Monitoring an Iconic Canadian Species
By Stéphane Comeault
Monitoring grey wolf populations along Superior’s coast in Pukaskwa National Park has been ongoing since 2010. This year, efforts are being made to better understand the use and occupancy by this iconic Canadian species of the old-growth spruce forest located along the coast in the southern portion of the park.
The Grey wolf (Canis lupus) is an iconic Canadian species and a very important component of boreal ecosystems. Its very presence on the landscape can provide scientists with clues regarding a wide array of ecosystem dynamics. Wolves influence ecosystems as dominant predators, but are also affected by changes in habitat and prey populations. Within Pukaskwa National Park, wolves are known to consume beaver, moose, black bear, white-tailed deer, coyote, snowshoe hare, and various other small mammals. It is therefore not difficult to see how their presence or absence can have a significant impact on a given territory.
To evaluate the use of specific areas by grey wolves, the team at Pukaskwa National Park uses a series of motion-activated cameras deployed along Lake Superior’s coast. Pictures are then analyzed on an annual basis to estimate the wolves’ occupancy of the area, and to identify any changes in their status and trends over the past 5 years. This is typically done by deploying 13 motion-activated cameras. This year, however, the staff deployed an additional 6 cameras to also evaluate wolf occupancy at the southern end of the park in order to estimate the wolves’ occupancy and use of that area.
In order to deploy the cameras, the team first identified potential locations by searching for appropriate habitat using the park’s Forest Resource Inventory and satellite images. Features the team looked for to identify a suitable location included stream edges and other open areas that are likely to be used by wolves. A 5 x 5 kilometre grid-based design was established to ensure cameras were placed in a stratified fashion, and to maximize representation of the coastal forest ecosystem. Once a promising camera site was identified, team members hiked to the location using handheld GPS units and installed a camera.
Data collected between January and December of 2018 included 34 detections in total, and at least one detection occurred at 7 of the 13 camera locations. Furthermore, wolf occupancy for these areas has remained stable for the past 5 years (2015-2019), indicating that the status of the grey wolf occupancy rate in Pukaskwa National Park is good.
The results from the additional data being gathered will allow the Resource Conservation team to interpret how wolf occupancy is contributing to ecosystem health, processes, and overall ecological integrity. Wolves are not only an iconic Canadian species, but also apex predators that are absolutely vital to maintaining the structure and function of a healthy and resilient forested ecosystem. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to ecological integrity monitoring, this old saying certainly holds true!