Researching the Wilds: Where Everything Connectsby Charles Wilkins
For Frank Burrows, a research biologist at Pukaskwa National Park, the discoveries of August 8, 1996 -- and the events that led up to them -- were pretty much business as usual. But to anyone unfamiliar with the ways of nature, they might well have seemed like something out of an episode of The X-Files.
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / G.Neale
Burrows' travels that day took him into a mixed spruce and aspen forest on the edge of a wetland near Bananish Lake off the South Regan Road, some 30 kilometres north of Pukaskwa. He had not witnessed the macabre events that had transpired there during the previous few days, but Burrows speculates that they involved wolves, bears, ravens and quite possibly other meat-eaters and scavengers that inhabit the boreal forest. They most certainly involved moose Number 230, a full-grown female that, days earlier, had been a half ton of thriving flesh and bone.
"By the time we got there," says Burrows. "There wasn't much left of her. We found a jaw bone, a piece of a leg, and a scattering of hair. We'd seen her from the air the previous week, and she'd seemed to be in pretty good shape." The remains of Number 230 would not have been found at all had she not been one of 35 moose to which radio collars had been fitted the previous winter.
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / F.Burrows
Burrows explains that, in all probability, Number 230 was taken down by large predators such as wolves or bears that had gorged themselves on the fresh meat then quite possibly given way to smaller meat-eaters such as foxes, lynx, or even martens, skunks or mink. "At some point the ravens would have moved in," he says, "possibly whisky jacks -- everything right down to mice and maggots. Nature's very efficient. In this case, we found the radio collar under a tree 30 metres away. Even the leather on the collar had been chewed up and eaten."
For the past couple of years, Burrows and his colleagues have been directing a research project designed to show how moose, wolves and woodland caribou interact in and around Pukaskwa National Park on the northeast shore of Lake Superior, south of Marathon, Ontario. The project, code-named P5, was initiated in part to determine the role played by wolves in the gradual decline of the woodland caribou population, which has existed on the north shore of Superior since the melting of the last glacier some ten thousand years ago. In recent years, the caribou have all but died out in the area. "We estimate that there are at least ten, possibly as many as 40, in the park," says Burrows.
Moose, on the other hand, have multiplied in the area. "They came into these parts from the south during the late 1800s, in response to disturbances in the landscape," says Burrows. "They feed on fresh growth, so they do well in areas where you have logging, highways, towns, whatever."
The problem for caribou is that moose bring wolves, and the wolves prey not just on moose but on caribou, which have relatively poor defences against the smaller carnivore. Attempts by the Ontario Ministry of. Natural Resources to increase moose population in the area for the benefit of hunters have compounded the imbalance.
While the region generally has experienced vast change during the past century, Pukaskwa represents a hundred centuries of undisturbed forest succession. "Because of that," says Burrows, "we've been able to do a comparative study of how moose, caribou and wolves respond to two quite different environments and to one another in those environments."
To prepare for their study, Burrows and his colleagues placed radio collars on 35 moose, 15 wolves, and five caribou. While all of the caribou are alive, seven or eight wolves and five moose have died during the two years that the project has been running. The animals are tracked weekly from the air, and their positions located and plotted. "That enables us to determine what habitat is important to them over a long period of time, and what is not," says Burrows, "and to gain at least some perspective on how they die."
While the death of moose Number 230 will not shed significant light on relations between moose, wolves and caribou, the study at large has begun to yield perspective.
"One thing we're finding," says Burrows, "is that there aren't as many wolves around as we'd thought, and their population probably isn't as healthy as it might be. In fact, one of our wolves starved to death, which might tend to indicate more complex ecological problems than we'd first imagined."
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / M.Jones / B-31
Burrows speculates that bears and lynx may be preying on caribou to a greater degree than originally thought. "Regardless of the specifics," says Burrows, "one of the main messages that comes out of this sort of research is how incredibly complex our ecosystems are and how careful we have to be if we're going to make intelligent decisions about how to manage wildlife and wilderness. When you consider, for example, that there were once hundreds of woodland caribou in these parts, and that the population may be down to as few as ten in the park, you see very clearly that if we want to preserve these few, as we're committed to doing in a national park, we have to be very judicious in how we go about it. We can't act on emotion, we can't wing it, as we perhaps too often have in the past." As a national park, Pukaskwa protects not only caribou of course but nearly 2000 square kilometres of exemplary boreal landscape, a long stretch of untouched Superior coastline, and a host of creatures that range in size from moose to lynx to brook trout to chickadees... to the tiniest of insects and one-celled microorganisms. "It's important to protect individual species, but even more important to protect their ecosystem, the relationships between them," says the park's chief interpreter Robin Heron Promaine. "At a certain level, everything connects."
