Daniel Dupont wears many hats.
The Métis man is a part-time PhD candidate in the Faculty of Science’s Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology program who also works as a provincial wildlife biologist in Manitoba.
For the past few years, Mr. Dupont has been working with that province’s Indigenous and other communities to find out why Manitoba’s moose population is on the decline in some areas.
“In talking with the local communities, it was evident there were numerous concerns related to moose — predation, parasites, human harvesting, and other causes we may not be as familiar with,” he said.
“So, we started tracking wolves in the area to get a sense of what they were eating at different times of the year, to see if it differs between areas and what kind of impacts that may or may not be having on moose.”
Manitoba Hydro had also been hearing similar concerns from communities. The staff wanted to determine the potential impacts of new and existing transmission lines on the moose population.
Dr. Eric Vander Wal is a wildlife ecologist with the Department of Biology and Mr. Dupont’s supervisor. He says Manitoba Hydro is interested in understanding and mitigating the effects of their transmission lines and the right-of-ways they build.
“We tend to know from research when you put linear features on the landscapes, like transmission lines or logging roads, it opens up the landscape and that may help predators like wolves move faster,” he said. “The faster a predator can move the more likely it’s going to encounter prey.
“We are trying to ascertain whether wolves are moving faster or slower on transmission right-of-ways and whether it’s contingent on the habitat they are coming out of, such as a dense coniferous forest, or an open bog or fen. Another graduate student on our team is comparing those right-of-ways against other linear features on the landscape: human-made features such as logging roads, or natural ones, like river beds.”
Kill site investigations
In addition to determining if these features affect the behaviour of predators, the researchers are also looking into whether that translates into increased kill rates of moose. Mr. Dupont is an expert in wolf kill sites and has investigated more than 1,000 of them.
“The wolves are fitted with GPS collars, which records their location every two hours,” he said. “When an animal has spent an extended period of time at a location, we examine these sites to determine whether it was a denning, rendezvous, resting or scavenging site, or if they made a kill there.
“If it’s a kill or scavenging site,” he continued, “we try to determine the species, age and sex of the kill and whether there was any underlying reason which would have made that prey more susceptible to predators.”
Small prey implications
Mr. Dupont says one of the strengths of their project is they are collecting year-round data.
Most projects follow wolves solely in the winter, when it is easier to travel, and are only interested in their large prey. Data collection from summer kill sites can be more difficult to collect with the increased vegetation, insects, other scavengers and prey options.
“Although our focus is on moose and whether wolves have an impact on them, small prey can have an impact as well,” he said.
“If wolves aren’t going after moose during certain periods and are eating beavers, for example, that has implications. We’ve been finding a fair number of smaller prey kill sites, which is interesting.”
Manitoba Hydro’s support of the work, and the research team’s ability to bring together federal and provincial governments, industry, community and academic partners, allowed the researchers to obtain a series of research grants to build up the collaboration and get the resources needed to help answer the questions being raised.
Dr. Vander Wall says Manitoba Hydro is interested in creating a sustainable model for the work they do.
“Ideally, we would create an environment where wolves are somehow oblivious to our human-constructed features like power line corridors and wouldn’t use it any more or any less than some other natural linear feature.”
Because the project was initially motivated by community concerns and the special relationships those communities historically and currently have with moose, the researchers are conscious that the groups feel they have a voice and can trust those involved.
“In the end it does pay off for everybody.”
Mr. Dupont says their continued communication and engagement with the local communities and with Manitoba Hydro has permitted them to get this far.
“I don’t think we would have been able to without their support and it speaks to the importance of understanding local communities are integral to this project,” he said.
“They have the most at stake here,” he continued. “They live in the community and depend on this resource. It is of social, cultural and spiritual importance to them. It is also an integral part of a healthy diet for people who would otherwise have to resort to less nutritious food choices because of the lack of access to healthy alternatives. So, it’s really important for them to be part of this. It takes time, but I think it’s time well spent. In the end it does pay off for everybody.”
Some examples of community engagement is when the team takes community members into the field to kill site investigations or on flights when moose surveys have been conducted.
“As a scientist, sometimes we have this idea that we need to be productive and have results, but in some cases, depending on the objective, building these relationships is the payoff, and that’s what we’re seeing with this particular project.”