Scat, tracks, and spawning salmon: following signs of wolves along the south coast

Exploring a potential new location for Raincoast’s wolf research and conservation efforts.

“What a beautiful day,” our colleague Ian Hamilton notes, looking at the golden morning light filtering through leaves that are just starting to turn red and gold. We murmur our agreements, and express our gratitude that we were able to visit this ecosystem on the last nice day before a band of rain moves into the region for the foreseeable future. It is autumn on the south coast of BC, which means that complementing the nostalgic smell of leaf litter and precipitation are adult salmon making their way upriver to their spawning grounds. Following this upriver migration are a myriad of wildlife species that forage on these nutrient-rich fish. In this valley, there are multiple species of predators, including wolves, grizzly bears, and black bears that dine on salmon. It is this land to sea connection that salmon and their freshwater habitat provide that we are investigating  in our surveys of wolves

As we walk through the forest, we do so with quiet footsteps; the only sounds we hear are the splashing of male sockeye salmon that are positioning to fertilize eggs as soon as females release them into their redds. It’s our first time observing a sockeye run, and we marvel at how the bright red and green colour of males stands out against the cool, glacial blue water. 

Kristen Walters and Chelsea Greer making observations.
Salmon eaten by predators..

Walking on the bank of a spawning channel, we stumble across the first of many ungulate prints. Ian points out that it’s from a cow elk; you can tell from the way the toes point inward. We continue a few steps down the path – a salmon carcass! It’s puzzling as to why it was left almost perfectly intact except for one large bite mark, likely from a bear or wolf. Grizzlies and black bears will often only consume the skin, brain, and eggs – the fattiest, most calorie-dense parts of the salmon. Wolves are a bit more selective, eating only the brain. Not only may they be targeting specific nutrients in the salmon heads, they may also be avoiding tapeworm and “salmon poisoning,” a bacterial infection that can be fatal to dogs and other canids. This practice of parasite avoidance and good energy economics also feeds many other organisms within the riparian ecosystem. Scavengers like foxes, cougars, eagles, ravens, jays, and insects will feed on the remaining carcass, and what they don’t eat will cycle back into the earth, providing subsidies of marine-derived nutrients (e.g., nitrogen) to freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. Nutrients are also transferred across the aquatic-terrestrial threshold through scat left behind by foraging mammals, which we began to observe in bountiful quantities as we arrived at a remote spawning channel.

 “It’s old, you can feel the intact energy of the system compared to the second growth and restored spawning channels downriver,” said Ian, a biologist with the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance. The pristine forest understory was littered with remnants of fish, which often triggered olfactory cues first before expressions of ‘a piece of jaw here!’ or  ‘I see a spine there!’ began. As we moved deeper into the forest following the creek, what once started as a morning with quiet footsteps transitioned into an afternoon with claps and ‘hey bears’ as fresh scat indicated we weren’t the only mammals in the area. At this time of year, rain will quickly deteriorate the consistency of scat, so when you come across a well-defined pile, it’s likely quite fresh (or if it’s still steaming… very fresh!). 

With the autumn equinox fast approaching, it was evident that a shift in diet had begun for the bears in the area. Often, you can still see remnants of what a bear was eating, especially berries. In the summer months, bears absorb most of the nutrients through the skin of the berries they consume, thus producing a loose mass often filled with berry husks and visible seeds. A salmon diet, on the other hand, produces a more runny scat that is often deposited in a heap and tends to have a much stronger smell. 

Scat within the canid (canine) family is usually a single cord with a tapered end, similar to a domestic dog. The tricky part is distinguishing between species, which can usually be determined by scat size and contents. For example, we discovered scat that was roughly two inches in diameter and riddled with the hair of another mammal, indicating that it likely came from a wolf. This is only an educated guess, however. To avoid observation bias in the field, it is good practice to collect samples from all potential canid scat found within the study area and confirm species identification through lab analyses.   

With possible canid evidence, we excitedly continued looking for any sign of wolves. Kristen’s sharp eyes lead her to exclaim “could this be a wolf print?!” We inspect the incomplete print closely. It has claws extending from the three visible toe pads, indicating that it may be a canid print as felids have retractable claws that are typically not present in their prints. After taking photos and making notes of this exciting discovery, we wrap up our site visit with the promise of returning for a longer trip soon. 

Our first day visiting this ecosystem left us with a sense of excitement at the visible signs we saw of predator activity and the opportunity to conduct surveys to better understand the wolves and grizzlies that call this region home. Looking forward, we will progress this research with additional field site visits to determine the best survey techniques to use to gather data.

Chelsea Greer is Raincoast’s Wolf Conservation Program Associate, and Kristen Walters is our Lower Fraser Salmon Conservation Program Coordinator.

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