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / BC-79
To ensure the integrity of that connection, the park conducts ongoing research in several areas quite distinct from the P5 project. "For one thing, we do regular testing of water quality in the park's rivers and streams," says Heron Promaine. "We're concerned about environmental changes occurring upstream, outside our boundaries, and what effect they might have on the watersheds and on Lake Superior. Ultimately we have to manage for ecological not just physical boundaries." Similarly, daily monitoring of weather patterns gives clues to both local and distant environmental and.climatic changes that may affect the park.
Recently completed research into the park's aquatic resources revealed that the local waters, and thereby their inhabitants, are particularly vulnerable to acid rain. "We can't do anything to change that vulnerability," says Heron Promaine, "but understanding it gives us added motivation to encourage responsibility among industries whose practices lead to acid rain, or among legislators who can help control it. That's where research is so important. As we educate ourselves, we're able to educate in a broader sense."
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / G.Fenton
One of the park's more dramatic research ventures of late has examined the effects of decades of fire suppression on the Pukaskwa wilderness. "Anyone who grew up with Smokey the Bear, will probably have a hard time accepting that fires are anything but a total disaster in the forest," says park warden Andrew Promaine. "But research tells us that fire is absolutely necessary to a forest's health, probably the most significant ecological factor in the boreal forest."
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection
Jack pine and white pine, for example, will not reproduce in the absence of forest fire. The "seratinous" cones of the jack pine need extreme heat just to open. Beyond that, fire prepares the seed bed by eliminating competition and by breaking down nutrients, making them available to new growth.
"Fire also maintains diversity, so that the whole forest doesn't eventually become, say, trees of a uniform age," explains Promaine. "You want growth in all stages. This is important for moose, for example, because moose feed on young browse, which is missing in an old forest but will be there in a burnover where there's poplar and young shrubs." Fire also creates conditions under which lichens, a preferred food of caribou, will grow on Jack Pine.
Frank Burrows suggests that, to stay healthy, a wilderness the size of Pukaskwa should be experiencing fire at an average of about 20 square kilometres a year. "We've become so efficient at putting fire out that we haven't had any burns for years," he says. "Superficially, trees are being saved, but the natural structure and function of the forest is being destroyed. Our role as a national park is to protect the natural world, and since fire is natural, we should be encouraging it to occur."
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / G.Fenton
While the decision has been made to reintroduce fire to the park, the specifics of doing so are still under deliberation. One possibility entails waiting for lightning to strike, as it frequently does during warm weather storms. "If it starts a fire in an area where we know what to expect, and weather and wind conditions are right," says Andrew Promaine, "we'll just watch the fire carefully until it burns itself out, or until we decide to put it out. One of our paramount concerns is of course the safety of our neighbors and our visitors."
Through research, park staff have identified areas of Pukaskwa in which fire would be contained by, say, lakes or rivers or by natural vegetation -- aspen stands, for example, are more resistant to fire than, say, spruce or pine. "We have a peninsula, for instance, where there's water on three sides," says Burrows. "Whatever the case, we'll be moving very carefully at first."
"What we hope, "says Promaine, "is that, as time passes and we get some experience with this sort of thing, we'll be in a position to note a lightning strike and, with our knowledge of weather, topography, vegetation, and so on, be able to say: 'This fire's going to burn 20 hectares. Let's just watch it.'"
Wherever the fires take place, their legacy will be new generations of life: shrubbery, berries, wildflowers, mosses and seedlings.
And with those generations will be evidence of the importance of research and of its judicious application. And of its affect on those who conduct it. "If it's honestly undertaken, research can bring a tremendous sense of humility," says Frank Burrows. "What we have here at Pukaskwa is as subtle and complex an ecosystem as you'll find anywhere on earth. The more you find out about it, the more you realize how much you don't know."
And that realization, it would seem, should be as good a reason as any to keep on trying to find out.
(...Charles Wilkins is a writer living and working in Thunder Bay. He prepared this article in cooperation with the staff of Pukaskwa National Park...)