Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
The Last Wild Wolves

Book Review by David Yarian Ph.D.

The Last Wild WovesThe Last Wild Wolves: Ghosts of the Rain Forest
Ian McAllister

This delightful and poignant large-format book of photographs and text describes the lives and ecological interrelationships of three gray wolf packs that inhabit the Pacific coastline of British Columbia. This area contains one of the largest old-growth forests remaining in North America, though areas of it are to this day being opened for clearcutting.

The Raincoast Conservation Society has worked for over twenty years to conserve this great temperate rainforest, home to the last wolf populations that are surviving mostly free of human intervention and massive loss of habitat.

The Society sponsored research on these wolves when it realized that nothing was known about them; the other major fauna – bears, moose, orcas, whales and dolphins – had at least been studied. This research was vital for the Society in making its case to the Canadian government that this area, called the Great Bear Rainforest, must be conserved for its unique coastal ecology and virgin forest.

The Society designed its research program to be as minimally intrusive as possible. They ruled out capturing and sedating the study animals in order to put radio collars on them. Instead they used genetic analyses of thousands of samples of wolf hair and scat painstakingly collected by the research team to determine diet, family relationships and genetic makeup of the different wolf packs. Researchers followed the wolves on foot at a distance to observe each pack's movements around its territory.

Another important aspect of the study was that it was carried out with the close cooperation and participation of members of First Nation tribes living in the area. The researchers gained valuable insights into wolf behavior and their place in the ecosystem from the indigenous residents who have lived alongside these wolves for hundreds of years.

In addition to collecting scat and hair samples, the research team called upon the nature photography skills and writing ability of Ian McAllister, a cofounder of the Raincoast Conservation Society. McAllister lived aboard his oceangoing catamaran Companion and spent many months in close observation of three wolf packs.

He gained their trust by approaching them slowly over a period of time, being careful never to behave in ways that might seem aggressive or threatening. For example, in the early period of gaining the wolves' permission to observe them, he was careful never to make eye contact, looking away when they looked at him.

Eventually McAllister was accepted by the packs as a curious but unthreatening part of their environment. He occupied his observation post, carefully selected to be near but not too near the den, early in the mornings before the wolves arose. He remained there, quiet and making very few movements for many hours. At one point, he stayed in his position even as the tide came in, submerging his boots and threatening his camera equipment.

In return for his respect and patience, the wolf packs allowed McAllister to see and record much of their lives: denning behavior, training of the pups, the family's play and bonding times, feeding, resting, hunting – and fishing.

These coastal wolves rely on the annual salmon runs for a significant part of their diet; McAllister documented their skillful methods of catching the large fish. Their varied diet included salmon, shellfish, squid, seals, moose, deer, birds, and even bears.

Over time McAllister came to recognize individuals within the packs as their personalities were revealed through their individual behavior. He named some of them: Ernest, the serious watchman; Bob, the alpha male and skillful hunter; White Cheeks, an older male; Sorrow the older female who was friendly to McAllister and once awoke him from a nap by licking his boots; the brothers called the Sentries for their role as lookouts.

The Last Wild Wolves is a lyrical, informative, and beautiful plea to save these apex predators who skillfully make their living from the diverse food sources abundant on their mostly unspoiled coast. The book's photographs are stunning evocations of the wild beauty of the Northwest rainforest, and the text tells the research team's findings in a conversational and enlightening manner.

There is a bonus DVD included in the book, a short documentary of the study with beautiful cinematography and haunting music. It was a pleasure to view the DVD after reading the book and studying the still photographs. The packs' howling was an added treat.

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