Searching for the Coast Wolves:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

In 2001, Austrian-born Gudrun Pflueger started working as a field biologist with the BC-based Raincoast Conservation Society. Four years later, when the non-profit organization was approached to collaborate on a German-produced documentary about wolves in northwestern BC, she had no idea that she would end up with the film’s starring role, or the profound effect the experience would have on her life.
A vivacious character and energetic athlete, Pflueger first made a name for herself at home in the Alps as a competitive cross-country skier and four-time winner of the World Mountain Running Championships. She moved to Canada in 2001 after graduating from the University of Salzburg with a Masters degree in biology.
When ZDF, or Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Germany’s biggest television network, approached Raincoast about producing a documentary that featured the elusive coastal wolves, Pflueger’s ability to speak both fluent German and English cast her as the perfect guide for the production crew. It wasn’t long before the biologist’s signature smile made its way in front of the cameras—a position Pflueger wasn’t altogether comfortable with.
“I was super thrilled and super naïve,” she says about the day her telephone rang, asking her to get involved with the project. “I didn’t understand that I wasn’t going to be behind the cameras until it was too late.”
Instead, Pflueger took a leading role in the resulting 52-minute documentary Searching for the Coast Wolves, collaborating with former Raincoast conservation director Ian McAllister and biologists Paul Paquet and Chris Darimont in her quest to make contact with a pack that has likely never experienced human contact.

Pack impacts
The film’s primary goal is to bring home to audiences the inherent interconnectedness of humans to nature. Through aerial footage, it highlights the effects of clearcutting on coastal ecosystems and the impacts that habitat loss is having on wolf populations. It touches as well on Raincoast’s $1.35 million purchase of guide-outfitting rights in the area, which effectively eliminated trophy hunting in more than 20,000 square kilometres along the central BC coast.
In early 2006, the BC government announced a joint agreement among environmental groups, government, industry and First Nations that protects over five million acres (about one-third) of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest from logging. But when the film was made, the wolves were virtually unprotected.
In the film, Pflueger travels through the islands off the coast of Prince Rupert in the Tip-sup, a 42-foot aluminum sailboat, with captain Jean Marc Legault. For weeks, their search goes unrewarded. Then—finally—some signs: wolf tracks, scat, half-consumed salmon. The team is close.
The moment when Pflueger makes contact with the wolf pack must be one of the most magical wildlife experiences caught on film. As the biologist sits in a deserted sea-side meadow, gazing through her binoculars, the camera catches what she at first doesn’t see: a lone wolf, stepping cautiously from the forest toward her; then another, and another. It isn’t long before she drops her binoculars in wonder, gazing at the pack as it gradually steps from the forest and begins to play in the estuary’s clearing.
Pflueger describes the interaction that follows as “a gigantic gift from the wolves—it was their huge contribution to the success of the film.” But the wolves weren’t simply contributing to the documentary.
“The First Nations have a saying. They told me that the wolf would not show itself unless it is trying to tell you something,” Pflueger tells the camera as the film wraps up. “I think that those wolves tried to give me their strength for my journey ahead.”

Turning point
Three weeks after returning home from filming, Pflueger was diagnosed with a grade three oligoastrocytoma—an aggressive brain tumour with a poor prognosis. For the next year, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, followed by experimental treatments in Germany. Through it all, she held tight to her image of the wolves and the goal that she would one day visit the meadow again.
“It suddenly made so much sense to me, and I felt really blessed that I had this experience. I know that we have to preserve those wild places because nature is one of the most powerful healers,” she says.
In May 2007, Searching for the Coast Wolves was aired on Austrian television—its first public showing—receiving an unprecedented response for a wildlife film, according to Pflueger. It went on to become a finalist at the 2007 Banff Mountain Film Festival, and won four awards at festivals in Germany, Italy, Spain and France.
Pflueger, who works as a nature interpreter at Nipika Lodge in the Columbia Valley, does a weekly screening for guests. “People seem to really be touched,” she says of the response. “The idea of a person, a human face in a nature documentary, helps the audience bridge the distance from them sitting on the couch at home to the wildlife outside.”

