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Thompson, Manitoba: Wolf Capital of the World

How a Canadian city is planning to become a world-class centre for wolf-positive research, education and eco-tourism.

With breathless enthusiasm, Marion Morberg recalled a summer encounter with wild wolves.

In her truck, as she crested a hill near Thompson, Manitoba, she saw a lone wolf walking next to the road. She pulled to a stop. The sleek predator looked at her, walked toward the truck and crossed the road. Then another appeared in her rearview mirror.

"I grew up in the north, but I'm still in awe [of the wildlife]," Morberg said. Thompsonites "had no idea that people are really scared of wolves, because we're not."

Morberg is the president of a local volunteer organization called Spirit Way. As British Columbia culls wolves in hopes of saving declining caribou herds, Idaho hosts an annual wolf-killing contest, and Europe struggles to reverse centuries-long persecution of wolves, Morberg wants the world to know that Thompson not only likes its wolves, but is aiming to become the Wolf Capital of the World—a world-class centre for wolf-positive research, education and eco-tourism.

With a population estimated up to 6,000, Manitoba is likely home to more wolves than all the contiguous United States, which has roughly 5,600, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Locals speculate the acceptance of wolves may be because northern Manitoba is not farm country, so wolves are not in conflict with livestock owners, an issue that reinforces negative feelings toward wolves in other places. Moreover, local indigenous traditions promote respect for the wolf, which is regarded as an equal or brother.

Thompson's 10-storey high wolf mural is the largest lighted mural in the world. Image: Travel Manitoba/Flickr

Morberg's team was in Winnipeg in late October to present their Wolf Capital of the World project to some of the 1,500 wildlife students and professionals attending The Wildlife Society's annual conference. Spirit Way is seeking partners and sponsors for a $4.5 million Boreal Discovery Centre and a wolf centre of excellence that would promote wolves as an economic and ecologic asset, and demonstrate best practices in everything from wolf science to policy. It also hopes that Thompson, roughly 700km north of Winnipeg and deep in the Boreal forest, can shed its image as a 1960s mining town and stimulate a robust tourist economy.

The idea to become the wolf capital hatched unexpectedly in 2005. Spirit Way had been founded as a finite three-year project to simply "give the community some bragging rights," said project coordinator Volker Beckmann. The group commissioned a 10-storey high mural based on "Wolf Sketch," a painting by Canada's premier wildlife artist Robert Bateman. The largest lighted mural in the world, it evoked an outpouring of positive public response.

"You can see it a mile away across the river at night, this glowing wolf," said Beckmann, who is a graphic design consultant by day.

Spirit Way then produced another public-art project, a series of 53 sponsored, artist-painted wolf sculptures. One thing led to another, and the group found itself invited to a 2009 carnivore conference in Denver, Colorado, where the group started to receive invitations for education and research partnerships. In 2011, Spirit Way started the Wolves Without Borders education program that teaches conservation and unpacks myths about wolves for school kids in Canada, the US and Mexico. It hopes to take the program global.

"We began to see the potential for what we could do with wolves," said Beckmann.

Wolves draw an estimated 94,000 people annually to Yellowstone National Park, contributing $35.5 million to local economies

In 2012, Spirit Way presented Manitoba Conservation with a discussion paper on its plans for a "wolf economy" and hosted its own international wolf and carnivore conference in Thompson, attracting 100 attendees, including top wolf biologists. It is also working on a four-year study with Memorial University's Dr. Alistair Bath, a human dimensions expert who has worked on human-wolf controversies around the world, to determine what a "wolf centre of excellence" should be from the perspective of all community stakeholders.

So far the group has raised nearly $1 million for its projects, and work on the Boreal Discovery Centre—an overhaul of the Thompson zoo that will focus on flora and fauna of the Boreal forest—is underway.

Because of the thick forest cover, viewing wolves for research or tourism could be challenging, but technology is helping overcome that. Research methods are changing "at a rapid pace," said Rob Schultz, executive director of the International Wolf Center in Minnesota.

"Researchers can be sitting in an office and be watching what's happening on Ellesmere [Island] with GPS collars. There is talk of using drones," Schultz said. "Technology changes the way researchers can look at a species, and it means that you don't necessarily need a barren landscape."

Speaking at the conference, Keith MacDonald, president of the Thompson Chamber of Commerce said he also hoped wolves "could be an untapped economic engine" for the city. Wolves draw an estimated 94,000 people annually to Yellowstone National Park, contributing $35.5 million to the economies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, according to a 2008 study. Other studies have found that wolves have a positive economic impact in North Carolina and parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

Boreal forest in Thompson, Manitoba. Image: Travel Manitoba/Flickr

But creating a product around an animal that really doesn't want contact with people is an inherent challenge.

For starters, Thompson will need mom-and-pop tour operators, such as those that operate in Churchill, Thompson's northern neighbour, Beckmann said. They take visitors on northern safaris to see polar bears and beluga whales. Already Manitoba's northern region attracts upwards of 400,000 visitors annually, according to Travel Manitoba. "We're looking for someone to tell you the stories, take you into the forest, show you some wolf tracks," he said.

Morberg is already organizing tours for August 2016. A wolf-behaviour expert will guide participants in the Paint Lake-Ospwagon Lake area to hear, if not see, wolves by performing wolf calls.

"I think images from that community, when they're seen by people in other parts of the world, they truly do inspire people," said Rob Schultz, noting that the International Wolf Center has been sharing Thompson's wolf-project updates to its worldwide membership. He's impressed by the city's "real, true acceptance of wolves, of their being part of the environment, that we're not seeing in other parts of the world."

If Spirit Way can keep its momentum, Thompson may not only become synonymous with wolves—it may also do a loved and loathed creature a lot of good.