves and they make no apologies for it. It is refreshing that they do. The story of the loss of golden hemlock is a case in point (Page 120). The golden hemlock tree thrives in only very limited areas. It needs special conditions for the seed to germinate and for the seedlings to survive. Unless care is taken, hemlock does not regenerate itself after logging, but is replaced by the much more ubiquitous hardwood stands.

It was the Theberges' work on wolves that alerted them to the plight of the hemlock. Less committed and courageous researchers would have avoided a battle with the authorities, in order to avoid losing their privilege to conduct research in the area. Mary and John stood their ground and almost lost out. Good fortune and appreciative inside sources saved the day. The golden hemlock is the better for it. What stronger testimony to Pimlott's view "that one should never underestimate the power of the individual."

The Theberges make a solid case for the establishment of buffer zones for wolf protection around the park. Mere undocumented wishes would stand little chance in achieving the desired results. Indeed, without documentation of the problem, one could rightfully question the need. This book is the result of years of meticulous work, of careful and deliberate research, vision and of courage. It is a story of empathy, respect, knowledge and compassion for a special place on the North American continent and the world. It stands as a wonderful testimony for others to follow.

The work is of high scientific merit. Four graduate and 11 undergraduate theses represent a major accomplishment. Beyond that, John and Mary Theberge, together with their students, have kept up a steady pace in publishing peer-reviewed journal papers, and by so doing, have fulfilled the expectations of the scientific community. Undoubtedly there will be more to come.

On my bookshelf there are many wolf books—I buy them all. To date, and as we approach the turn of the century, I would place Wolf Country on my short list of the top five.

Lu Carbyn, is Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Renewable Resources and Emeritus Scientist, Canadian Wildlife Service, 4999-98 Ave., Edmonton, AB T6B 2X3, Canada.

Links:
Wolves in Canada. Animal Alliance of Canada
Google search for: "Algonquin Wolf"

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