Articles

The Sleuths who Watch our Wildlife

WHERE DOES THE WHOOPING CRANE NEST? HOW DO YOU DRIVE EELS FROM A LAKE? IS THE CARIBOU BECOMING EXTINCT?

SCOTT YOUNG August 6 1955
Articles

The Sleuths who Watch our Wildlife

WHERE DOES THE WHOOPING CRANE NEST? HOW DO YOU DRIVE EELS FROM A LAKE? IS THE CARIBOU BECOMING EXTINCT?

SCOTT YOUNG August 6 1955

The Sleuths who Watch our Wildlife

WHERE DOES THE WHOOPING CRANE NEST? HOW DO YOU DRIVE EELS FROM A LAKE? IS THE CARIBOU BECOMING EXTINCT?

BY PEEKING AT the private lives of all our creatures these bright young men find the answers — and also save our wildlife for the future

SCOTT YOUNG

EARLY LAST APRIL a young biologist named John Tener was counting musk oxen from an aircraft flying over the icy western barrens, and in May he was weighing the adrenals of beaver in Prince Albert National Park. In mid-May Bill Fuller, whose special duty is the big buffalo herd near Fort Smith in the District of Mackenzie, sighted from the air what he thought was a whooping crane at its nest; if a land check later proved him right it would be the first such sighting in thirty years. Graham Cooch was fraternizing with eider ducks on Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic, Eoin McEwan was counting white fox on Banks Island in the western Arctic, Bernie Gollop and Dave Munro were helping in the annual count of nesting ducks on the prairies and Jean-Paul Cuerrier was repelling elvers with a fancy dam in Cape Breton.

These seven men, and another nineteen scattered across Canada from the habitat of the rare trumpeter swan in interior British Columbia to the haunts of the controversial murre off the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts, make up the research staff of one of the federal government’s most interesting and least-known branches, the Canadian Wildlife Service. Their job is to apply the old science of biology and the new science of wildlife management to the birds, fish and animals of Canada in such a way as to protect rare species and to help hunters and fishermen and trappers in their pursuit of species that are plentiful. As part of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, they also have a special responsibility for wildlife in the national parks and Northwest Territories, and for the administration of the Migratory Birds Convention Act, a reciprocal agreement with the U. S. governing the hunting of waterfowl.

To the layman, some of the adventures attending this job are as engrossing as the problems in nature that these men constantly are meeting and solving, although these adventures seldom are told outside of the lodge. For instance, last year on Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay a cliff festooned with climbing ropes collapsed under circumstances in which loss of life was averted only by the colossal luck that it happened at night when no one was climbing. A report by Newfoundlander Les Tuck said merely that the colony of murres at Akpatok nests on cliffs of rotten limestone. Three years ago an enraged bull musk ox charged John Tener and he jumped into a canoe and paddled to safety. Tener’s report said that the musk ox is quick to defend its young.

Last January 26, when the weather was ranging around forty below zero, Don Flook set out alone by snowshoe and dog team from Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River. Between then and March 7 he traveled five hundred miles in a rough triangle, northeast for a hundred miles or so and then east through the Franklin Mountains to within about a

hundred miles of Yellowknife before he turned back southwest to base at Fort Simpson. A Mountie at Fort Reliance, hearing of the trip in April, said it was one he would hate to make alone. Flook’s report of the moose, caribou, wolves and other wildlife he saw was prefaced briefly with his route and estimated mileage, but gave no other personal details.

And in mid-April this year John Kelsall, counting caribou from an aircraft in the barrens south of Bathurst Inlet, ran into blinding snow and had to have his pilot land on a lake whose shores they couldn’t even see. The snow was wrong for building an igloo (which Kelsall has had to do in the barrens before) so they tied a tent to the wing of the aircraft against the fifty - mph wind and crawled in there and slept soundly for nine hours. Nobody missed them because nobody knew exactly where they were. Their report said that the weather in the barrens in April frequently hampered the re-survey of caribou.

Perhaps if these men were interested in the conventional human goals of fame and money they wouldn’t be wildlife scientists. A recent civilservice poster advertising a competition for a position as a Canadian Wildlife Service mammologist asked for a man who had graduated from a university of recognized standing, with undergraduate training in biology and postgraduate specialization in mammology or wildlife management. The poster also said this man should have postgraduate experience in practical conservation work or mammal research, the ability to write articles, to meet and address the public, inclination to work in the Arctic, good physical condition, and a knowledge of French. For all this, the salary was from $4,170 to $4,920, about the range of a railway fireman. Yet there were many takers.

