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A major study on the park's wolves

Between 2015 and 2018, a number of wolves in the park were tracked using satellite collars. This major project allowed researchers to map the home range of several packs, giving us a better understanding of how these top predators use the land in and around the park.

One of the 21 canids (wearing a muzzle in the photo) captured as part of the study of the wolves in Parc national du Mont-Tremblant. Emilie Dorion | © Sépaq
One of the 21 canids (wearing a muzzle in the photo) captured as part of the study of the wolves in Parc national du Mont-Tremblant.

Methodology

Studyt objectives

The study area encompassed Parc national du Mont-Tremblant as well as a 15 km radius around the park’s periphery. (Legend: Study Area, Periphery of the park (15 km), Park boundary, Preservation zon, Rouge-Mattawin Wildlife Reserve, Lavigne ZEC) © Sépaq

This important study carried out from 2015 to 2018 on the ecology and genetics of the wolf was conducted as a partnership between Parc national du Mont-Tremblant, Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (MFFP), and Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR). During the first two years, canids were captured and tracked using telemetric monitoring, while the third year was devoted to analyzing the data that was collected. The research project had four main objectives:

  • Gather data on the ecology of wolves
  • Clarify the genetics of the members of the canid family
  • Map the animals’ home range in order to gain a better understanding of how they use the land in and around the park
  • Locate the wolves’ dens and main rendezvous sites—two habitats where human disturbance must be avoided

Animal capturing

One of the park’s wildlife technicians with a 15 kg wolf cub, a few minutes before its release. Nicolas Trudel | © Sépaq

A number of factors were taken into consideration when identifying the capture sites, including the biology of the canids, the environmental conditions, and the presence of humans. The trapping operation was initially divided into three sessions—in Fall 2015, Spring 2016, and late Summer 2016. A fourth trapping session was added in Spring 2017 to attempt to capture animals in the heart of the territory, which is harder to access.

For the needs of the projects, the animals, of course, had to be captured and released alive. Once the project was approved by the Animal Care Committee, an SEG permit and a Certificate of Animal Care were obtained. The standardized MFFP operating procedure regarding the handling of canids was also followed. This document describes the minimal precautions that every holder of such a certificate must apply when handling wild living animals in Québec. In this case, it requires the certificate holder to use capturing devices and attractants that specifically target canids, in order to significantly reduce the risk of accidental captures.

The field component of the project was under the responsibility of MFFP, which provided all the trapping, capture, and handling equipment. Several types of leghold traps were used, all of which were designed to avoid injuring the animals, and certified in accordance with the International Humane Trapping Standards. It is worth noting that Québec is a leader in research on animal traps and making them more humane, and in fact, 90% of trap compliance tests are carried out in Québec, with a view to certification.

Since Parc national du Mont-Tremblant covers a vast territory, a preliminary prospecting phase was conducted. All of the park’s employees were called on to help identify the areas with the most signs of the relatively recent presence of canids (tracks and feces). Their input was compiled on a map and combined with the empirical knowledge gathered over the years. The park employees continued to contribute in this regard throughout the project. The trapping devices were set up within the park boundaries, and as the animals were captured (and as signs of recent activity were observed), the study teams gradually moved to the periphery of the park.

The traps were installed by a team of MFFP technicians with expertise in trapping canids. The work was divided up between two teams, and each technician was usually accompanied by an assistant (research student, MFFP or park biologist, or technician from the park or from a regional MFFP office). Traps were positioned either at or near the intersections between paths and trails. They were buried to avoid the possibility of accidental capture of birds of prey. The choice of bait and urine, and the combination used, was left up to the technician, who determined the appropriate combination based on the distance to the closest site, in order to avoid repetition. Wolf feces found during these operations was collected and also used as bait.

Animal handling and data collection

A green tag can be seen on the wolf’s right ear along with the tracking collar. The 26 kg female adult is lying on a net used to weigh her.. Émilie Dorion | © Sépaq

As was the case for animal captures, all the handling of animals was done in accordance with the Certificate of Animal Care issued for the project. Only those technicians with the necessary qualifications were authorized to handle the captured animals. It took no longer than 20 minutes to complete the handling steps, which were all noted on a form designed for that purpose. The handling operations consisted of the following:

  • Immobilize the animal using a Y-shaped stick.
  • Install the muzzle.
  • Remove the animal from the leghold trap.
  • Physically restrain the animal using straps to secure its legs together (no drugs were administered, to avoid damaging the animals’ nervous systems and prolonging the restraint time or subsequently impairing their usual activities).
  • Weigh the animal.
  • Tag the animal (with a tag on the right ear and subcutaneous electronic chip).
  • Install tracking collar.
  • Take a tissue sample from the ear (for genetic analysis).
  • Take measurements (circumference of the neck and chest, wither height, and total length).
  • Release the animal.

Tracking collars

A government technician handling one of the tracking collars designed specifically for this study. Hugues Tennier | © Sépaq

The telemetric collars were specially designed for the study by the company Telonics to be smaller (length and width of the neck strap) than the collars authorized for the same type of research on wolves in Northern Québec. They were programmed to record the animal’s GPS position every three hours for about one year. Every other day, the collar would attempt to connect in order to transmit its data. Once the data was transferred by satellite, it would be downloaded and converted to a format allowing it to be processed and displayed, and was subsequently viewed using a mapping app like Google Earth or ArcGIS.

