Tracking the Grey Ghosts
P.A. Park wolf study offers new perspective on habits and lifestyle
The image of a wolf’s head has been a Prince Albert National Park symbol for years. However, few summer holidayers to Waskesiu ever catch a glimpse of animals so elusive they’re sometimes called “grey ghosts.”
It might therefore surprise people that one of Saskatchewan’s holiday hot spots is one of the few national parks in Canada that supports a healthy and thriving wolf population.
Canadian National Parks officials and the Saskatchewan public will now know a lot more about the park’s wolves, thanks to a study recently completed by University of Saskatchewan wildlife biologist, Erin Urton.
Urton spent two and a half years researching wolves in the park. Her just-completed master’s thesis will help people understand these intelligent, group-oriented symbols of the Canadian wilderness.
While wolf studies have been carried out in other parts of Canada and that information extrapolated to populations here, Saskatchewan’s wolves have never been the subject of a major study of this sort.
“There is nothing on population or what they eat,” says Urton. “We can make good guesses at this based on research done in Alberta and Manitoba, but any time you look into books and literature about wolves, there is always this ‘unknown’ for the province of Saskatchewan.”
Urton aimed to get as much broad-scale ecological information as she could, starting with determining the numbers of wolves that inhabited the park, where in the park they lived and what they liked to eat.
Park officials wanted to know whether the wolves interbred with wolves from outside the park. They were also keen to learn if they were inclined to dine on park herds of wild bison, or cattle from ranches outside the park boundaries.
One positive finding of Urton’s study is that the park’s wolf population is thriving, primarily because they are living in a diverse and healthy park ecosystem, surrounded by an intact forest populated by other wolf groups.
Urton’s groundbreaking DNA research into the genetic make-up of the park’s wolves was instrumental in determining their reproductive health. Her study concluded that most, if not all, of the PANP wolves roam outside of the park, allowing for the opportunity to interbreed with other wolves.
By comparison, the wolf population in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park is facing disease and decline largely because it is an “island population” cut off from interbreeding and widening its gene pool with surrounding wolf groups. In Banff National Park, wolves are threatened with extinction due to ever-increasing incursions into their habitat by the human population.
Urton describes the wolf as a barometer of wilderness health. Because wolves inhabit the top of the food chain, their existence in an area is a sign there is ample wilderness territory and plenty of healthy deer, elk, moose and beaver.
Grey wolves have been described as among North America’s least observed and least understood creatures. They live and hunt in family groupings called packs, which normally consist of about seven animals and are led by a dominant male and female pair who mate for life. Wolves mate in winter and generally they have six to eight pups.
A male grey wolf can be two metres long, stand more than a metre high at the shoulders and weigh about 40 kilograms (90 pounds). A wolf’s colouring can range from tan or grey to solid black, and some appear at a distance to be white. They are intensely social animals, so much so that some researchers believe that wolves may be an appropriate model for understanding the foundations of human behaviour.
People who have long worked with wolves invariably describe them — despite their reputation for ferocity — as intelligent with close and loving family relationships. They’ve suffered a bad rap throughout history, largely because in both Europe and North America, humans and wolves have shared the same territory and lived off the same animals.
Grey wolves once inhabited almost the entire North American continent, from the Arctic Circle to Mexico, but through 400 years of hunting, trapping and poisoning, they have been brought to the brink of extinction in the contiguous 48 states of the U.S.
They were officially eradicated even from U.S. National Parks, where officials thought they decimated populations of protected deer, elk and antelope. It is now widely accepted that wolves are crucial to a healthy balance in the food chain in the parks where they live.
Historically, they inhabited all of Saskatchewan, living off buffalo in the south. Today, Saskatchewan’s wolf population, which Urton believes numbers in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, lives exclusively in the forested north.
She says the dislike for wolves in Canada is largely limited to agricultural areas, where ranchers have serious problems with wolves taking livestock, something she’s witnessed in other parts of the country.
“We don’t have as much trouble with it in Saskatchewan because there’s still a lot of wild prey. I think the wolves here are not interested in livestock so much because there is so much of this wild prey still available.”
