Using a remote camera set up on a river in the Great Bear Rainforest, an environmental group has captured rare video footage of wolves fishing for salmon on British Columbia’s rugged Central Coast.
Ian McAllister, a wildlife photographer and executive director of Pacific Wild, said over the years he’s spent countless hours haunting riverbanks, praying for a shot of a wolf catching a salmon. Now he’s got high-definition images streaming into his office, near Bella Bella, showing entire packs of wolves splashing through the shallows, ducking their heads under water to catch fish.
The activity is so rarely seen that it wasn’t until a decade ago that scientists finally got proof that wolves hunt salmon.
But Mr. McAllister, who has produced several coffee-table books on bears and wolves, says he now sees that kind of behaviour almost daily, thanks to the remote camera feed.
“I can’t tell you how many weeks I’ve spent, sitting in the rain, getting up before dawn in the pitch black and quietly waiting, only to fail to see a single wolf catch a salmon,” he said. “With this recent camera we placed on a salmon spawning river, I witnessed more [wolves] catching salmon in just a couple of weeks … than I have in 20 years of being out there trying to observe that first-hand.”
Interviewed by satellite phone from his boat in the Great Bear Rainforest, Mr. McAllister said it took years of research to find the right technology.
“The initial goal was to stream live high-quality, high-definition footage from some of the most remote parts of the coast. And with the mountains and fjords that proved to be a difficult task,” he said. “But over the past couple of years our team has developed a system of wireless transmission so that we can now site these cameras 50 miles from our office. We’re streaming live over the Internet [on the Pacific Wild website] and we’re doing it predictably in some of the most extreme environments.”
Mr. McAllister, who spends much of his year staking out river estuaries photographing wildlife, said he first saw a wolf chasing salmon about 20 years ago, but at that time nobody believed him because it was undocumented behaviour.
“At first we saw all these headless salmon in the rivers and thought it was just the [feeding behaviour] of a few individual bears. Then … around 1992-93, I first saw a glimpse of a wolf on a river catching a salmon. But it was just a passing glimpse. So to have this remote technology where we wake up every morning and have this video of a pack of wolves coming down into the river is remarkable.”
Mr. McAllister said in some ways the remote camera technology is better than observing live.
“What I’ve really noticed is that when you are in the field, trying to do everything right, being down wind, and you think the wolves aren’t aware of your presence in the valley, they are always glancing in your direction. They always seem to know that someone is there and it does change their behaviour,” he said. “But when we’re watching with this remote camera they are never glancing at it, never staring at it. It’s a much more natural experience in terms of watching wildlife behaviour.”
Mr. McAllister said Pacific Wild has also set up a remote camera on the outer coast to observe sea lions, passing killer whales and marine birds. But his real dream is to get a thermal imaging camera on a river, so he can get shots of cougars and wolverines feeding on salmon – activity which he feels certain is happening, but which he has been unable to photograph so far.
“We’d like to start exploring nocturnal behaviour, and I think that’s really going to open our eyes to some of the really spectacular predator-prey relationships that we have in the rain forest,” he said. “We know that cougars are feeding on salmon, but it’s not being documented because they are doing it at night.”