The collars were also equipped with an automatic release system, meaning they were programmed to drop off at a precise date, roughly one year after they were installed. This allowed the wolves to be released from their collars without having to recapture them. The most recent position transmitted by the collars would then be downloaded and analyzed, and those that were relatively easy to get to would be recovered in the field. In most cases, the GPS data was sufficiently precise to allow the researchers to recover the collars. Since the collars were also equipped with a VHF transmitter, a radio telemetry antenna was occasionally used to circumscribe the search area. Some of the collars were, not surprisingly, never located as, when they fell off, they likely dropped face down or were buried under debris (in the mud, at the bottom of a beaver pond, or beneath rocks).

Results

Captures details

Table of canid captures showing (in red) the individuals that were equipped with a tracking collar (in French only). © Sépaq

A total of 21 canids were captured. Among them, ten wolves and one coyote were equipped with a telemetric collar. Most of the individuals without a collar were juveniles, meaning they were too young to wear the device, which cannot weigh more than 4% of the animal’s weight. A number of adult canids were captured, but could not be equipped with collars, for various reasons. Adrianne (CMT-07) was recaptured several days after her first collar released, which allowed the researchers to gather two years’ worth of data for this female wolf.

Hybridization among large canids

Results of the analysis of 38 DNA samples from canids in and around the park. (Legend: Breakdown of canids into the main genetic groups, Eastern Wolf, Boreal Wolf, Hybridized Wolf (Eastern Wolf/Boreal Wolf), Eastern Coyote, Wolf/Coyote Hybrid)  © Sépaq

Lab analyses of over thirty samples of genetic material, including several collected prior to the study, identified the large canids present within the park as either the eastern wolf, the boreal wolf, or the eastern coyote, often hybridized among themselves. It is worth noting that the results from a single sample may diverge depending on the laboratory that conducted the analysis, given the disparities between the databanks they used to compare the genetic markers of the various animals.

Home ranges

Map showing the home range of five wolves monitored by satellite using tracking collars. The area they covered ranged from 227 km² (in green) to 3,233 km² (in blue). © Sépaq

The study confirmed the presence of at least six wolf packs within Parc national du Mont-Tremblant. However, given that certain sectors of the park are difficult to access, it was impossible to capture and track the movements of wolves belonging to all the packs in the area. What’s more, the dynamics and territorial limits of each pack tend to vary over time, mainly due to human-caused mortality outside the park boundaries. There are likely up to eight or nine wolf packs whose home range is, at least in part, within the limits of the park.

The territory used by a wolf pack is not always the same, as the wolves’ needs vary with the seasons. It is smaller during the denning period, growing larger during the rendezvous site period, and expanding even further during the nomadic period. Their home range is, in a way, the overlayering of all of these territories, i.e., the largest area used by the wolves over the course of one year. Parc national du Mont-Tremblant is the largest area devoted to conservation in the south of Québec, covering some 1,510 km². Human activities are therefore reduced to a minimum, and several activities are prohibited altogether, including logging, hunting, and trapping. This map clearly shows that all of the wolf packs that roam within the protected area will leave the area at some point in the year to fulfill their needs. This is the period when they are most vulnerable to human-caused mortality.

Examples of dispersion

Summary of the movements of Lucé (CMT-11) and her dispersion nearly 200 km eastwards. (Legend: Municipalities, Parc national Mont-Tremblant, Rouge-Mattawin Wildlife Reserve, Lavigne ZEC, La Mauricie National Park, March 2017, Nov. 2016, April 2017, March-April 2017). © Sépaq

Dispersion refers to a definitive movement outside a wolf pack’s territory. This type of movement can be solitary or in the company of other individuals, and may be preceded by several attempts. This behavior is essential for avoiding consanguinity and helping spread the wolves’ genetic baggage, ensuring the long-term survival of the species.

Wolves usually tend to disperse several dozen kilometers from their birthplace. The record for dispersion belongs to a Slovenian wolf captured by biologists and fitted with a tracking collar. The animal had covered nearly 2,000 kilometers in the space of several weeks, crossing all kinds of terrain, including a 280-meter-wide river and a number of highways, before arriving in Italy, where it encountered a female wolf from the Western Alps. The longest wolf dispersion distances in North America are similar to most of those recorded in Europe.

Two wolves monitored during the Parc national du Mont-Tremblant study travelled significant distances: Libeau (CMT-10) dispersed over a distance of over 200 km northwards, to near La Tuque, while Lucé (CMT-11) ventured beyond the study area in late April, all the way to the western end of La Mauricie National Park. She apparently crossed Route 131 in a wooded area near Lac de la Cabane. The female wolf stayed in La Mauricie National Park until her telemetric collar dropped off. When she was observed by some of the park employees on June 7, 2016, she was still wearing her tracking collar.

What's next? 2022-2027 conservation plan

A pack of six wolves caught on one of our camera traps.

In order to effectively protect a species, it is important to first understand it properly. The 2015–2018 study on the wolves of Parc national du Mont-Tremblant provided an opportunity to learn much more about the park’s emblematic animal. That knowledge gave rise to an initial wolf protection plan. However, the conservation initiatives undertaken by Parc national du Mont-Tremblant, on their own, are not enough to protect the wolves that roam the park, because their home range extends beyond the park boundaries. That’s why a communication plan was drafted in 2020 to raise awareness among people living on the periphery of the park about the ecological role of the wolf and the importance of these apex predators in maintaining the health of ecosystems.

The 2022–2027 conservation plan will enable scientists to continue collecting important information on the wolves in Parc national du Mont-Tremblant. For instance, over 75 cameras have been deployed in different strategic locations in the area, including near dens and rendezvous sites. In addition, devices capable of recording wolves howling have been installed, as well as hair traps. The data collected will help evaluate the number of individuals per pack and the density of wolves and coyotes, and gather additional genetic material to gain a better understanding of hybridization among large canids.

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