Sometimes it takes a snagged tuft of hair; other times an eerie howl from a distant hillside or, in some cases, a simple ping on a hand-held receiver.
All provide clues into what’s happening between livestock and increasing numbers of carnivores in the dark timber and rolling foothills just outside Waterton National Park in southwest Alberta.
A genetics study on grizzlies that roam private ranchlands on Waterton’s east and north flanks moves indoors this winter. But hibernation for researchers isn’t in the offing.
A wolf study to determine how many packs reside in and around the park, meanwhile, will enter its second year. And a recent cougar study shows the region’s big cats are plentiful and expanding eastward.
Lions, grizzlies and wolves, which all appear to be growing in number and range, are increasing international awareness and a surge in university and government studies along this part of the Rocky Mountain Front. It is one of the world’s most heavily traveled “carnivore corridors.”
But in light of recent livestock kills, about 20 local ranchers are “tuning-in” to radio signals to keep tabs on their cattle herds, a stone’s throw from Waterton’s sanctuary.
A trial run on the radio-network, using five towers and 650 radio-tagged cattle, was started last summer across the 16-square mile Polehaven Grazing District. The rolling, provincially owned, grazing lease spreads towards the prairie from Waterton’s border. In fact it was part of the park during Waterton’s early years and still provides refuge for many meat-eaters.
Last summer and fall, ranchers there were monitoring “pings” from ear-tagged cows spread across Polehaven’s vast, uninhabited foothills. It was thought tracing livestock movements with radio waves in real time would, on occasion, show the exact location of stampeding, bunching or other unusual cattle movements that would suggest carnivore stalking.
A cluster of pings over a long period might also indicate a dead or down cow. That, in turn, would lead to a quick death certificate and government compensation for predation — funds that come from the sale of Alberta hunting licenses.
Last year’s monitoring greatly improved round-up efficiencies by pinpointing errant or hidden cattle, but otherwise it accomplished little. Dead zones, short-lived batteries and weak power sources hampered the year’s work, but those problems will be solved, says Brad Smith, project co-ordinator and an Alberta Agriculture livestock technology specialist.
Smith says the number of missing Polehaven cattle jumped from eight two years ago to 20 last year and a yet-undetermined number this year. Although depredation mainly by wolves and bears is suspected, radio tracing could help determine if rustlers also are involved.
The number of grizzlies using the Rockies’ eastern slope, including its numerous wheat fields, has increased steadily, according to both ranchers and biologists. Grizzlies love all sorts of protein-rich grains, and observers say far more bears today rely on foothills’ ranches where the living is easy. Grain bins, chicken coops and beehives provide great fodder, as does the occasional plodding cow.
Its generally agreed that what has changed the past decade has much to do with human noise and commotion. Unrestricted all-terrain vehicles, random campers and logging has combine to drive many carnivores from public forests back to the flatlands and eastern river valleys. Many third- and fourth-generation ranchers are for the first time seeing grizzlies and wolves hanging around their dwellings
A new survey of ranchers and seasonal homeowners residing within 20 km of the park shows most believe these pioneering predators are threatening human safety as well as cattle herds. While 90 per cent of the 115 residents surveyed by the University of Calgary Miistakis Institute say large carnivores are desirable in the region, only 37 per cent said they want them “on or near” their own property.
Numerous respondents referred to a sudden increase in big carnivores, adding they were nervous for their own safety that of their families. Dozens of encounters of the startling kind were reported.
Fully 66 per cent of the group feels livestock depredation levels are unacceptable, and many suggest provincial government compensation should include not only money for livestock killed by predators, but also payments for ‘carnivore-cattle harassment,’ which can affect beef production rates.
Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed said dealing with troublesome carnivores should be handled by local landowners, not government.
“Big Three” studied
Grizzlies, wolves and cougars, or the “Big Three” as they’re often referred to, have never been studied to the degree they are now. For the past six years, biologists and wildlife graduate students from Canada and the U.S. have been searching secretive predator haunts often using electronics for tracking.
The livestock tracing project is just one of several active research programs in a study area that stretches from the Montana border north to near Banff. They include an independent project to determine the number of wolf packs that roam the corridor, and another to decipher how many of the big bears also call the region home.
Last year, Andrea Morehouse, a University of Alberta ecology student, working on her doctorate degree, collected nearly a thousand bear hair samples that resulted in DNA identification of 51 different grizzlies or about 10 fewer than found in Banff. But that survey only included samples from the Provincial Bow-Crow Forest, north of Waterton. This year’s study targets bears who frequent adjoining private land.
Many of the 312 new rubs monitored this year include not only trees but fences, barns and other stable objects. Hairs snagged on barbed wire that’s nailed to bear rubs are collected for genetic identification of individual grizzlies.
So far this year Morehouse and her technicians have collected more than 3,000 hair samples, and will continue field work until late November and then prepare specimens for a genetics lab. Results, showing how many different grizzlies scratched their backs in the study area, should be known next spring, about the same time Morehouse will start her third year of DNA fieldwork.
While many in the ranching community take a cautious but inquisitive view of grizzlies, the same can’t be said of wolves, according to the recent Miistakis’ survey. That’s one reason the County of Cardston, which also abuts the park, has placed a $500 bounty on dead wolves, and registration for wolf-trapping courses sell out almost immediately.
Another recent study, also by Morehouse, found wolves in this area heavily rely on cattle for their summer diets. During the grazing months, fully 75 per cent of their intake is beef. Wolves don’t seem to depend on wild game until the winter when the hills are devoid of livestock.
This year the Montana Co-operative Research Unit from the University of Montana set up shop and literally started howling in the star-light for wolves. Project co-ordinator David Ausband says researchers imitate howling wolves by voice or with electronics at 420 potential “rendezvous sites” where wolves congregate. In addition Ausband’s team collected 439 wolf scat samples for DNA analysis to determine individuals and groups.
Its believed seven to 11 packs reside in the study area with a pack described as two or more mating animals. Beyond that, and their amazing preference for beef, little is known about the region’s ever-changing wolf population. Since trapping and hunting are allowed, virtually year-round, pack dynamics can change within hours biologists agree.
Cougars seem to be the one large predator that is making an attempt to shy away from farmyards. Researchers tranquilized and radio collared a dozen local cats and learned 81 per cent of their year round diet was deer and moose with elk and small game making up the remainder.
Only one livestock kill was reported and that was for an alpaca. Project co-ordinator Jeremy Banfield said cougars target hobby-farm animals because they are small and often confined. They are called “cougar candy” by some biologists.
Like grizzlies, cougars are expanding their range eastward. River valleys provide a trail network onto the prairies and their towns.
All recent studies, surveys and consultations are aimed not only at establishing historic baseline-data but also at maintaining smooth relations between ranching and environmental groups. †