Landslides, clearcuts, and camera traps: surveilling wolves on an industrial landscape

In two field days, we deployed nine remote cameras throughout the valley.

“It’s snowing!” our colleague Alex Harris exclaims as we all pause and look beyond the tree cover. Thousands of quarter size flakes silently fall from the sky and begin to blanket the road ahead. It’s spring along the south coast of BC, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. After experiencing a heavy downpour of hail and rain for the better part of the afternoon, the snow is a welcomed shift in the weather, and not to mention, a beautiful sight!

We turn our attention back to the young cedar selected to be the attachment post for our first camera trap. The tree stands at a fork in one of the valley’s many Forest Service roads. By placing the camera where the road splits, we have the opportunity to capture wildlife traveling from three different directions. 

Logged mountain dusted with snow.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Wolves use forest roads to travel fast and far across their home ranges, but tend to avoid roads with high levels of human activity. 

Today, the roads are quiet, but next month they’ll be buzzing with skidders and timber lorries.

We position the camera 40 cm high – roughly chest height for an adult wolf – and set it to take multiple high-speed photos whenever triggered by movement. Once the camera is in place, it is good practice to run a motion test to ensure the camera is stationed properly. When the motion test is on, you simply walk around your target area and watch for a flashing red LED on the front of the camera. However, if you want to take the test one step further, and embody your study animal, we suggest getting on all fours and attempting to move like a wolf.

Close up of a wildlife camera on a tree with someone programming settings
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Woman in a high vis vest crawling like a wolf on a river bank.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

By the next morning, the skies are clear and the sun is beaming. We drive along the west side of the river’s mainstem to our point of entry where we’ll hike in to set up three more trail cameras. 

However, before we reach the trailhead, audible sounds of shock ripple through the truck. Where an intact, healthy forest ecosystem was just a year prior, a barren cutblock now exists. Knowing that this sterile hillside sits just above coho and sockeye salmon spawning habitat, concerns of potential landslides ping around the vehicle. 

Not another, we all think. 

Trees and forests play a crucial role in preventing landslides, not only by reinforcing and drying soil levels, but also by acting as direct barriers to smaller slides and rock falls. When forests are cleared, however, tree roots decay and the soil destabilizes. In tributary valleys, such as this one, intensive logging practices have caused landslides to block water flow and access to spawning grounds; the remnants of such an event can be seen from where we stand, directly across the valley.

Foreground is a clearcut with a second growth forest in the background.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Three people with high vis vests walking through a river.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

“Look at that old-growth stump, it must’ve been hundreds of years old,” said Alex, who joined us to photograph the expedition. A few seconds later, Ian Hamilton, a biologist with the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, points to an area where a large pile of usable timber is considered “waste.” As we observe the cutblock landscape, we reflect on our memories from last year, where the only way to access the tributary was an hour of bushwhacking through thick salmonberry. 

Now, as we walk downhill, the only sounds are our wading boots scuffing the dry dirt of the desolate Forest Service road.

In BC, there are no habitat protections for wolves. 

In fact, much of their habitat is facing destruction due to expanding resource extraction and exploitation. This is why it is important to gain insight into the lives of wolves in this industrial environment and further our scientific understanding of their vulnerability to commercial forestry and human land use. 

Additionally, wolves in this valley have access to salmon from late-July when Chinook and sockeye eagerly enter the river to the early winter months when the river hosts an impressive coho run. Raincoast scientists have studied foraging behaviour by wolves on salmon streams in coastal BC, but what about in BC’s interior? What role do salmon play in the diet of inland wolves in salmon-bearing watersheds? And how might this affect trophic coupling between wolves and ungulate prey?

We make our way down to the water and begin to wade through the channels toward a small islet Ian brought us to last fall. It was here that we found wolf tracks – fresh after an evening of heavy rainfall – and now we return to set up a camera trap. We note the path of prints left by cloven hooves – large and small, belonging to a cow elk and her new calf. Kristen points out all the pockets of pristine salmon habitat; shallow riffles are interrupted by long stretches of flowing water with gravel that is the perfect size for spawning sockeye. Around each bend of the tributary, deep, pools of still water are shaded by overhanging cedar trees that provide a cool refuge for both spawning adult and growing juvenile salmon. Fallen logs, tree stumps, and branches provide woody debris and habitat complexity, perfect for young salmon hiding from predators during their vulnerable life stage. 

After wading for about an hour, we make it to our spot and set up the camera facing a channel that will be teeming with sockeye come August – a promising landscape to capture elusive, salmon-fishing wolves. 

Wolf print in the sand next to a hand.
Photo by Chelsea Greer / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Two women programming a wildlife camera in the rain
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

In two days, we deployed nine remote cameras throughout the valley and even field tested our new Raincoast hat in sun, rain, and snow! More importantly, this trip allowed us to deepen our relationship with, and knowledge of, the landscape. 

It is intense and intimate experiences in the field like this one that spark excitement for the next. Soon we will return to this magical place to set up acoustic recorders, in hopes of capturing the unique howls of wolves.

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Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.