You can barely see them padding along the mud flats in the mist. Their gray and slightly tawny coats allow them to blend in against the rocks in the estuary. Creatures of both land and water, they fish for salmon in the river and then drag their catch into the forest, where it fertilizes plants and spurs the growth of large trees.
Coastal gray wolves — and other carnivores in the Great Bear Rainforest — are linked to each other in an enduring ecology. Predator-prey relationships that Lewis and Clark recorded more than 200 years ago are still intact here. When night falls on the rainforest, the calls of wolves still fill the wide emerald valleys. There are only a handful of places on Earth where you can still hear such sounds.
While large carnivores are at the top of the food chain, their low reproductive rates and slow population growth leave them more vulnerable than other species to the effects of human encroachment. Left without these key players, habitats worldwide are experiencing serious ecological consequences. Kelp forests without otters are wrecked by sea urchins, and Yellowstone’s aspen groves have been overgrazed without wolves and grizzlies to keep elk in check.
But in the Great Bear Rainforest, many of these critical relationships are still intact. “Grizzly bears, wolves and other predators play regulating roles in the ecosystems they inhabit,” explains Dr. Richard Jeo, director of the Conservancy’s Great Bear Rainforest program.
“Large carnivores also disperse seeds and transfer nutrients that stimulate forest growth,” adds Jeo. “They literally build the natural infrastructure that other species — including humans — rely upon for survival. Without them, entire ecosystems could unravel.”
The Nature Conservancy believes that protecting species such as grizzly bears, gray wolves and the elusive Spirit Bear is an essential piece in securing the ecological integrity of the Great Bear Rainforest. But in a region rich in oil, timber, natural gas, minerals, metals and fresh water, pressures on predators are mounting.
“Protected areas are not enough,” says Jeo. “We recognize that if our conservation efforts are to succeed, indigenous communities will need to learn to live with — and get real benefits from — increasing carnivore populations. Bear-viewing and ecotourism represent key opportunities for economic development.”
Conservation success in the Great Bear Rainforest will likely mean healthy, more robust populations of large carnivores such as grizzly bears and wolves. While this will generate important economic development opportunities — like ecotourism and bear-viewing — for First Nations, local communities may feel threatened by growing populations of large carnivores. Fortunately, much is known about how to manage potential conflicts. The Conservancy plans to play a convening role, bringing together parties involved in carnivore management and local communities to protect both humans and carnivores.
The secretive nature of carnivores is an asset in the wild, but makes it difficult for researchers to study their movements. By working with Pacific Wild to install wildlife cameras in the Great Bear Rainforest, the Conservancy hopes to provide a new way of scientifically monitoring coastal carnivores while minimizing disturbance to the animals.
Because large carnivores utilize a wide array of habitats — from estuaries to rivers to subalpine areas — they are the perfect animals around which to design land-use plans. Working with a diverse team of partners, the Conservancy is providing its conservation-planning expertise to successfully implement ecosystem based management in the rainforest.
The result of this innovative approach will be a network of protected areas within a well-managed working landscape that enables carnivores to roam freely between the habitats they need for survival.
Gray wolves, grizzly bears and other large carnivores are symbols of wilderness and of places unaltered by time or by man. Stories of loss can be found around the world, but in the Great Bear Rainforest we still have the chance to achieve wholeness.
Ultimately, the opportunity in the Great Bear Rainforest is about more than the preservation of a beautiful place or the magnificent creatures it supports. This project is a global model of what conservation must become in the 21st century: an inherent part of economies, environments and cultures.April 19, 2012