On a bitterly cold January afternoon in 2011, Tom Gable was snowmobiling to his family's remote cabin near Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario.
Suddenly, on his right flank, a dark figure appeared across the frozen lake. "Initially, I wasn't sure what I was looking at … but then I realized it was a wolf," he said. "I could hardly believe it — I had never seen a wolf before, let alone watch one for a minute or so. I was enthralled."
It wouldn't be Gable's last encounter. Far from it. Since 2015, Gable, 28, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, has been the project lead for the Voyageurs Wolf Project — an ongoing research effort to uncover the secretive lives of North Woods wolves. It began as a small project in 2012 at Voyageurs National Park and increased in scope and intensity in 2015.
Gable said the project addresses one of the biggest knowledge gaps in wolf ecology: What do wolves do during the summer? The project's goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of summer wolf ecology (number of pups born, where they den, what wolves kill and eat) in the roughly 218,000-acre Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem (which includes Voyageurs National Park) in northern Minnesota.
The research, Gable said, is conducted by trapping and fitting wolves with GPS collars that take locations every 20 minutes throughout the field season (April-October). When a collared wolf remains "relatively stationary" for more than 20 minutes, the site is investigated. "By doing this we get all sorts of great information such as where wolves have their dens and where wolves are killing prey," Gable said.
The research is aided by remote trail cameras that capture photos and video of what Gable calls the "unique and mysterious behavior of wolves" in high-traffic parts of the study area. Since 2016, the wolf project has produced 13 peer-reviewed research papers. Last November, in an effort to reach a broader audience, Gable began posting findings from daily field work (including captured photos and video) on Facebook and Instagram. It's been a big hit. The wolf project's Facebook page alone has roughly 26,000 followers.
"We wanted to give an intimate view into our research and the animals and ecosystem that we study," said Gable. "We got a sizable following quickly. That confirmed our suspicion that the public is extremely interested in wildlife, wildlife research and wolf ecology. By maintaining our social media presence, we are able to provide content that entertains, engages, and educates the public."
Gable and his seven-person crew recently finished the 2019 field season in which the group monitored 11 collared wolves from seven packs. Now Gable begins analyzing the research and writing papers.
"We had a wonderful crew this year," said Gable. "Finishing up is very satisfying but also a relief because after seven months of continual field work, we are just running on fumes both physically and mentally. Our field seasons are pretty intense because we cover a lot of ground every day in all kinds of conditions."
The Voyageurs Wolf Project is a collaborative effort between the National Park Service and the University of Minnesota. It's funded by the state's lottery-funded Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and other sources.
In a recent conversation, Gable elaborated on some discoveries about wolves' diets and their much-publicized pursuit of fish. The excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
On research discoveries
Wolves hunt and kill beavers by bedding down around beaver ponds and waiting for many hours to ambush them. This has been a particularly fascinating finding because before our work, wolves were not really thought of as ambush predators. Most of the time wolves hunt their prey by outrunning and outlasting their prey, like chasing down a deer. Our study is the first to systematically show that wolves can ambush prey, and we are learning more every year about how they actually do this. We were the first to document wolves hunting and killing freshwater fish. Researchers had known wolves went after spawning salmon in coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia, but that is categorically different from wolves catching suckers in a little creek in the North Woods. And not only did we document it, but we were able to get it on video footage.
On the varied diets of wolves
Wolves are adaptable predators. They have very flexible diets that change dramatically throughout the summer season. During winter, wolves diets are not nearly as varied because they are mainly hunting and killing whitetail deer. But from spring to fall, things are much different. We have shown that during this period wolves rely on all sorts of food sources including deer, beavers, blueberries, fish, trumpeter swans, bear bait piles, and hunter-killed bear carcasses. Typically, the diet of our wolf packs is different from month to month.
On using social media
Ultimately, our vision with our social media platforms is to couple cutting-edge wolf research with highly effective outreach, which allows the Voyageurs Wolf Project to have tremendous value to both the scientific community and the public. I think most in the scientific community know that effective public outreach is important, but this is something that researchers are often not great at. Part of this is because most researchers receive little to no training on how to effectively share their research. The other part is that good outreach, just like good science, requires time and effort. And there is little incentive for researchers to devote their often limited time or financial resources to developing materials or content for outreach.
On rigors of the work
We estimate that a typical person on our crew covers between 700 to 850 miles during the field season. And most of these miles are not on nicely maintained hiking trails. Instead, we are usually bushwhacking through the thick, dense and often swampy forests of northern Minnesota. June to August are by far the most challenging months for our crew because it's hot, humid, and the bugs (in particular, the deer flies) are horrible. That's in part why there's so little research on summer wolves.
On research in 2020
We basically have to start over. We start trying to collar wolves in mid-April. The reason is battery life. When collars take locations every 20 minutes (which is what we need for our work), it chews up a lot of battery life, so our collars only last one field season. To continue our work, we need to get fresh collars on wolves.
On the future of the project
Our goal is to secure permanent, long-term funding that allows the Voyageurs Wolf Project to continue for decades to come. We have published several research papers since 2016 and presented our results at numerous regional, national and international scientific conferences. I would like to write a book someday but think we need at least a few more years of research before that is something I would seriously consider.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.