W. Winston Mair, the lean farm-raised (North Battleford, Sask.) ex-infantry lieutenant-colonel who heads the CWS, says, “Our men never get the money they’d get in some other branch of science. Perhaps that is because no one yet has been able to put a dollar value on wildlife—just how much it means to Canadians with more and more leisure time, and to the attraction of tourists. But our men know all that when they come in. They also know that they will be helping to maintain something for Canadians for all time, and that’s usually important enough.”

The CWS has grown from half a dozen research men at its formation in 1947 to twenty-six now, representing in origin almost every section of the country. Mostly they are in their twenties or thirties, graduates of Canadian universities who have taken postgraduate work here or in the U. S. or Britain; their headquarters is Ottawa and they man branches in Vancouver, Banff, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Kingston, Quebec City, Sack ville, N.B., and

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THESE ARE THE ELUSIVE FOLK SCIENTISTS STUDY

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 21

St. John’s, Newfoundland, and in Fort Smith, Yellowknife and Aklavik in the Northwest Territories.

Even this number, in relation to the job to be done, leaves little room for specialization common to other branches of science. The resultant versatility is a favorite subject of Vic Solman, assistant chief of the service, a Torontonian whose own astonishing range of work and knowledge makes him a good example of versatility himself. His PhD thesis was on the relationship between ducks and predatory fish (pike and muskies often eat ducklings). During the war he was a meteorologist. In 1945 he was hired by a predecessor of the present Canadian Wildlife Service as a limnologist, a man who specializes in fresh-water fish and their environments. His first major wildlife job was on a bird, the cormorant. And after the CWS was formed in 1947 he became chief biologist and later assistant chief of the service. Like the others, he speaks often in public and shows films and slides to illustrate the work of the CWS.

"Our men literally can do almost anything we ask,” he says. "Take Bill Fuller at Fort Smith. His MA thesis was on inconnu (a northern relative of whitefish and trout) in Great Slave Lake; he’s doing his PhD on buffalo, and lie’s also keeping tab on the whooping cranes in his area. Up on Banks Island about eighty-five miles north of the western Arctic shore right now, Eoin McEwan’s main job is to see if there are enough white foxes to support a greater Eskimo population; but he’s also banding snow geese. Cooch, up on Baffin, is reporting on whales, walrus and seals, hut he’s really there to report on the chances of our Eskimos starting an eider-down industry by feeding and controlling wild flocks like the Icelanders do. Al Loughrey, who helped in the caribou survey this year, flying out of Churchill, did his MA thesis on pheasants and last year completed the first successful tagging of walruses anywhere in the world—and designed the harpoon-type tag himself.

"If our men weren’t so versatile,” says Solman, "we wouldn’t be able to do half what we do, with the money we spend.” The CWS budget for this year, highest ever, is still only $455,703.

In many cases CWS projects are designed not only to maintain nature, hut to improve on it. A current example is taking place at Freshwater Lake in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This 108-acre lake once was fine speckled-trout water, but no more. The main problem was the common eels, which eat the same food as trout, but eat it faster and also eat trout. Some coarse fish also were competing for food, and the trout simply were squeezed out. Last year a project under Jean-Paul Cuerrier, an imaginative and ebullient man in his early thirties who is the service’s chief limnologist, was planned to give this lake back to the trout fishermen.

At the beginning the problem was simple enoughto dump forty-five hundred pounds of poison into the lake to kill everything in it. This is often done where coarse fish have taken over from game varieties. Among the dead at Freshwater were seen tons of eels, white perch, smelt, alewives and sticklebacks, and five speckled trout. Then the plan was to plant ten thou-

sand trout this June, mostly of the legal catching size (in that area) of six inches. But the big job would be to keep eels from taking over the lake again.

This isn’t easy. Each year migrating eels leave streams and lakes of Europe and North America and go to the Sargasso Sea, the only place they will breed. Baby eels are called elvers, and when they are born and leave the Sargasso Sea billions head for Europe, other billions up the North American coast, back to the waters where their parents had lived. Elvers in migration are about as long as toothpicks but so flat and thin they are transparent except at the eyes. As they near their freshwater turning - off places they change shape until they are as round as pins, small enough to go through mosquito netting. An ordinary dam won’t keep them out, even a solid concrete one. They find seepage at the side of a dam, or even under it, and through they go.

That was Cuerrier’s problem. There were known systems to handle it. For instance, electrocution; but an electrified barrier would need a caretaker. Another system would be to string electric lights underwater. (Elvers won’t pass them.) But that would need a caretaker, too, and even a momentary lack of vigilance, or some prankish interference by someone traveling on the road nearby, would ruin the whole project. So he consulted with people at the government’s Fisheries Research Board station at St. Andrew’s, N.B., and between them a different dam was designed and built.

