Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


Fishing with wolves

October 14, 2002

(Bella Bella, BC) – Until this year it was a phenomenon scientists had never documented before.

A wolf, rust and ochre like the hues of the coastal shoreline surrounding it, plunges its head into a stream estuary and, after a moment’s frantic splashing, pulls out a 10-kilogram chum salmon, flapping like a flag in its mouth.

Yes, a salmon. Until late last year scientists didn’t know wolves ate salmon. Wolves, it was thought, lived on an exclusive diet of deer and other terrestrial animals.

But evidence gathered by University of Victoria graduate student Chris Darimont this summer and fall proves that wolves living along B.C.‘s Central Coast — wolves thought to be morpholocially, behaviourally and ecologically distinct from their Interior cousins — also eat chum and pink salmon — thousands of them, and as many as 20 in one hour. They also eat mussels, clams and barnacles.

It is an extraordinary thing to see.

The wolves watch the salmon like seasoned anglers, following every move the fish makes. Then, in one swift and lethal move, they plant all four feet firmly in the water and strike. And four times out of 10, says Darimont’s research, they catch something.

Sometimes they’ll eat the fish right then and there.

But as often as not, they’ll carry it ashore where they’ll throw it on the ground, tear off the head, and devour it.

“Can you see him?” asks Darimont excitedly as it happens right before our eyes.

By mid-October, he’s seen it a hundred times, but even now, it remains a thrill for him to witness something so remarkable, and until recently, unknown to scientists.

The fact the wolves only eat the head is also interesting to Darimont. His research suggests that it may have something to do with the wolf seeking out nutrients present only in the salmon’s head, or that the rest of the body carries a parasite toxic to canids. No one really knows. But they do eat the whole head, including the jaw and mouth. Nothing is left of it when a wolf has finished.

Walking along one of the six salmon streams where Darimont has studied coastal wolves this year, you see evidence of their fishing prowess everywhere. There are carcasses every few metres along the water’s edge, all in varying stages of decomposition and all decapitated as neatly as if the cuts had been made by a guillotine. Had bears eaten them, they probably would have devoured the brains, dorsal muscles and egg sack. Eagles would have ripped them to shreds. The clean, almost geometric, cuts tell us these fish were taken by wolves.

There is also wolf scat everywhere — some of it very fresh — so it all stinks to high heaven, a curious occurrence in what is otherwise a pristine old-growth rainforest of red cedar and western hemlock.

“Sometimes people look at what’s left and say ‘what a waste,’ “ Darimont says. “But it isn’t. Because the salmon feeds the whole forest. Every part of it is used by something somewhere.”

Salmon provide rainforests with nitrogen, he explains. Bears and, it now turns out, wolves, bring the fish ashore, eat part of it, then leave the rest for small birds and insects to eat, digest and ultimately excrete all over the forest floor.

“Every part of it is used,” Darimont says.

Seeing the wolves is no easy feat. “They’re so elusive,” he warns as we head out on his small boat towards the islands where they live. “But because of that when you do find them, it makes it that much more special.”

He is conducting his study under the auspices of UVic biology professor Tom Reimchen and University of Calgary wildlife biologist Paul Paquet, with funds provided by the National Science and Engineering Research Council.

Even though science has only just found out about them, chances are that fishing wolves have been around since life dawned on the coast. They are undoubtedly an integral part of the ecosystem.

Chester Starr, a junior elder with the local Heiltsuk tribe, says some elders have referred to such wolves in their stories, but it has only been recently that members have begun to rediscover and appreciate the uniqueness of the wolves in conjunction with biologists.

“They’re part of our family,” Starr says of the wolves. “What we are is what they are too.”

Darimont has spent the whole summer in this coastal archipelago observing packs of fishing wolves, in addition to collecting their fur and feces and analysing it for its contents.

It shows. His black hair is a Medusa tangle, and his beard is growing all over the place. “I have the luxury of not looking at myself in the mirror for weeks at a time,” he says.

“People think what I do is sexy,” he adds, but the truth is that much of it is painstakingly tedious. Wolf scats have to be collected by hand from 10 islands and an adjacent mainland area over an area of roughly 2,500 square kilometers, and that takes hundreds of hours in weather of every kind. It rains up to four metres a year in this part of world, and the wind can churn the sea like a furnace.

Because the wolves live in a system of islands, Darimont goes everywhere by boat. But wolves are exceedingly wary of humans, and alert to every gesture, scent and sound they make, especially the roar of a motor, so he has to be judicious about when to gun the engine and when to cut it.

Approaching one river where he thinks we might see a pack, we first have to moor the boat, then paddle in silently by canoe.

It’s a misty morning, shrouded in sepulchral shades of silver and grey. Eagles perched in the trees are silhouetted against the dawn sky like black ornaments, and the rush of gulls’ wings fills the cold air. The wolves are calling to us like sirens, but even though we creep in as silently as we can, we never see them. The wind has shifted and as a result, our odds of confronting them have plummeted.

When we finally do see them it is in another estuary approached almost as an after-thought. It’s late morning and the fog has suddenly lifted. Wolves are most active at dawn and dusk, so at any moment they likely will be heading into the woods to sleep. But we’re lucky. They’ve tarried for some reason, so we’re able to catch sight of them collecting and eating the end of that morning’s catch.

There are three adults and three pups, now about six months old and almost as big as their parents. One of the adults has a weak hind leg, which he never allows to touch the ground. Darimont calls him “Gimpy”. We don’t know how long they’ve been there, but through a telescope — any closer and they’d run away — we’re able to observe them for about 20 minutes.

The salmon runs start in August and continue abundantly until mid-October, says Darimont. A few late runs will continue until December, but the real bounty occurs only for a couple of months.

Unlike coastal bears, which gorge on salmon in preparation for hibernation, wolves are physiologically unable to store large reserves of fat. “Wolves are like Ferraris,” is how Darimont puts it. “They travel fast on a small tank of gas.”

What salmon does is provide them with an opportunity to fill up on a food supply that, unlike deer, doesn’t fight back.

It also is the one time of year when wolves like Gimpy — those at the bottom of the pack who must wait to feed until the others have their fill — can eat with the same gusto and speed as the leading male and female.

Darimont has observed and recorded six individual wolf packs that rely to some extent on marine life for their diet. He also has identified six denning sites within the coastal archipelago.

Of concern to him is that several of these sites are in unprotected forest valleys earmarked for logging. Road construction has already begun in some areas, and logging is due to start soon.

It concerns conservationists too. That’s why Raincoast Conservation Society project director Ian McAllister wants the government to recognize rainforest wolves as globally unique and deserving of special recognition in land-use plans.

“It’s frustrating that just as we’re learning so much about this unique wildlife population, we continue to lose so much rainforest habitat to industrial logging,” says McAllister. “Also, no special hunting licence is needed for these wolves to be hunted legally.”

Darimont and Paquet have already approached Western Forest Products about the possibility of protecting one of the denning sites with a 2,000-metre buffer zone. Two hundred metres have been agreed to, but negotiations are continuing.

“The big thing that I always try to make clear is that we’re just beginning to learn about this population and all inhabitants of the rainforest,” Darimont says. “These wolves are continually surprising us, It makes me wonder how many more mysteries there are in the rainforest.”