Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thompson puts wolves to work

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Although he has hunted and trapped wild creatures all his life, Ron Spence has a special reverence for wolves.

So, too, did most of the nearly 100 people in attendance at the recent two-day First International Wolf and Carnivore Conference in Thompson, which is seeking to be known as the Wolf Capital of Canada.

"Wolves are the spirit of the land," said Spence, a councillor with the nearby Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (formerly Nelson House), who worked for 15 years as a Manitoba conservation officer and was a speaker at the conference.

"I don't trap wolves. The wolf is a teacher and a guide. It teaches us how live with one mate all our life. It teaches us about leadership, loyalty, a sense of family and solidarity and to seek new places."

The conference attracted some of the superstars in the world of wolf and carnivore biology and conservation, including David Mech from the University of Minnesota and a founder of the International Wolf Centre in Ely, Minn.; Paul Paquet, senior scientist with the Rain Coast Conservation and the University of Calgary; Nikita Ovsyanikov, the Russian Academy of Sciences and a polar bear specialist; and Marco Musiani, University of Calgary, who's studied wolves in North America and Europe.

It was, and is, all part of an attempt by a few civic-minded people to have the city 750 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg recognized as the Wolf Capital of Canada -- similar to Churchill's brand as the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

A discussion paper, Building a Wolf Economy, prepared by conference organizer Volker Beckmann, states that over the past 20 years, there has been a renewed interest in wolves as a top predator and ecologically important species in Europe and North America.

"In northern Manitoba, wolves can attract researchers and tourists, provide new income and business opportunities and create positive publicity for Thompson and Manitoba as a province if managed and marketed properly," he said in an interview.

Thompson houses captive wolves at its zoo, has unknown numbers of wolves in the surrounding wilderness, has created stunning public wolf art such as the multi-storey-high mural of a wolf (recreated from a Robert Bateman painting). Beckmann says the public has a neutral attitude toward wolves.

The region has trappers, outfitters and aboriginal elders with traditional knowledge about wolves.

"Thompson could link itself as the wolf capital to the polar bear capital in Churchill for ecotourism efforts," said Beckmann.

He emphasized that the new University College of the North campus can become a wolf research and tourism centre.

Beckmann believes these factors "uniquely position Thompson to be the wolf capital of Canada," and Manitoba could set an example to the conservation world.

"International researchers and tourists are already being drawn to Manitoba because of polar bears," he said.

He noted Churchill has achieved international recognition as the polar bear capital of the world, while beluga whales, which migrate into the estuary of the Churchill River during the summer, are a big tourist draw in July and August.

"It has become evident that Thompson and Manitoba could expand wildlife-predator interest to wolves in order to attract more scientists, researchers, educators, artists and tourists from around the world," Beckmann said.

Canada supports the largest grey wolf population in the world with numbers around 50,000, according to researchers and wildlife managers. Approximately 10 per cent are found in Manitoba, and most of them live in the northern regions of our province.

As filmmaker Garrick Dutcher, program director of Living with Wolves in Sun Valley, Idaho, said during his presentation, "Wolves do matter. People need to understand wolves and the natural world. It is humanity's collective responsibility to preserve that wilderness and nature we have left on this planet."

Beckmann stressed that the next step following this conference is a visionary session and a strategic plan (with civic and other officials) to develop a wolf economy.

"We've created a certain momentum that we have to continue before the enthusiasm and energy dies off," he said.

Transforming Thompson into a centre of wolf excellence could become a howling success, with a benefit to all Manitobans and the world.

Martin Zeilig is a Winnipeg freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2012 A11

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