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Early results suggest wolf predation isn’t hurting the recovering caribou population
JBy oseph Ho · CBC News
Nearby residents have been worried about wolves preying on the once-fragile caribou population. A study aims to learn more about wolf numbers and their eating habits. (The Canadian Press)
Early findings from a study on wolves in the Yukon’s Southern Lakes region hold promise for those hoping for a rebound in caribou numbers, says its lead researcher.
The study was launched three years ago in part because people in the area were concerned with the number of caribou being killed, both in road collisions but also through predation, said Peter Knamiller, wolf program coordinator for Environment Yukon.
The worry was whether those factors were stunting the animal’s recovery, after numbers in some herds dwindled to just a few hundred in 1993.
“They’ve had a very long relationship with caribou dating back millennia. And so there’s certainly great interest in seeing that recovery be successful by these community members and the First Nations alike,” Knamiller said.
Efforts to boost the caribou population have included restrictions on hunting.
“And obviously, that’s a huge traditional practice. And it’s been something that has been quite difficult for folks to do and to have that loss of the connection with caribou through the hunting process,” Knamiller said.
Knamiller’s study aims to gather population data on wolves in the area, numbers that haven’t been updated since 2009. Along with information on population, population density, pack density, the study also seeks to learn about the wolves’ eating habits.
He said the study has found that the packs being surveyed are killing moose 75 per cent of the time and caribou 25 per cent of the time. Because moose are larger than caribou, Knamiller said they make up more than 90 per cent of the biomass the wolves are consuming.
Not only are wolves mostly preying on moose, caribou numbers — particularly those of the Ibex and Carcross herds — have been increasing over the last 20 years.
“So this is a good thing. This is a success story. It also suggests that even though wolves are killing caribou, they’re not killing enough caribou to prevent that caribou recovery,” Knamiller said.
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Researchers have trapped and put GPS collars on 12 wolves from seven packs. When the wolves stop in an area for an extended period of time, that flags a potential site where they’ve killed prey.
“So then we would go and investigate in the field, would go to these clusters and look and investigate, using a bit of CSI stuff to dig around and see if we could find hair or bones or antlers,” Knamiller said. “Any evidence that would suggest that an animal had been killed there.”
That evidence from the kill site can be used to determine what the wolves are eating, he added.
More work to do
They have also been tracking wolf numbers by working with trappers and game guardians from Kwanlin Dün, Carcross/Tagish, Taku River Tlingit First Nations, as well as Teslin Tlingit Council and Carcross/Tagish Renewable Resources Council. The plan is to create a community-based monitoring program.
The study has one year to go and some of the outstanding work includes an aerial survey of the wolf population. Knamiller said that will be done this winter to get a “definitive, robust estimate.”
“So we’ll be able to answer basically, is the population of wolves increasing, decreasing or are they stable?” he said.
“That sort of information will be really helpful … informing [the] decision making process for the future management and conservation of wolves and also the prey populations.”