University of Saskatchewan

September 22, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Heather Bryan examines wolf scat in field (Photo courtesy of Rhea Fenger)
October 15, 2007

Running with wolves: U of S graduate student helps conserve unique wolves

October 13, 2007
Fourteenth in Series
For The StarPhoenix
By Wendy Gillis

University of Saskatchewan student Heather Bryan begins her day surrounded by towering cedar trees and fresh spring waterfalls.

She is up early, the best time to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Together with a team of First Nations colleagues, biologists, and veterinarians, she heads off by foot or bike to track wolves in the largest remaining expanse of coastal temperate rainforest in the world.

It’s all in a day’s field work for the veterinary pathology master’s student.

This summer, Bryan spent six weeks doing research in British Columbia’s Great Bear rainforest, a lush and rainy environment spanning more than 30,000 square kilometers between northern Vancouver Island and the southeastern corner of Alaska.

With funding from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation (RCF), Bryan is studying wolves on islands and mainland areas in the region.

The project is a collaborative effort with a number of First Nations including the Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, and Gitga’at. Under the supervision of U of S professor Judit Smits and RCF biologist Chris Darimont, Bryan is focusing on diseases that could threaten wolves.

Genetically distinct from inland wolves, coastal wolves have become highly adapted to their rainforest habitat. Their coats blend into the coastal background, and unlike most other wolf populations, their diet includes a variety of marine resources such as salmon, seals, and crab.

“They’re a really unique population of wolves,” says Bryan.

But due to extreme natural isolation, coastal wolves may also be more vulnerable to disease than wolves elsewhere. Dramatic increases in human activity in the area, such as logging, means ensuring their survival is more crucial than ever.

“It’s really important to study these diseases for the wolves’ conservation,” says Bryan. “We want to make sure that if there is ever a disease introduced that could threaten them, we have a monitoring program set up to detect it.”

Over the course of field study, Bryan visited many different islands in the rainforest archipelago, sometimes traveling several hours by boat.

She and her colleagues collected the wolves’ scat to gather information about parasites. This non-invasive approach allows researchers to learn about the wolves’ health without having to capture them.

Bryan and her colleagues also traveled to several remote communities along the coast where diseases potentially could be transmitted between large populations of free-roaming dogs and coastal wolves.

The team set up clinics to vaccinate, examine and de-worm dogs, thereby reducing disease in the dogs and possibly also in the wolves. “We use domestic dogs as sentinels of disease in wolves,” says Bryan.

Blood samples were taken from the dogs. “By using blood samples from dogs, we avoid capturing wolves,” she says.

Bryan’s work is part of a larger research project on wolves conducted by the RCF, a non-profit research and public education organization working to protect British Columbia’s marine and rainforest habitat.

Bryan hopes her work will help raise public awareness about the wolves and the Great Bear rainforest, as well as influence government wildlife protection policies.

Soon, she’ll head back to the Great Bear Rainforest for another four weeks of field work.

“I’m excited to go back and enjoy the day-to-day challenges that it brings – everyday is an incredible learning experience, especially in the field,” she says. “There is just so much to learn from the environment, from the wolves, and from the people that I’m working with. It’s really an amazing experience.”

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Wendy Gillis is a student intern with the U of S Research Communications office.

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