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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A picture tells the tale

Graphic developed by Voyageurs researcher goes viral on social media

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/12/18

VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK— An image that caught the imagination of social media has drawn attention to ongoing wolf research here. Tom Gable, a PhD student with the University of Minnesota who has …

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A picture tells the tale

Graphic developed by Voyageurs researcher goes viral on social media

Posted

VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK— An image that caught the imagination of social media has drawn attention to ongoing wolf research here. Tom Gable, a PhD student with the University of Minnesota who has been studying wolves at the park since 2015, created the colorful graphic, showing lines of travel by GPS-collared wolves across several packs in and around the national park boundaries.

Gable posted the graphic to the Facebook page he maintains to educate the public about his research and since then it’s gone viral, drawing over 350,000 views. His page can be found by searching Facebook for Voyageurs Wolf Project, which is a joint effort between the park and the university.

The graphic provides a great example of how images, rather than words, can help to demonstrate the intense territorial nature of gray wolf packs, as they use the natural landscape and scent to establish their own “picket fences” otherwise invisible to humans.

It’s an example, as well, of how wolves sense their world, said Gable. “These packs all know where these borders are,” he said. “We rely so much on our sight, but wolves are experiencing the forest mostly with their nose and they can detect so much more than we can. It’s really mind-blowing.”

The wolf packs clearly patrol their borders on a regular basis, laying down scents to communicate with rival packs and help clarify their borders. In a number of cases, said Gable, natural features, like the Ash River or large bays on some of the park’s big lakes, also to help to define the boundaries of packs.

While the wolves generally stay within the confines of their territories, incursions into neighboring territories— though rare— do occur, and that’s when wolves sometimes kill each other.

While competitive, the wolves mostly seem content to operate within their existing territories. While the borders of the different packs have shifted at times, back and forth, Gable said he’s impressed mostly at their stability. “Overall things have remained pretty stable since 2014,” he said.

In fact, research data from the late 1980s and early 1990s suggest that the pack boundaries have remained remarkably stable over a much longer period than that, said Gable. “It’s uncanny how similar those territories were then as they are today,” he added.

Back in those days, wildlife biologists were limited to the old-style VHF transmitters that required researchers to travel across their study areas to painstakingly gather location data on their subjects. These days, the collars include GPS and upload data to a satellite several times a day, giving researchers the ability to track their subjects in nearly real time.

All of which provides far greater detail on movements and habitat utilization than in years past. “We have 13,000 locations for each of those wolves,” noted Gable.

Gable and his research partner Austin Homkes GPS one wolf in each pack in order to track the pack’s movements, so the graphic is a pretty close, but not exact, representation of the movements of the entire pack. Gable said he also keeps the image relatively low resolution, since a detailed examination of high-resolution images could reveal the location of sensitive areas, like denning sites, that he would prefer to generally keep under wraps.

The packs, whose territories range from 40-70 square miles, but can be significantly larger, typically include about five wolves. And while whitetail deer are seen as their primary prey in much of Minnesota, Gable has recently demonstrated that beaver make up a surprising percentage of the diet of wolves in Voyageurs, at least in summer. That’s particularly true for the two packs that divide up the Kabetogama Peninsula, where beaver populations are extremely high.

For wolves that live primarly in the park, most likely die from natural causes, which could include attacks by other wolves. For the packs he studies that range outside the park, however, humans do create some mortality that can affect individual wolves and pack dynamics. “We’ve certainly had several wolves poached during the course of our study,” he said.

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