Dirtiest Trick Ever Played

In June, when the hordes of elvers swam up the Atlantic coast, some of them turned in at the stream leading from Freshwater Lake to the sea. Then they hit this dam, which is of two layers of logs with a screen in between fine enough to keep out the most determined elver. When they turned aside to seek seepage around the dam, they ran into perhaps the dirtiest trick ever played on an elver. This dam has curving wings that run out into the bank at either side, and elvers following the wings were delivered back into the river again below the dam. "Doing this over and over eventually drove the elvers so crazy, as we’d hoped,” Cuerrier says, "that most of them went and found another river. We had to block some leaks under the dam, but we believe very few got through. And this won’t matter much because the dam will prevent them from migrating when full-grown and since they won’t breed anywhere but in the Sargasso eventually they will die out.”

Not all fish problems encountered by Cuerrier and his staff of limnologists and hatchery people are as clear-cut as that in Freshwater. One of the more complicated is to determine, in cooperation with the Fisheries Research Board, if fish-eating ducks in the Mirimachi River in New Brunswick eat enough young salmon to jeopardize the Mirimachi’s standing as one of the world’s most famous salmon rivers.

Cuerrier and his assistant, Hugh Schultz, have also been working on a revolutionary development in transporting fish. Normally, transfers of fish from one lake to another are carried out in large tanks of water by rail or truck. In 1949 a new problem came up. Lake-trout fishing in Crean Lake in Prince Albert National Park had

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been dwindling, and a transfer of trout from a lake twenty miles away was planned. But there was no road. Todo the job by aircraft would have taken a huge number of trips, due to the needed bulk of water in the tanks. Previous experiments had shown that fish can be kept alive, under anaesthetic, on ice. If they could be handled and moved by air that way, they would take only a fraction of the space needed for the water-tank method. Cuerrier decided to run a test.

With the assistance of the hatchery superintendent at Jasper National

Park, W. C. Cable, Cuerrier in 1950 put seven brook trout under anaesthetic (urethane) and packed them on ice. Since the Saskatchewan transfer would take an estimated seventy-five minutes per trip, from anaesthetization to release, Cuerrier drove them around the countryside in a truck for seventy-five minutes, then put them back in the water. All lived. The following year he used this system to fly 1,231 anaesthetized lake trout to Crean Lake. The fish ranged in weight from one to forty pounds, and the transfer was made with only about ten-percent losses, which

was not abnormal for a transfer under the old water-tank system.

This spring in Prince Albert National Park Hugh Schultz made further experiments and found that pickerel could be kept under anaesthetic for three hours and live. He’s going to try pike now, and longer experiments, to get information that will be of great aid in regulating Canadian fish populations.

Another problem in fish came up a few years ago in Prince Albert Nat ional Park. The Great Northern Pike is the main sport fish in that area, and in

When the lady pike got stranded on her way to spawn, the adaptable beaver would simply build her right into his dam

Lake Waskesiu this fish quite abruptly became scarce. Schultz started at the source, the pike’s favorite spawning stream, and immediately found the reason. Beavers, which had been so scarce in that area that when Grey Owl lived there he had brought in a pair as companions, had increased so greatly that their dams had stopped up the pike’s spawning stream.

When lady pike, trying to get upriver, came to a dam they would either turn back without spawning or try to jump it. They seldom made it, although some did manage to strand themselves on the beaver dams. For every one stranded, about ninety thousand pike eggs and potential young pike died too. Apparently the beavers took this right rn stride, however. They’d build stranded pike right into their dams, as Schultz discovered by tracing some very powerful odors to their sources.

Fixing this situation was simply a matter of destroying the dams, but at the same time it was realized that there were too many beaver there, anyway. So this spring a killing program, in cooperation with the Department of Indian Affairs, was undertaken. Ten thousand dead beaver was the target but bad spring weather interfered, and the catch was closer to two thousand.

Meanwhile, never missing a chance for a double play, the CWS told John Tener that when he was finished counting caribou and musk oxen in the barrens he was to go to Prince Albert and examine beaver carcasses. A recently instituted national investigation of beaver diseases is being directed by Tener’s immediate superior, Frank Banfield, the CWS’s chief mammologist. Banfield has done a lot of the field work himself, especially in the Waterton Lakes area of Alberta. Tener’s work in Prince Albert was to add to this research.

