Cutting to the Chase

HeatherA young wolf races along the shore, his gangly legs negotiating the rocky shoreline as effortlessly as an Olympic gymnast performing a tried routine. Only a fleeting glance over his shoulder betrays his fear as he disappears into the forest.

We look at each other in awe as a few moments of calm descend on the estuary. Suddenly, two larger, older wolves crash onto the beach, sprinting after the young refugee. Their grace is counterpoised only by their pink tongues, which hang immoderately low and bounce awkwardly. They pause for a few seconds in the water to cool down before resuming the chase. Soon they too vanish into the forest.

Waiting with apprehension for the outcome of the chase, we finally see the lone youngster emerge onto the rocks further along the estuary and head up a trail towards the lake. After nearly an hour, there is no sign of his pursuers, so we assume the excitement is over for a while. We drop anchor for our last night in the field, thrilled with our first (and only) glimpse of our principal study animal.

Aboard the regal sailing vessel Nirvana with magnanimous skipper and Raincoast supporter Pat Freeney, we have spent nearly two weeks sailing to lush estuaries in search of wolf sign. After scouring 12 sites, our senses have become acutely tuned to trails, tracks, bedding sites, snack stops, scratching posts, and other evidence of wildlife activity. We have observed grizzlies, porcupines, birds, salmon, mink, otter, dolphins, whales, and finally, wolves. Most importantly, we have filled our cooler with precious scat samples that will provide information about genetics and disease.

This trip has allowed me to learn the basics of observing animal signs and collecting faecal samples from experienced trackers Nathan DeBruyn and Jordan Wilson. This year, I will be following in Nathan’s footsteps and continuing Raincoast’s Wolf Project’s efforts to monitor diseases in wolves and other wildlife of the Great Bear Rainforest (See “What goes around comes around,” Notes from the field, July 2005.) The trip has also been an opportunity for M. Sc. student Kasia Rozalska to observe firsthand some of the den sites she has been mapping and characterizing with Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Knowledge of disease is essential in conservation and management, as it affects the behaviour, ecology, and evolution of life history traits in populations. Diseases – and especially so-called emerging infectious diseases – also have the potential to devastate wildlife populations, and they are now recognized as substantial threats to global biodiversity. Our aim with this project is to identify diseases that threaten or are already present in coastal wildlife (mostly wolves) and to understand the role of disease in the coastal ecosystem. Ultimately, we hope to intercept diseases that may threaten wildlife as a result of increased human activity and climate change. Our investigation of diseases in wolves humbly turns us once again to their all-informative excrement.

To this end, on our final evening in the field, we patrol the beach for scat. A howl erupts from the forest where we last saw the two older wolves. It is answered by a cry from the direction of the younger wolf. Although I can’t understand what they are saying, I hope they are declaring peace, or at least a truce. Silently, I add my own inner howl to the chorus, explaining that I will be back next year and that I too will come in peace. In the meantime, I will return to the University of Saskatchewan where I will spend the winter analyzing samples and preparing for a busy and exciting field season in 2007.

Heather Bryan
August 2006
From the bow of the Nirvana en route back to Bella Bella

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