Thomas Gable knows wolves.
Gable, a PhD student with the University of Minnesota, is the lead for the Voyageurs Wolf Project, a scientific undertaking to better understand the summer habits of wolves in and around the Voyageurs National Park area.
The project began back in 2015, though by that time Gable had been trying to work his way into studying wolves full-time for a number of years.
“In 2011 when I was an undergrad student at Hope College, I did an internship at a captive wolf facility called Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana and that was my first ever job doing anything wildlife or wolf related,” Gable explained.
"I went there because I just thought it would be cool to go see the wolves up close, and I actually went there and I realized that it was cool to see them, but it just wasn't what I had expected.
“I didn't want to do wolf research in a captive environment, because to me it just sort of took away from the wildness of studying wolves in the first place,” he added.
After working in Indiana, Gable spent time as part of a field crew in Grand Teton National Park, as well as the Boundary Waters Canoe wilderness area before being accepted into a master's program at Northern Michigan University. However, he encountered a slight difficulty.
“When I did my Master's, my advisor said I could do anything I wanted, but in some way or another it had to connect with beavers,” he said.
“Then I started digging around and realizing that beavers are a really important food source for wolves in this area and throughout a lot of the boreal forests of Canada, and people just hadn't spent any time looking at it.”
Gable found that since beavers weren't as important “on a socio-economic level” that not much research had gone into how they influenced wolf populations.
When he pitched his idea to his Master's advisor, that he would study beavers in relation to what role they served as a prey species for wolves, he was given the green light, and the beginnings of the Voyageurs Wolf Project was born.
“I came up in 2015 for my first field season of my master's work, myself and Austin Homkes who works on the project now,” Gable said.
“We were kind of just given the green light to go and explore whatever we wanted to, and so that's what we did. We investigated everything we could; we went to the dens and the rendezvous sites, we collected thousands of scats, we went to spots that our collared wolves were hanging out, we just tried to get as much information as we could.”
Following that field season, the pair decided they would continue working and learning in the area, getting help with funding the project through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
“We've learned a lot through the five years we've been doing this,” he said.
“Now we're kind of where we've got our methods down, a good field crew, we're trying to do social media outreach, so it's really become more established now as time's gone on.”
The project has become established enough, and collected enough photographic and video evidence, along with other assorted data, that the project recently held an information session for the public at the Kabetogama town hall. At that session, Gable walked through a PowerPoint presentation detailing their work and some of their findings, including why they were focusing on the summer habits of the wolves, noting that most wolf research to this point had been done in the winter.
“All wildlife management is improved by having a greater understanding of the animal or the animals that you're trying to manage,” Gable said.
"If you're trying to manage wolf/prey interactions and you're basing everything solely on winter, maybe you're capturing it decently well but you have no way to know.
“You don't know what's going on from April to October, so you don't understand how what's occurring during those months might be impacting wolf predation,” he added.
As an example, Gable referred back to his original subject of study: the beaver.
“In the wintertime, wolves are not going to be eating beavers, because they're underneath the ice,” Gable said.
"Or at least, they're generally not, maybe they catch one every once in a while, but it's very possible that beavers are impacting wolf predation on other prey species during the summertime.
“If you have a ton of beavers in your territory, maybe you end up killing more beavers than deer or moose, because you have this food source that's generally less dangerous to kill, maybe more abundant, and so there's less reason to go after something risky when you can just go after beaver,” he added.
Gable explained that the most novel finding of the project so far is actually understanding how wolves hunt and kill beavers as prey, finding evidence of some wolves bedding down near paths travelled by beavers and waiting for them to wander within reach.
“In many ways that's revealing aspects of wolf behaviour and ecology that really was totally unknown,” he said.
“There had been 45-50 years of people really intensively studying how wolves hunt their prey, and people just assumed, everyone had concluded that wolves don't ambush prey. So when you're studying wolves and their capacity to hunt and kill prey, that's something that has to be understood, is they do have that capacity, especially when they're hunting prey such as beavers.”
Another notable discovery was that some wolves in the park had the capacity to hunt and catch freshwater fish as a food source, something that the project team was able to capture on video for the very first time.
“I think it's probably the most interesting visual thing we've learned,” Gable said.
“We can see it, watch it and that to us is cool. I think ecologically, it's probably relatively insignificant in the whole scheme of things. I think what it's a testament to is that wolves are adaptable. It's a different food source, but it doesn't surprise me that they would do that.”
The Voyageurs Wolf Project has learned a great deal so far, and Gable is hopeful that their work will continue into the foreseeable future.
“Our goal is to keep it going for the long-term, and by long-term I mean hopefully decades,” Gable said.
“We want to get it established so that we can answer a lot of these questions that we're interested in, but answering a lot of them is going to require potentially decades worth of data to get at, because it's just so difficult to study a lot of wolves during the summertime.”
The project is currently limited to studying only a handful of wolves at a time using several GPS collars that record the locations of the animals throughout the day.
Once the team has collected enough data points they can then go and check out areas of interest where the wolves have spent a lot of time, and if that spot turns out to be a kill site, they comb the area for more evidence and data.
All of this takes time and money, so the team is hoping to be approved for more funding through the trust fund to keep the work going and collect as much data as possible.
“We know based on other long term wolf research projects, a lot of the best wolf research that's come out of North America and Europe has come from studies that have been established long term,” Gable said.
“Yellowstone National Park, Isle Royale, etc. And even the stuff in Canada, there's a lot of stuff in Algonquin Provincial Park, that work's been going on for a while, so there's a lot of value in that kind of research.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Voyageurs Wolf Project can visit their Facebook page or website, www.voyageurswolfproject.org.