Also, it had been noted elsewhere (among elk at Riding Mountain National Park, for instance) that overpopulation sometimes brought about its own correction, a die-off because of increased susceptibility to disease. Tener’s project this spring was to weigh beaver adrenals. In other animals living under conditions of overpopulation and its resultant stress this gland has been found to grow to abnormal size, probably because of an increased secretion of adrenalin, pumped into the blood stream when any animal, including the human, becomes angry. He found nothing significant.

One important side of the CWS work is the preservation of rare species of birds and animals. This sometimes is done by creating sanctuaries, one of the most recent on Richardson Lake, three hundred and fifty miles north of Edmonton, to protect the tiny Ross’ Goose, which stops there in migration. It is also a fact that since the government first became aware that any dwindling form of wildlife deserved help we haven’t lost a patient—as such birds as the passenger pigeon and the great auk were lost about 1900 from lack of protection. The law we passed in 1917 prohibiting all killing of musk ox probably preserved from extinction this big-horned, big-maned beast whose most northerly range is four hundred and fifty miles from the North Pole, a latitude where there is no daylight from late October to late February.

But probably the best-known fight ever to be undertaken in protecting

wildlife is that now under way to try to save the whooping crane. The numbers of this great bird have fluctuated from eighteen to about thirty-five in the last twenty years, but one hindrance to successful protection has been that no one could find where the whoopers nested. For years their wintering grounds in Texas have been protected and kept free of predators, but when they flew north in the spring they disappeared.

Then, last year, a group of firefighters returning by helicopter over Wood Buffalo Park on the NWT-Alberta

border saw some big birds below in an area so rugged that it has seldom, if ever, been visited in summer by man. It is probable that international publicity on behalf of whoopers was responsible for the fact that even though only two dozen were left they were recognized immediately by the firefighters. When they got into Fort Smith they went to CWS’s Bill Fuller and gave him the birds’ position. Fuller climbed into a plane and went back. The weather was bad by then, but just as he got over the area of the first report the clouds broke and he saw two adult whoopers and one smaller darker bird which he tentatively identified as a young of that year.

The buzz that went through ornithological circles was so loud that it was obvious the CWS had been right in announcing only the general area of the sighting, without details. Whoopers have never been plentiful, so there are few specimens in museums, and ornithologists are sure that if the exact area were known the air would be full of camera planes and perhaps commercial specimen gatherers, and possibly drive the whoopers from this area. A conference between the CWS, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society decided that a check would be made again and if whoopers were sighted a joint land party would be sent in to investigate.

Early in May Fuller went out again. He saw whoopers. A few days later he went out to re-check. He saw what looked like a whooping crane at its nest. He wired to CWS chief Mair in Ottawa,

who passed on the word to an Audubon Society representative in the Bahamas and a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service man in Washington. Both headed for Fort Smith and there joined Raymond Stewart, a postgraduate student at the University of Saskatchewan who has spent the last two summers working with the CWS. They tried by plane and helicopter to get a close look at the birds, while being careful not to disturb them, but after two trips into the area they had to report failure. But they may try again this year and certainly in 1956 they plan a further expedition to learn about the whooper— and perhaps save him from extinction.

The whooping crane and the musk ox, in their way, have taught people and governments that it is easier to conserve before the danger points in population than it is after. That awareness was responsible for a suggestion in 1947 at a conference of federal and provincial wildlife officials that the barrenground caribou be studied. The suggestion came from G. W. Malaher, Director of Game and Fisheries in Manitoba, and the result was a joint program by the CWS and the governments of the three prairie provinces.

In charge was Frank Banfield, a young Torontonian whose parents had been missionaries in Africa. For three years, he flew and walked and paddled the north after caribou, counted them, studied their habits and the habits of the natives who depended on caribou for their lives. His report justified the concern. Although he estimated that there were 670,000 caribou between the Mackenzie River and Hudson Bay, including some herds of more than a hundred thousand, he estimated that this was only a little more than one third of the population of fifty years before. About 168,000 caribou were being killed every year, thirty thousand more than his estimate of the birth rate.

The immediate effect of his report was the banning of all sport hunting of caribou, banning the sale of caribou meat (which had been common in the Northwest Territories) and the appointment of John Kelsall as resident mammologist in Yellowknife with the specific job of studying caribou.

Sometimes the job of guarding wildlife by science runs into a condition that one writer has termed ''biopolitics.” This clash of biology and politics is present right now in several places in Canada.

For centuries Newfoundlanders have eaten the murre, a sea bird about sixteen inches long. But when Newfoundland joined Canada it also assumed Canadian laws, one of which is that murres must not be killed. This is an annoyance, and sometimes a hardship, to fishermen who count on killing murres on the fishing grounds for fresh meat. When murre-killing cases come up in Newfoundland courts, they have been known to produce both a dismissal and a lecture from the bench on the rights of Newfoundlanders to do what they always have done. "It’s obvious that if murres were going to he hurt by Newfoundlanders killing them, they’d be gone long ago,” one Newfoundlander said. Instead, Les Tuck, the murre expert, has found single colonies containing more than a million birds.

