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By: Bud Robertson
Originally Published 02/7/2019
WASAGAMING — The wolves of Riding Mountain National Park are thriving, once again.
“They’re good at surviving, if we give them the opportunity,” Christina Prokopenko, a doctoral student at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said during a recent interview over coffee in the nearly deserted park.
Tim Sallows and Christina Prokopenko have spent years studying wolves in Riding Mountain National Park.
Battling diseases common in domestic dogs — such as canine parvovirus, canine distemper and mange — the grey wolf population in the park dropped sharply after 1992, from a high of 75 to as few as 30 in 1996-97, a Parks Canada report shows.
The population started to rebound in 1997, however, and now as many as 75 wolves roam the more than 3,000-square-kilometre national park.
The provincial Wildlife Department estimates Manitoba is home to some 4,000 grey wolves.
PhD students have spent years in the park studying the wolves’ movements — literally and figuratively — with the aid of GPS-equipped collars attached to the animals.
Net guns are fired from a helicopter and the animals are restrained while the collars are attached.
Prokopenko collected samples from 27 wolves over a two-year period between 2016 and 2017, including hair and scat (animal droppings). If she discovered the remains of prey at the scene, she also collected hair, bone marrow and teeth for later analysis.
As in previous studies, the remains of domestic animals were not found in any of the samples, meaning they had not eaten any livestock.
That is little comfort for cattle producers, who have seen their animals decimated by wolf packs.
“It’s a significant issue in some areas north of the park,” Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Brian Lemon said in an interview.
Areas such as Ochre River and north of Swan River are plagued with wolves, he said, adding cattle are not only being killed, they lose weight from stress and being chased around the pastures.
Some community pastures are understocked because farmers fear putting their cattle in them, Lemon said.
Prokopenko said her findings only show the wolves they collared stayed within the boundaries of the park.
“If other folks eventually found collared wolves that made a living outside the park, who knows what they’d see,” she said, adding the wolves already have a “smorgasbord” of food within the confines of the park.
“It’s easy to have dens, they’re less in danger,” she said. “Most wolves are wary of humans, so if you think of the risk versus resource, it’s tilted that wolves want to be in a lower-risk, higher-resource area, which is Riding Mountain.”
At the same time, if they do go out and hunt down livestock, killing them is not the answer, said Tim Sallows, a biologist with Parks Canada in Riding Mountain.
“If somebody sees a wolf and shoots it, it breaks up the social structure of the pack,” he said, “and if it happens to be the alpha female that gets shot, then the pack will split up and breed more.”
That creates more pups and a bigger problem down the road.
Better “the predator you know, then you probably are doing a better job at managing the animals,” Sallows said.
While wolf research has been ongoing for decades in the park, it is still very much needed, Prokopenko said.
“I think some of the strongest science that you ever get is long-term science, because context changes,” she said, “and if you are not privy to the context because you thought that your one- or two-year study was enough, then that’s dangerous to make a conclusion.”
For example, Prokopenko’s study was the first to show that wolves in the park are consuming more moose than elk.
“We found something completely new,” she said. “It changed the trajectory of my PhD.”
It begs the question, why do predators switch prey, she said, and that is what she is working to find out. It could be a matter of more moose than elk for the wolves to hunt, or the pack being willing to take greater risks by hunting larger animals.
Sallows began his own research on the disease and diet of Riding Mountain wolves in 2002.
“Technology has changed a lot over the last few years,” he said, adding better collar technology has allowed researchers to track wolves much more closely than before.
Prokopenko said she feels blessed to be a part of the ongoing research at Riding Mountain.
“Studying a large, charismatic carnivore in a national park is very much the holy grail and so I do consider myself very lucky,” she said.
“Wolves are easy to appreciate because they are charismatic and they are the top of the pyramid, but every component of nature is pretty important.”