Field researcher Sadie Parr is trying to determine what wolves in the Chilcotin are eating.
“Figuring out what they are eating will teach us a lot about behaviour and the ecological interactions that are happening in the area,” Parr told the Tribune.
She will focus her research in the Brittany Triangle, and was going into the area in April to plan her research.
Friends of Nemiah Valley and Valhalla Wilderness Society are sponsoring the research, providing some professional and logistical advice, and she’s using a research cabin owned by FONV, located in the heart of Nunsti Provincial Park.
“We’ve been sponsoring students there for the last 10 years. A lot of research has been done in the area,” said FONV president David Williams.
Parr lives in Golden and has tracked wolves in Yoho National Park for the last four years, and has been involved in “wolf work” for a decade.
“I feel they are misunderstood so getting accurate information and being able to provide it, rather than anecdotally is important,” Parr said. “Wolves are managed the same way ungulates are right now in the way that it doesn’t always work.”
A high number of wolves is not necessarily a sign of a stable population, she explained.
“I would like to figure out what’s happening in the Brittany Triangle,” she said. “There is a knowledge gap. Wolves are recognized as a keystone species, capable of causing trophic cascades.”
Stable families will determine the overall health of a wolf population.
If populations aren’t stable then that might create ranching issues or cause hunting rates to be increased, Parr said.
“They are extremely social animals so I would like to learn if these wolves are in stable units. If they are then theoretically they would take less animals, use larger territories, reuse den sites, and hunt co-operatively.”
Those wolf practices will change if wolves are indiscriminately killed, which Parr said is happening across B.C. right now, can cause an increase in population, and an increase in the number of conflicts.
In the 1920s Yellowstone National Park decided to kill all the predators in the area and the last wolf was killed in 1926.
“By the 1950s, the park was extremely different. Biodiversity had dropped incredibly, there was a loss of songbirds, small mammals, it was basically a trophic cascade,” Parr said.
The deer and elk populations exploded with no predators keeping them in check and their behaviour changed dramatically.
“Before they would have been constantly on the move avoiding predators, now they had no reason to do that, so they basically stood still and were more easily exposed.”
They overgrazed and over browsed and stunted all the aspen and willows that grew along the rivers.
It impacted beavers, who use aspen and willows, so the park dried out and there were huge forest fires in the 1980s, and a ton of starving deer and elk.
Elk were shipped to other parks, but because the parks were full, elks were slaughtered by the thousands.
“It was very sad and the park was very sick. Then finally in 1996, 30 wolves were reintroduced from Northern Alberta and B.C. into Yellowstone over a two-year period.”
American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold had been recommending that wolves be reintroduced into Yellowstone since the 1920s, Parr added.
Within a few years the trees started growing back. The beavers started returning to the area and everything else has followed them.
“Songbirds that hadn’t been seen for more than 50 years returned by themselves, just by the top predator being where it originally belonged.”
“It’s been called the ecology of fear, putting the wolves on the landscape is moving the ungulates around.”
Another reason wolves contribute to maintaining diversity is when they kill ungulates, they eat as much as they can, and can eat a quarter of their own body weight.
“Then they’ll move on. Other predators, like grizzlies or cougars, will usually bury them or guard them. All of those leftovers provide for many other scavengers or predators in the area.”
Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone benefited other animals, Parr said. “Where I live in the Rockies, 33 different species are provided for from the leftovers of wolves. In that way they provide food consistently throughout the year, compared to hunting, which is seasonal.”
The reintroduction of wolves also cut the coyote population in Yellowstone in half. Without the wolves, the coyote population had exploded.
“They started to form packs, which coyotes don’t typically do, but they were trying to fill the niche of wolves. Coyotes and wolves are extremely different behaviourly, genetically similar, but most people don’t recognize the differences.”
Coyotes don’t have the same fear of humans that wolves have.
There is still animosity toward wolves, Parr suggested, adding what humans don’t know, they fear and destroy.
One state in the U.S. did not hunt wolves and the population increased, but the rates of livestock loss went down 60 per cent because the ranchers were practicing prevention and learning how to live with them.
“The neighbouring state in the same two years killed 700 wolves and their livestock loss rate increased by 75 per cent,” Parr said, adding that more than population social dynamics have to be factored in.”
Randomly killing wolves can create more problems, she insisted.
“We have to remember that we’ve been killing wolves in this province for a long time with bounties and poison programs. We’ve become used to not seeing predators and many people will describe it as an artificially high ungulate population that we’ve become used to as well.”
Wolves are returning to the landscape. Some people are thrilled. Others aren’t.
“It’s about finding that balance so that there can be some coexistence,” Parr said.
Williams recalled an incident as a boy in Courtney in the 1940s.
“There was a pickup truck with two dead wolves in the back,” Williams said. “Everybody was going to look because they told us they were the last wolves on Vancouver Island, they’d wiped them out and that was it.”
It wasn’t the case. There are lots of wolves now, he added.
Parr said her favourite aspect about wolves is their family interactions.
“They are incredibly loyal, co-operative and communicate in so many different ways.”
The communication is fascinating because it helps their social cohesiveness.
“They communicate by howling, they communicate over distance. It helps other packs stay away or it helps them find each other.
“They’ll howl emotionally at births and deaths. I’ve heard it described as a mood synchronizing activity.”
There is a unison in wolves, Parr said. “It’s not a single wolf that’s the predator. It’s the pack and experience is passed down generation to generation. In a way it’s similar to bees. As a super organism they really function together.”
After the big forest fire in 2003, Williams and his wife, Pat, were going into their place in the Brittany Triangle, 26 kilometres off the road, to see if their cabin had been burned down.
“We were camped at night and we heard this howling and carrying on. Because of the fire, the wolves were absolutely upset. It went on and on. We’d never heard it like that before,” Williams recalled.
Another time he heard the same distress call and when he walked up to a little lake north of the cabin the next day, he saw a dead wolf on the edge of the lake.
“They were very upset and vocal with their expression of distress.”
It’s the true call of the wild, Parr suggested.
There are several documented cases of a member of the wolf family being injured and the wolves care for it as long as they can, until it would really hold the entire family back.
“They will actually bring food back and take care of the injured wolf,” she said.
Parr has been documenting in Yoho National Park where wolves are killed.
People think national parks are where animals are protected, but only five per cent are dying of natural causes.
She came across a female earlier in 2012 who was killed by a car.
It was sad.
As Parr returned to the area she could tell the pack had remained with the dead wolf for quite awhile. Possibly waiting for the wolf to return.