Retracing the steps of a misunderstood predator: A biologist's search for a wayward wolf
Daniel Dupont hopes to learn how — or whether — wolves fit in to Manitoba moose population declines
Wolves get a bad rap.
From time to time, they're blamed for taking a bite out of cattle farmers' bottom lines.
Kids learn to fear them based on fairy-tale portrayals in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs: wolves are dark and deceptive, big and bad — keep your distance or you could be lunch, so the story goes.
But Daniel Dupont sees past that grim depiction.
"They're really a species that don't want to be seen, for the most part," Dupont says, crouched by the edge of a babbling brook in the heart of Manitoba's Nopiming Provincial Park.
This boreal forest is the wildlife biologist's office, and this past summer he let a CBC/Radio-Canada journalist follow him through a couple days on the job.
Far from keeping his distance, Dupont is getting closer to the elusive apex predators to find out which less-fortunate creatures are on their menu.
The PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland has been studying how wolves in Manitoba interact with prey species, including beaver and moose.
The research was spurred by declines in Manitoba's moose population, and other issues facing the animals.
Dupont is endeavouring to find out what wolves are eating and where they fit into the troubling patterns conservation biologists are seeing in moose numbers.
A curious signal
He and his colleagues have spent six years eavesdropping on wolves in the Nopiming, northeast of Winnipeg near the Manitoba-Ontario border, as well as in Riding Mountain National Park, about 250 kilometres northwest of the city.
They trapped about a dozen of the creatures and fit them with radio collars that track their movements using GPS and beam that location data back to Dupont's lab.
The collars also come equipped with tiny microphones that record every sound that comes from the wolf and what's going on nearby — something of a first in wolf research, and an approach the researchers believe will help them better understand hunting habits.
But something curious happened early last summer. The GPS signals coming from one wolf collar didn't budge for a few weeks. That led Dupont to ask: did the collar pop off, or was the wolf dead?
In June, he packed his GPS and camping gear into his pickup truck and went to investigate.
That's where a journalist from Radio-Canada joined him on his search for the wolf's collar.
A winding path
After a long drive from Winnipeg to Nopiming, Dupont is as close as roads will take him to the last known location of his collared wolf. Still, he's several kilometres away and has brought a tent and enough food to last a couple days.
He hoists his kayak off the top of his truck and onto his shoulders, walking it up to the edge of a creek that zigzags and disappears into the woods.
Hours of paddling in the hot sun bring him to the first of several locations the wolf passed through in the days before the GPS signal froze in place.
Dupont is forced ashore.
Like swimming through prickly molasses, he tramples slowly through a thick tangle of willow and other shrubs that choke out the forest's subcanopy.
He happens upon bird droppings and other signs of wildlife activity at a break in the trees.
"That's promising," he says in French, crossing his fingers.
A leg up
As he trudges on, a beam of light shooting down through the trees illuminates something in the middle distance.
He arrives at a severed moose leg, lying on a bed of moss.
The GPS in the collar emits a blip every two hours, and it's clear Dupont's wolf was in the area for between 14 and 18 hours.
Whatever little meat is left on the limb is being dutifully digested by swarms of tiny bugs and carrion beetles that stayed to pick it clean well after the wolves moved on.
A peculiar scent draws Dupont up a nearby moss-covered hummock. It's the rest of the moose — mostly reduced to sun-bleached bones and piles of hair.
"Oh," he exclaims. Speaking in French, he adds, "It doesn't smell like roses."
Dupont hacks open a bone using a hatchet and removes a bit of marrow that he'll send for lab analysis, to find out what condition the moose was in before it met its end.
He records the exact co-oridnates of the site, making note of the mix of cone-bearing white spruce and Jack pine that dominate the area.
A special role
Information about the habitat and kill site will tell scientists a little more about this particular wolf's habits.
Dupont hopes whatever he learns will ultimately help grow public understanding about how everything is connected — a foundational concept in ecology.
"Each species has its role," Dupont says. "If we continue to change the balance in the ecosystem, it will have serious impacts."
The connections in a single ecosystem like this one are too numerous, subtle and complex to quantify.
It can be difficult to understand how a change in, say, the number of beavers in a habitat impacts how many moose there are. As an apex predator, wolves eat them both and play a part in each species' population fluctuations.
Those predator-prey relationships are also influenced by landscapes, human activity and environmental conditions: an area flooded for a hydroelectric project might mean more beavers, and more beavers could mean more wolf food in spring and summer.
A tough call
An estimated 60,000 wolves still roam 90 per cent of their historic Canadian range; fewer wolves live near the Canada-U.S. border now due to human development.
There are about 4,000 to 6,000 in Manitoba, according to 2018 estimates from the International Wolf Center.
The provincial population is thought to be fairly stable overall, though it varies from area to area because wolves get around. That makes it hard to get an accurate sense of their overall numbers, said Dupont.
Another tricky factor is that wolf behaviour and migration are unpredictable, and can vary depending on the season or year or availability of food.
That can mean some years they appear abundant and others not, even though their numbers perhaps haven't fluctuated greatly, said Dupont.
"They like to do their own business and not be seen by humans," Dupont says, nearing the end of the first day of searching for the collar.
A promising discovery
The next morning, a white-throated sparrow pipes its familiar "Oh, sweet Canada-Canada-Canada" song amid the dawn chorus.
Today, Dupont leaves the moose carcass behind.
More paddling and hiking gets him near the last known location of the radio collar.
He pulls out a radio telemetry device that allows him to pinpoint the collar's exact location.
The device emits a beeping sound: the closer he gets to the collar, the louder the beeps.
"Oh, it's strong," Dupont says, adding in French, "There we go."
Then, he nearly steps in it: a clump of wolf poop. It's delicate and this piece is full of fur from a beaver — a delectable summer snack and primary dietary staple of wolves.
He follows the signal farther, high-stepping over a lattice of fallen trees to an opening where he finds the collar, still in working order.
With no wolf corpse nearby, Dupont rules out one of his two working theories: the wolf is likely still alive.
"I'm really happy to have found it," he says, speaking in French.
A search of the surrounding area for further clues finds a bare patch of dirt, the vegetation beaten back by sleeping wolves.
He finds a thicket of collapsed branches concealing a den dug into the ground, where wolf pups were born recently.
A baby wolf is born black with blue eyes, which they mostly keep shut for the first few weeks of their lives.
After about three weeks, the family moves the pups to a new location, as they did here. Dupont says parents will move their pups to new den sites at least two or three times a summer.
A way forward
Having retrieved the collar and documented other signs of his wolf, Dupont marches out of the bush.
As he approaches the edge of the stream that brought him into the heart of Nopiming's wolf country, Dupont slides his kayak into the water.
He isn't sure yet what the totality of the project will reveal about Manitoba's ailing moose populations, or the precise role wolves are playing.
Whatever the data reveals, Dupont hopes it serves to educate the public, and those who make policy decisions that impact species — whether moose, wolves, deer or beavers.
"I hope that … we make decisions based on science, and not opinions," he says.
"Often we think we know what's going on in nature, but … as we take the time to really try to understand, we realize that often nature offers up many surprises."
A version of this story was originally published in French by former Radio-Canada reporter Pierre Verriere. Read that version here.