But after that fact, biopolitics sets in. The Migratory Birds Convention Act, under which murres are protected, is reciprocal with the U. S. If Canada wanted to let Newfoundlanders kill

murres, the whole reciprocal treaty issue would have to be reopened in the U. S. to have the change made. Some CWS people think the whole agreement would be tossed out the window.

At present, each spring CWS men, in co-operation with provincial, U. S. Fish and Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited officials, count nesting ducks in western Canada, the continent’s great breeding ground. They agree on bag limits which are uniform in both countries. Revoking the act could endanger some species. So the matter of the murres probably will stand where it is, since

too much else depends on it. And Newfoundlanders are likely to go on eating them.

A hot situation in western Canada centres around ducks. At their present high level of population ducks are a menace to crops in many parts of the west. Some farmers have lost thousands of dollars in a single day to ducks. One big farmer told CWS chief Mair that he figured he’d lost one seventh of his crop over the last seven years—a total of 120,000 bushels. Some farmers feel that ducks should be declared predators and shot like crows.

They put pressure on their legislators. Saskatchewan now has duck insurance which can be bought much like hail insurance, and all prairie provinces have the power to permit shooting in defense of crops, in or out of season.

Here science, in the interest of realism, has worked overtime figuring out ways to scare the birds it has been protecting for so long. "I’m definitely on the side of the farmer,” Mair says. "We all should be, as long as this situation lasts. Sometime we’ll hit a dry cycle and we’ll have to ask farmers to help us protect ducks again-—instead of us

helping protect the farmers from ducks, as it is now.”

CWS men, headed by chief ornithologist Dave Munro and in co-operation with prairie game biologists, have experimented widely to give this help to the farmer. They’ve tried scarecrows, and scarecrows combined with scare shooting, with only moderate success. One CWS man tried herding them with two airplanes. It didn’t work. As Vic Solman said, "You’ve got to fly fifty feet off the ground to scare them, and then they swirl around the plane like mosquitoes. No way to grow old

gracefully.” Other CWS men once

drove jeeps and cars with their headlights on around duck-laden fields for hours. The ducks just got up in front of the headlights and settled down again behind them to feed.

Experiments with radar are not yet complete. Duck flocks definitely break up when they hit a radar beam, but don’t always light out for far places.

Perhaps the most spectacular experiments were with noise. These started in Ottawa. CWS men borrowed noisemaking equipment from the National Research Council, including supersonic devices, and tried them on ducks at the Ottawa Experimental Farm. They found that although nothing supersonic worked, a lot of noise would scare ducks. So they decided to try it in the field two years ago. They bought the biggest siren produced in North America, a new item then being turned out for U. S. civil defense. They mounted it on a truck and tried it. It scared the ducks all right, but other reported effects were that hens stopped laying and cows stopped giving milk, which was not so strange, at that, since the sound this siren made was at 145 decibels, more than a Sabre Jet makes in warming up.

They Even Surprised Eskimos

One night, after the CWS crew had been out since dawn in that unearthly noise, and were very tired, they pulled into a small prairie town. It was about nine o’clock when they parked the sound truck in front of the town’s hotel and went in to sleep, whereupon some small children sneaked into the truck and managed to get the siren going. Perhaps because the sound-unit men had been listening to it all day, they slept on. It took a delegation of local citizenry marching into their rooms to get them up to shut it off.

As in any new organization, a reaction CWS men run into often is sheer surprise that they exist. Perhaps that lack of awareness in the Canadian public now is dying out, however. In 1948 the CWS received 18,800 letters, suggesting sanctuaries, asking for information, making complaints. In 1952 the number was 36,150. In 1954 it reached nearly 70,000 and the volume is growing again in 1955.

This recognition isn’t limited to people who can write. Last year on Southampton Island when Al Loughrey was tagging walruses to learn more about their movement habits so hunting management could be planned better, he also spent some time telling Eskimos what he was learning about these ton-sized mammals as he went along. Some of this knowledge, he found, was beyond even what the Eskimos themselves knew from centuries of hunting and observation, and one day one of the usually shy and reticent Eskimos thanked him for what he was doing, and they had a long chat, exchanging views on walrus. It is this sort of meeting of minds, that of the primitive with that of the modern, with nature the subject, which seems best to typify the work the Canadian Wildlife Service is doing, if