The Chilly Work of Saving Ontario’s Algonquin Wolf

Researchers don snowshoes and brave freezing temperatures to learn more about the threatened species

Photos and article by Andrew Budziak

Visibility is less than 100 feet. The snow is not only blinding, it’s making it nearly impossible to keep my car on the road. The car in front of me stops, and I realize I’ve driven over what we’re looking for.

photo of scientists working in a snowy landscapephoto by Andrew BudziakHannah Barron instructs volunteer Suzanne Charron on how to best collect a scat sample without contaminating it. In -20°C weather, this is easier said than done. The scat freezes quickly and often must be cut out of ice and snow. To see more photos, click or tap this one.

Hannah Barron, a wolf researcher and director of Wildlife Conservation Campaigns for Earthroots, steps out of her car. Barron, her research assistant Adrienne Chalaturnyk, and I are the only people for miles. We’re standing on the side of a road near Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park and I’ve just run over a set of wolf tracks.

“Sorry,” I tell Barron.

“That’s ok,” Barron says. “We probably shouldn’t be driving in this weather anyway.”

The wolf tracks tell us we’re close to what we’re there to document: scat and urine. Ontario’s provincial government is creating a recovery strategy for the Algonquin wolf, known outside the province as the eastern wolf. In 2016, the province declared the Algonquin wolf a distinct canid. Its status was moved to “threatened” which means the province has two years to come up with a recovery strategy for the animal.

I’ve met with Barron and Chalaturnyk as they hunt for DNA samples of wolves in and around Killarney Provincial Park to help better understand their population distribution. Wolf scat and urine provide great DNA samples, and this method of DNA collection is relatively non-invasive when compared to darting or collaring animals.

Barron heads over to the snow bank at the side of the road and starts wiping away the freshly fallen snow.

“If there is urine or scat here, it’s likely just below this recent snow,” she tells me.

The tracks begin in the bush on one side of the road and continue into the woods on the other. There are “No Trespassing” signs on both sides, which means we can’t follow the tracks. Too bad — the wolves did not leave any scat or urine in the banks.

The weather worsens, so we head back to a cabin which Barron and Chalaturnyk have turned into a research station. The fridge’s freezer is packed with scat and urine samples that they’ve collected over the past week. They have dubbed this the “poop fridge.”

The next day, we head to Killarney to meet with a team of volunteer citizen scientists. They have come out in the -20°C weather to help Barron find samples. The volunteers break into groups, each with a DNA kit in their backpack. This includes gloves, bags, ice scrapers, vials, GPS units, and hand warmers – everything needed to brave the cold in the hopes of finding samples.

I tag along with Barron and two volunteers, Jerry Gerard Violette and Suzanne Charron. Charron is not unfamiliar with wolves. She is the author of Wolf Man Joe LaFlamme: Tamer Untamed, a biography of a famous wolf tamer.

We strap on our snowshoes and head out into the park.

Watching Barron read wolf tracks is incredible. Where I see just a bunch of foot prints in the snow, Barron sees a story. “Look at these little tracks across this log,” she says. “Those are from a squirrel. The squirrel ran down the log, and shortly after, a wolf used the same log as a spring board. Likely after that, a deer crossed the same log but because of its long legs, didn’t even need to hop.”

After a several hours of hunting, our group has found three scat samples and one urine sample. My contribution: a pile of wolf diarrhea that likely doesn’t contain enough wolf DNA to be useful, but Barron politely takes the sample anyway.

The scat and urine samples are now in a lab at Trent University. They will be analyzed and the results will be passed along to the provincial government so they can better understand the distribution of the Algonquin wolf.

To learn more about Algonquin wolf research in Ontario, click or tap through the photos below.

photos of winter scenes

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