National Geographic : 2015 Oct
130 national geographic • October 2015 Even if you offered the prize of a pound of smoked salmon, most Canadians couldn’t tell you much about British Columbia’s remote coast. Vancouver Island bookends it to the south, the big Haida Gwaii Islands and southeast Alaska to the west and north, respectively. In between, open to the full fury of the Pacific, lies this coast. It stretches 250 miles as the raven flies. But gla- ciers raked deep fjords here during the last ice age, gouging a steep-sided labyrinthine and fin- gerlike tidal coastline. Icy, plankton-rich ocean currents bathe it, sustaining an extraordinary “ We collected poop,” Darimont tells me. Wolf scat, he means, and also wolf hair, veri- table libraries of data about home range, sex, diet, genetics, and other variables. “ Wolves are deliberate poopers, not random like deer,” Dari- mont says, “and they use travel corridors very reliably.” Wolves’ anal glands add oily deposits to scat, appending messages intended for oth- er wolves. They favor posting their messages conspicuously, especially at trail intersections, where one missive gets twice the readership. “I’d throw a mountain bike out of the boat onto a logging road or game trail and spend ten sweaty hours scat hunting,” Darimont says. Ten years, innumerable poop jokes, more than 3,000 miles, and 7,000 samples later— autoclaved, washed, bagged, labeled, and even- tually stored in Darimont’s mother’s basement— the feces began to deliver the facts. The data from coastal wolves along the main- land quantified what many locals already knew: Wolves eat salmon. In spawning season the fish make up 25 percent of these wolves’ diet. The shocker came from the rest of the data. Going in, Darimont and Paquet had assumed that the coastal wolves on the islands were sim- ply normal wolves that moved between islands and the mainland, pushing on whenever they’d polished off the deer. Instead the data showed that wolves can spend their whole lives on outer islands that have no salmon runs and few or even no deer. These wolves are more likely to mate with other islanders, not with salmon-eaters. And they’re beachcombers. They chew barna- cles. Scarf up the gluey roe that herring lay on kelp. Feast on whales that wash up dead. Swim out into the ocean and clamber nimbly up onto rocks to pounce on basking seals. “As much as 90 percent of these wolves’ diet can come directly from the sea,” Darimont says. Most extraordinary is the wolves’ swimming prowess. They often swim across miles of ocean between islands. In 1996 wolves showed up on Dundas Islands for the first time in the Tsim- shian people’s long collective memory—eight miles from the nearest land. Paquet says these types of coastal wolves These wolves are beachcombers. They chew barnacles, scarf up the roe that herring lay on kelp, and feast on dead whales. abundance of life in the sea—whales, seabirds, salmon, sea lions, seals—and on land, grizzly and black bears, including the fantastic white variant, the Kermode, or spirit bear. A misty temperate rain forest of conifers shrouds it all, from water- line to Coast Mountains crest. It’s roughly 25,000 square miles in area—a Switzerland-and-a -half of forest—one of the biggest swaths of its kind left in the world. It’s called the Great Bear Rainforest. In the early 2000s Ian McAllister and Canadi- an wolf biologist Paul Paquet became intrigued when they saw coastal mainland wolves eating salmon. With local First Nations’ support, they recruited graduate student Chris Darimont to investigate. Darimont narrowed his study area to Heiltsuk First Nations territory on the cen- tral coast—one-third of it water, the rest largely roadless, dense with towering Sitka spruce and cedar, and often extremely steep. Darimont and Paquet ditched the traditional approach of col- lecting blood and hair directly from the animal. n Society Grant This project was funded in part by your National Geographic Society membership.