Managing Humans

Are we willing to make room for wolf, for cougar, for black bear?

Claire Majors

corgi dog on leash in woods looking up at its owner

What do electric fences, dog leashes, and purple nodding onions have in common? Each can be used to help us share the land and waters with the fauna who have been evolving in these ecosystems for millennia.

When colonizers sailed to the West Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries, they disrupted the long-sustained bond between local Indigenous Peoples and animals. Some settlers killed unfamiliar beasts to protect their livestock, or simply out of fear; others exploited the value of their pelts in the fur trade.

Over the centuries since colonization began, all kinds of wildlife have continued to suffer at the hands of people who see them as nothing but threats or opportunities for self-gain. One damaged relationship leads to another, and soon the entire ecosystem is disturbed. In response, guided by Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and other ecological experts, some coastal community members have been instigating conservation and coexistence initiatives.

We cannot manage wild animals, but we can manage ourselves

Sabina Leader Mense is an intertidal ecologist who became interested in apex predators when her dog was taken by a wolf on Cortes Island in 2009. Rather than reacting to the tragedy by drumming up a hunting party on social media, Leader Mense began researching how she could alter her own behaviour to best support local predator populations. Now, as a self-designated point person between wildlife specialists and her neighbours, she promotes the message that “we cannot manage wild animals, but we can manage ourselves.”

Leader Mense had already lived on Cortes for 20 years before she lost her dog, so she wanted to know what had suddenly brought wolves to the island. She learned from a member of the Heiltsuk Nation the teaching that “a wolf only shows itself when it has something to tell us.” She was told that the wolves had come to renegotiate boundaries, likely due to an influx in human population.

Leader Mense also connected with Chris Darimont, an internationally recognized wolf expert and the Raincoast Research Chair at the University of Victoria. Darimont introduced her to the idea of shifting toward a societal tolerance for wild creatures and acknowledging that sacrifices must be made [to accommodate them].

Leader Mense challenges her community to care, asking: “Are we willing to make room for Wolf, for Cougar, for Black Bear? Are we willing to make room for them to survive?” In 2011, she hosted a well-attended conference in the Klahoose First Nation centre and invited speakers to educate the Cortes community about coexisting with wildlife. She is planning another conference this spring for the community, which has had another increase in people moving in from urban areas.

Wolves in the bush, taken by a trail camera

A wolf should never be comfortable around a person. That’s the beginning of the end for a wolf.

“They’re bringing their domestic dogs with them … and neither the people nor the dogs have ever lived in wild places. There’s a really steep learning curve,” Leader Mense says.

Before the first conference, Leader Mense had already collaborated with wildlife conflict specialist Bob Hansen and conservationist Ben York to create a five-point primer called “Learning to Live with Wolves on Cortes Island.” In 2020, black bears swam to Cortes, prompting a new primer tailored to their habits. A primer on cougars is forthcoming.

The guidelines address predator attractants and issues related to habituation. The points are brief and direct, stressing consistency: Never feed wild animals (intentionally or otherwise), always walk dogs on a leash, and practice appropriate garbage management and animal husbandry. Tips for wildlife encounters include “hazing” wolves (shout loudly, intimidate with gesticulation) and backing slowly away from bears (speak in a low, firm voice). The rules are as concerned with the well-being of these wild populations as they are with the safety of humans.


For wolves, careless food management, such as a mountain of clam shells on the beach, can be just as inviting as Little Red Riding Hood and her picnic basket. “These are actually coastal wolves,” says Leader Mense. “In some areas, up to 75% of their diet can be marine based. They love clams.”

Most kinds of small animals on the loose are also tempting prey; wolves eat deer and raccoons, so attracting smaller wild animals to your home and garden is a great risk. Sturdy fencing is a must for keeping bees, chickens, and other livestock and pets out of reach. Bob Hansen recently led a workshop for the Cortes community about electric fences, which are inexpensive and can be solar powered.

For black bears, the number one attractant is garbage, which can be easily mitigated by using bear-resistant containers for waste and recycling, thoroughly cleaning BBQs after use, and managing compost properly. Next in line on the menu for hungry, wandering bears is birdseed. Possible solutions include only filling bird feeders in winter and planting native flowers, such as purple nodding onion, for birds to feed on in the summer.

Keeping bears out of the orchard is challenging. Even if you like making applesauce, it can be hard to keep up with the bounty. “Diligence around fruit crops is critical to prevent bears from hanging around and next discovering your vegetable garden,” the primer warns. Here, again, electric fencing can be a sound investment.

Robust habitat is crucial

Just as important as keeping predators out of human-occupied zones is ensuring that our wild kin have robust habitats and access to their traditional food sources. On Cortes, wildlife corridors are being mapped and conservation covenants are being created. In 2021, a 6.67-hectare corridor was protected on the southern part of Cortes – the traditional lands of the Klahoose and Tla’amin First Nations, and home to seventeen species at risk.

Black bear

For centuries, settler communities have struggled to live well with surrounding wildlife.

Another major part of mitigating attractants is leashing dogs. Our beloved pets pose a territorial threat to wolves, so gone are the days of carefree off-leash dog walking on Cortes. It’s a particularly emotional ask, but considering the serious potential consequences to both species during an encounter, Leader Mense thinks it’s worth the inconvenience.


Hazing involves taking on an alpha role when encountering a wolf by waving your arms, shouting loudly, and using noisemakers. Leader Mense says that the best way to save a wolf’s life is to make it scared of you: “A wolf should never be comfortable around a person. That’s the beginning of the end for a wolf.”

For this reason, Leader Mense makes a point of not sharing high-definition, awe-inspiring wildlife photography in her campaigns. She believes that human interaction was the underlying cause of death for Staqeya, a sea wolf who was killed by a hunter after becoming famous through his relationship with a Victoria-based photographer who documented his daily life for six years.

On the other hand, wildlife photography and documentaries may point to a growing compassion towards these animals. The Netflix series Island of the Sea Wolves, shot on Vancouver Island, follows wolves, bears, otters, and eagles around the coast and forest, dramatizing their lives and capturing enchanting footage. Remote cameras were a large part of the filming technique, particularly in sensitive areas, like near the wolves’ den.

But the featured animals likely noticed some crews over the 600 filming days. Hopefully the series’ success at inspiring reverence for wildlife is greater than any consequences that will come from habituating these animals to humans.

Some Cortes residents want to know where predators live so that they can simply avoid those specific areas. “We’re trying to teach people that wolves lead very dynamic lives,” Leader Mense says. “Rather than adhering to clear-cut borders, wolves and other wild animals will go wherever their noses lead them. It’s up to us to set boundaries by following protocol.”

For centuries, settler communities have struggled to live well with surrounding wildlife. A shift has begun – an awakening to the interconnectedness of our actions and the well-being of the ecosystems we inhabit. Through collaboration with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and with scientific specialists, communities can learn how to respect wildlife and remember our responsibility to manage our own behaviour. As the climate continues to change and habitat and biodiversity teeter on the edge, we must prioritize these more-than-human relationships. We have a lot to learn from them.

Claire Majors is a settler on the unceded territory of the Lək̓ʷəŋən (Songhees and Esquimalt) and W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples. She is currently studying in the Indigenous Education Post-Degree Program at UVic to be an elementary school teacher.

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