Wolf research braids GPS, helicopters with Indigenous knowledge systems

A study on eastern wolves near Georgian Bay is taking a unique approach by braiding western science, such as GPS tracking and helicopters, together with Indigenous knowledge systems.

Weaving Indigenous knowledge with western science slowly becoming more common, can be 'transformative'

Researcher Jesse Popp, left, is working on the wolf project with Wiikwemkoong species at risk co-ordinator Theodore Flamand, right, and also with Ontario government research scientists. (Submitted by Jesse Popp)

A study on eastern wolves near Georgian Bay is taking a unique approach by braiding western scientific techniques together with Indigenous knowledge systems.

Wiikwemkoong's species at risk co-ordinator Theodore Flamand said he's been hoping to organize a project like this for four years. He's partnered with nearby communities, researcher Jesse Popp, who has roots in Wiikwemkoong, and the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry (MNDMRNF).

Popp is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental science at the University of Guelph and head of that school's Wildlife, Indigenous Science and Ecology Lab. She said beyond eastern wolf conservation, the partnership will also show that different knowledge systems can work together to deliver stronger, more complete research.

"It's a really incredible opportunity to share that and to work together, and bring our strengths from different sectors," said Popp.

Scholars commonly use the term 'two-eyed seeing' to describe the weaving together of Indigenous and western approaches.

Why eastern wolves?

Eastern wolves are a somewhat elusive species. Popp said there is a long history of eastern wolves interbreeding with other wolf species and coyotes; at present, researchers don't know for certain whether a genetically unique eastern wolf population exists in the area.

Many researchers are divided on the extent of eastern wolf populations and their range in Ontario, which includes eastern Georgian Bay among the LaCloche Mountains. (Submitted by Jesse Popp)

The wolves are known to exist in larger numbers near Algonquin Park, but their behaviour near Georgian Bay remains somewhat of a mystery. The eastern wolf is designated as of special concern under Ontario's Endangered Species Act.

Flamand said he has long wanted to know more about eastern wolves' seasonal patterns and how it's been changing over time. Flamand is wolf clan, which gives the research a deeper personal meaning.

"It's not an animal. We consider it as our four-legged brother of the forest, so I think that's one of the main things that we're looking at, to educate the outside world on our beliefs and on the way we see things," Flamand said.

Flamand said he could never have imagined using traditional knowledge with government researchers when he became Wiikwemkoong's species at risk co-ordinator in 2007. He said it shows that Indigenous perspectives can benefit western science, and vice versa.

The study is largely focused on the Point Grondine area, Wiikwemkoong's mainland territory across from the main reserve on Manitoulin Island.

Netting wolves from above

Researchers have been building partnerships with nearby towns and First Nations on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, including Magnetawan, Shawanaga and Killarney. They've been listening to community members' stories of where they've seen wolves at different times of the year, and how their behaviours have evolved through time.

This serves as a baseline for the next phase of the study, which requires a bird's-eye view.

Wiikwemkoong species at risk co-ordinator Theodore Flamand watches a wolf from a helicopter during a day of fieldwork. He has ben wanting to launch this study for years. (Submitted by Jesse Popp)

Hovering above the Georgian Bay coastline in a helicopter, a capture team looks carefully at the places where people have reported seeing wolf packs.

Once they locate a suitable wolf, they prepare for an intercept—a process made more complicated because the team is not using any sedatives on the wolves.

Flamand said tranquilizing the animals with a generic dose could end up causing harm; they cannot calculate a safe dose without knowing the wolf's weight. Instead, the capture team fires a net at their target animal and holds it down by hand as they gather fur and blood samples, then attach a GPS tracking collar.

The whole operation is over in 10 minutes and the wolf is released to rejoin its pack. The collars will automatically fall off after a year and a half after sending troves of valuable tracking data, for use with geographic information system technology.

Researchers have also spent time tracking wolves from the ground around Point Grondine. 

Different knowledge systems improve understanding

Popp said she hoped this project would serve as a model for future partnerships that braid Indigenous knowledge with western science.

"I am super proud … to be part of this work," said Popp. "All knowledge systems are important and can work together and can be effective for greater good."

The researchers spend some of their time tracking wolves from the ground around Point Grondine. (Submitted by Jesse Popp)

For MNDMNRF research scientist Joe Northrup, who is also working on the eastern wolf project, embracing Indigenous perspectives has been "transformative" for how he thinks about his own work.

"I see the main benefit really in just allowing a more fulsome and complete picture to be developed," he said, "and then, ultimately, to make better decisions about conserving ecosystems and species."

Northrup said Indigenous practices have become more common within the Ontario government's research in the past few years, "which I think overall is a good thing."

He said he hoped projects like this would encourage younger Indigenous people to pursue sciences and incorporate traditional knowledge within their practices.

"It doesn't have to just be, oh, if you become a scientist, you have to give up … your Indigenous knowledge systems. The two can be used reciprocally," he said.

Northrup and Popp have worked together previously for a project focused on moose.


Warren Schlote is a reporter at CBC Sudbury. Connect with him via email at, or on Twitter at @ReporterWarren.