What would it be like to study wolves?

We sat down with Heather Bryan to learn more about her experience studying wolves, and why it’s so important to protect them.

Dr. Heather Bryan, an Assistant Professor in Ecosystem Science and Management at the University of Northern BC, has been studying wolves with Raincoast since she was an undergraduate student.

We sat down with Heather to learn more about her experience studying wolves, and why it’s so important to protect them.

Raincoast: What made you realize that you wanted to study wolves?

Heather: It was kind of opportunistic in a way, originally. I was an undergrad student looking for research experience when I came across an ad from Dr. Chris Darimont looking for someone to help with his research project, so that’s where I signed up to volunteer. He had a chance for me to help with some of the work he was doing on wolves, looking at their diet at the time. So that’s what got me involved with Raincoast and with the research that Raincoast was doing.

I’ve always loved wildlife and wolves are certainly a really interesting and important species. So that was one of the things that kept me interested in wolves and made me want to keep studying them. But I think in addition to the species, it was also the questions we were interested in asking and the applied aspect of the work where we were trying to learn more about ecosystems by looking at wolves. And also the importance of wolves for Heiltsuk people, on whose lands we were doing this work. It was all of those things that made it really interesting and motivated me to keep working on the research and working with the team.

What’s the most interesting and maybe surprising thing that you’ve learned about wolves over the years?

I think one of the themes that has emerged from Raincoast’s research is how interconnected wolves are with the marine landscape, and that was a big theme of Dr. Chris Darimont’s work. And so to me, that’s really fascinating and really unique to wolves in coastal BC. That’s certainly something that local people have always known, but it’s something that in terms of Western science is fairly new and I think a really fascinating part of the work Raincoast has done.

How have you seen our understanding of wolves evolve over the time that you’ve been studying them? Have you seen much of an increase in understanding?

Absolutely. Every time there’s a new study, you learn something new. So I think there are always surprises, even with a species like wolves. There has been a lot of research done on wolves and they’re probably one of the most widely studied species on the planet, but the fascinating thing is that there are still so many unanswered questions and things that we don’t know and so with every new study there are new pieces of information that come out, and that’s really amazing.

Do you think there are misconceptions that we’ve had about wolves that are starting to be dispelled?

Because there are so many stories that are rooted in society from an early age about wolves being the “big bad wolf”, I think it’s hard to change that in people. I certainly think there’s still a lot of animosity towards wolves and misunderstanding of wolves that’s rooted in some of these images and stories that some people grow up with. 

I also think it’s important to think about the local context and people who do experience issues coexisting with wolves; people who are losing livestock or who have a livelihood that’s in competition with wolves, whether it’s hunting or guide outfitting where wolves are competitors. I think it’s important to appreciate those challenges. So I think coming to more awareness and understanding really requires trying to consider not only these early stories of the “big bad wolf” but also these real challenges. 

I don’t think it’s an easy issue, I think people on both sides need to really work together and try to come up with ways of coexisting with carnivores like wolves.

A wolf stands relaxed in the intertidal zone in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Photo by April Bencze.

How has working with Raincoast for so long affected your work?

For me, I’m really inspired by Raincoast’s mandate to do applied science, and that’s really shaped the work that I do. I like the idea of doing research that is important in terms of influencing decision making and adding to a body of knowledge that has an applied aspect to it. So that’s been really motivating for me and really helped direct the questions and type of research that I’ve done.

It’s also really been important for me to know that Raincoast has built these relationships and collaborations with Indigenous communities in coastal BC and that they work towards research that’s done in partnership with communities—that’s been really motivating and inspiring for me as well.

Could you talk a bit about what threats wolves in BC face—not just with humans but also with things like climate change? 

I think all species in BC are facing unknown challenges with climate change where we don’t necessarily know what the consequences are going to be. So I think just having that uncertain feature is something that we need to be thinking about; there are going to be changes that are difficult to predict and difficult to plan for. Being aware of that is a very important part of thinking ahead in terms of conservation

There are also a lot of changes happening on the landscape, a lot of habitat that’s being converted into something different—things like salvage logging in a lot of the province—it changes the dynamics of ecosystems. Often there are changes to the predator-prey interactions facilitated by these ecosystem changes, and I think that’s probably the biggest issue for wolves right now.

And why is it important to protect wolves; why are they important to the ecosystem?

They have a lot of ecological roles. For one, they help keep prey populations healthy; often they’ll target the young and the sick and the old individuals, and that can have consequences in maintaining a healthy balance between predator and prey—so not having too many prey helps keep the natural balance of ecosystems. That’s really important.

One of the areas we’ve been working on at Raincoast is trying to understand how that role of wolves as predators might influence disease ecology of ecosystems as well. By taking out the sick individuals they might be helping to keep prey populations healthier. So that might have implications in terms of disease management and trying to keep diseases from spreading too much in the prey populations. So that’s an area that I’ve been working on with colleagues at Raincoast.

And then another area is in terms of nutrient transfer. Wolves can have a huge role in ecosystems in terms of moving nutrients like salmon from the marine ecosystem into the forest and that has a huge impact on riparian ecosystems. Similarly, they have a role in terms of the prey that they kill being used by all kinds of scavengers, from birds like ravens to other animals like wolverines, they all use wolf kill. So the prey that wolves kill serves a number of animals in the ecosystem as well. 

There’s also what some people call non-consumptive effects. Wolves have an impact by directly eating prey, but then they have a whole other suite of different effects on ecosystems just by being present. They can influence the behaviour of their prey species because those prey are scared of the wolves so they might use different habitats than they would if there were no wolves on the landscape. So there can be many different effects of wolves on ecosystems.

What questions do you still have about wolves and what do you see as coming next in wolf research?

Well certainly the question that I mentioned about better understanding the role of wolves in ecosystems and trying to look at their role in terms of keeping prey populations healthy. We still don’t know a lot about how that works, especially in ecosystems where wolves are sometimes being replaced by human predators like hunters. And so, how does human behaviour differ from wolf behaviour in terms of disease management and regulation? We’re hoping we’ll be able to learn from predators like wolves about what they do in terms of regulating disease, and then we might be able to apply that in our own hunting techniques or management techniques to help better prevent disease spread.

To hear more from Heather, check out the third episode of Wolf School. Raincoast is working to stop the recreational killing of wolves. We’ve made it easy for you to take action on our campaign page.

Protect wolves

Heather Bryan

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.