Urton says wolves “avoid humans and human activity.” A recent attack at Key Lake on mine worker Fred Desjarlais notwithstanding, wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare and human death by a wolf unheard of.
They are elusive, so elusive that completing her research required Urton to travel to remote corners of the park.
Wolf research in the past often involved darting, collaring, capturing and even killing wolves to study them. Park officials wanted to avoid invasive techniques, which can disturb or alter the animals’ behaviour. What Urton and her crew did was a sort of wilderness poop-scoop, collecting wolf scat and examining it.
“We gathered scat, kept it frozen and brought it to a lab in Saskatoon to analyse it. Within wolf scat are epidermal cells which are sloughed off from the animal’s intestinal lining. We can isolate DNA from those cells.”
She followed tracks into all parts of the park, but avoided disturbing them through close contact.
“In the interest of where I could collect samples, we did some tracking. There were places where we thought there may have been a den, so we only went in at certain times of the year.”
She picked up 74 separate genotypes of wolves and estimates that there are somewhere between 75 and 100 wolves, living in at least five separate groupings in PANP.
“To survive there, they eat a lot of elk, deer and smaller animals, such as beaver.
“In terms of what I found in their scat, it was mostly deer. But looking at it, in terms of biomass, they consumed more elk. Some tests made it appear as though they were selecting elk, preferring this prey to deer.”
As to their eating bison or livestock, Urton’s study showed that they did neither. “We didn’t find any bison remains. There’s a small chance that in the summertime, they would take the bison calves, but it would be very, very rare.
“A lot of these places we collected scats were right adjacent to farm lands. There is no doubt that wolves have access to livestock and there was no evidence they’d eaten any.”
Overall, she found a healthy population of wolves.
“The genetic diversity is high, if not higher than other North American populations, such as in the North West Territories (where they) are not disturbed. There was also no sign of population depression of wolves in the park.”
Other Canadian national parks are interested in the Saskatchewan findings, notes Urton.
“It is important for them to be able to look at our research, done in a similar habitat and a similar size of park. They are really interested in this data to compare it with their own.”
Urton, 27, grew up in Prince Albert and came by her interest in wolves through wilderness outings as a child. Her research work involved something she still loves; long days in the outdoors, typically from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We did a few overnight trips and multiple day trips where we’d ski in to a cabin and stay for a few nights to do some tracking in the more remote parts of the park that were difficult to access.” Other times they were able to use bikes. Park wardens were helpful, collecting wolf scat for her and reporting their observations.
Inevitably, her research brought her into close contact with a pack, but she never felt frightened or threatened by them. “Most times I would see them out on the ice and tuck myself behind a tree to observe them until they saw me, then they’d run off.
“I’ve tracked wolves all over Canada and have even run into them. In every case, they disappear right away. I don’t have any fear of them. I would be more afraid of bears while I’m out hiking than anything.”
She asserts that the lingering prejudice against them is perpetuated by old myths. “People just need to be educated about them. That’s changing, now, too. You don’t see as much of it as you used to.”
Saskatchewan is one of the few regions of the world where you can still see wolves in the wild. PANP is one of only eight national parks in Canada where the wolf is protected. The park even promotes tourist interaction through family wolf howling sessions each summer.
Keeping the wolf population healthy for future generations will probably depend on sustaining the health of the boreal forest surrounding the park, says Urton.
“In the past couple of years, you’ve seen a lot of issues concerning the health of the boreal forest, particularly in Saskatchewan. Logging has increased in the past five to 10 years. Given this increase, the park itself, in my opinion, is under increased threat of isolation. It has a high chance of turning into this tiny piece of isolated habitat.”
With a strong interest and background in biology and ecology, Urton intends to pursue her Ph.D. by researching wolves, possibly on Canada’s west coast. The secretive and often misunderstood grey ghosts continue to fascinate her.
“To me they represent wilderness. They are also really interesting animals that live in families that are similar to our families. I can relate to that. They’re fascinating animals to study. And they’re beautiful.”