Return to the meadow
Last November, Pflueger had a clean MRI. She still undergoes treatments that take her to Germany at least twice a year, and hasn’t yet resumed her previous athletic pace, as her body recovers from the cancer. “Overall, I’m doing spectacular.” She credits the wolves with her survival.
“It was one of my biggest medications, absolutely. I had one big illness, but I had three huge medications,” she says, acknowledging her community of friends, her treatments in Germany, and her focus on one day returning to the place where she encountered the wolves. “My wish was, I want to be able to return to this meadow, to this exact spot. That was something so easy and so real—such a real wish—that it really helped me.”
In October, Pflueger’s friends at Raincoast took her back to the meadow. Paddling into the estuary under a beautiful sunset, “it was just magic” as she lived the image she had played in her mind repeatedly for two years. Rounding a corner, she was surprised to realize that, at high tide, the meadow was entirely flooded. Returning the next morning, any sign of wolves had been erased by the tides.
“Then I remembered that it was always my dream to return to the meadow, but not necesarily to see the wolves there again. In the end, it was fulfilled—maybe I don’t need them right now,” she says.
“I hope everyone leans back and thinks of his own personal wolf—something you have passion for and something you can hold onto in case times get tough in your life.”
There are currently no confirmed dates for showing Searching for the Coast Wolves in northern BC, but the documentary is included in the roster for Banff Mountain Film Festival’s world tour, which hits the north this fall. For festival screening dates in Queen Charlotte City, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers and Prince George, visit

Rupert’s wolves…

and the debate over inner-city huting

Prince Rupert-area bowhunters have requested that their city council allow hunting within municipal boundaries as a means to curb an ongoing wolf problem. While the question is currently on hold in the municipality’s administration, one conservation biologist blames “problem humans and problem human behaviour” for the wildlife issues faced by the city.
Chris Darimont, a conservation scientist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, is calling for tolerance in the face of reported recent attacks on dogs in Prince Rupert, which is situated on Kaien Island. Improper garbage storage and a prolific deer population are being blamed for attracting the canis lupus into populated areas and habituating a handful of problem animals.
Darimont says there’s no easy solution to the situation, which has been hotly debated over the past year after three dogs were attacked—two of them fatally—while walking with their owners. Bowhunters have proposed a cull on either the wolves or the deer to get the problem under control.
“History has shown that if you try to control the wolves or try to control the deer, it just doesn’t work,” Darimont says, adding that “extra-territorial” wolves—those on the periphery of the population—will simply move in to take the relocated or destroyed animals’ place. Besides this, the wolves have a high reproduction rate.
“I can’t support that ethically. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a part of the world that still has wolves—and many places don’t—that privilege comes with a responsibility,” says Darimont, who for the past decade has spent six months of each year studying wolves on the central and northern BC coast.

Don’t feed the wolves
In recent months, Prince Rupert’s city council has heard presentations from Ministry of Environment representatives as well as local bowhunters. Mayor Herb Pond says the issue is currently in administration’s hands, and he’s unsure when it might come back before council. In the meantime, he adds, the city is dealing with the issue by stepping up bylaw enforcement in dealing with attractants that have been blamed for bringing the wolves into populated areas.
Apart from improperly stored garbage, Pond says he has heard reports of residents hand-feeding wild animals.
“It’s unfortunate because I think people that feed wolves are doing so because they like them, but in fact they’re slowly signing the wolves’ death warrant by doing it,” he says, adding that relocation would likely result in death for the pack animals. “In general, people aren’t even aware of the packs that are there. They’re afraid of humans.”
Pond says that while the hunters’ request will be considered, there are no immediate plans to allow bowhunting within the municipal boundary.
David Watson, a Prince Rupert resident and local wolf enthusiast, says there are about eight wolves in the Kaien Island pack, but only a few that have become dangerously habituated to humans. He blames the recent wolf problems on illegal dumping of animal waste (such as elk, deer, crab and salmon), lack of sufficient fencing at the local landfill, and pet food left outside. While acknowledging that problem animals should be dealt with, Watson doesn’t want to see hunting allowed within city limits.
“Somebody’s got to advocate for the wolves,” says Watson, who maintains the website “We’re here for conservation, but we don’t want to see animals hurt.”
Darimont correlates the likelihood of an animal attack to the likelihood of a sighting—in general terms, putting wolf attacks low on the probability scale. “Statistically, the chance of a human being injured by a wolf is far, far less than being injured by a deer or by a black bear,” he says. “The fact is, you just don’t come across wolves that often.”
He says eliminating human-caused attractants and adapting lifestyles is the best way to combat the current wolf problems.
“Humans and animals modify their behaviour all the time based on threats,” says Darimont who, as a post-doctoral fellow studying at the University of California in Santa Cruz, jokes that he’s had to modify his own behaviour recently. “If something threatens us we get our gun or our bow and arrow and try to kill it. It’s just a gross oversimplification of the problem and the solution.”