A new study in the journal BMC Ecology indicates that coastal wolves in British Columbia switch to eating salmon in the fall as a primary food source, rather than deer. Scientists arrived at this conclusion after analyzing wolf poop they collected over a four year span.
Among the thousands of stools that were collected by the researchers in the spring and summer months, 90-95% of them contained some indications that wolves were eating deer as prey. In the fall, however, this number dropped significantly. About 40-70% of the stools in this time of year indicated that wolves were dining on salmon.
So what’s the big deal?
In the past, it was thought that wolves only ate fish like salmon when other preferred food sources were scarce. It makes ecological sense, however, that as salmon become available as a food source during their inland migration, many animals (including wolves) should take advantage of a free and easy feast. Perhaps because dams have been built over time on rivers throughout the U.S. and Canada, subsequently blocking salmon from swimming upstream, it has been less obvious to us that wolves enjoy salmon. We must not also forget that wolves were also on the brink of extinction in the United States– so it’s been challenging to study them and their behavior in the States until recently. The findings of this study suggest that our knowledge of wolves in the U.S. and Canada is still rather limited.
Until now, when we thought of wolves eating, generally we would think of a pack working together to take down elk or deer in places like Yellowstone National Park. Or perhaps we might have also thought about the balancing act of populations that goes on between wolves and moose in Isle Royale National Park. In short, our perception has been formed by a common reality we have witnessed through our cameras and binoculars in the modern era: wolves tend to eat large animals with hooves. So by now understanding that salmon and fish are still an important part of the dietary mix for wolves in British Columbia, maybe it’s now possible to think that was historically true for wolves in other areas of North America as well.
Unfortunately, I think the implications of this study could be potentially be used as fodder by people who are against wolf reintroduction in the western United States. Disgruntled ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves might ask themselves: “if wolves like fish, then why do they need my cattle? They don’t.”
Hopefully this thought exercise is just paranoia on my part. I wouldn’t be surprised though if this line of thought eventually makes its way into the wolf reintroduction dialogue. To end on a more positive thought, perhaps it underscores yet another reason why aiding efforts to bring back salmon runs in the U.S. would be a good thing. Who knows, maybe it would alleviate some of the cattle losses incurred by ranchers by giving wolves another food source.