Tracking Yellowstone Wolves

Huck Institutes graduate student Emily Almberg harnesses the passion of the wolf-watching community with a citizen science website aimed at improving research and public awareness.

Nearly every day, in a fairly remote and stunningly beautiful corner of our country, a dedicated group of wolf watchers gathers in the hope of glimpsing wolves of Yellowstone National Park. The watchers show incredible enthusiasm, getting into position at first light, scanning the valley floor and hillsides for their favorite wolves. The wolf watching community’s oral history and sheer viewing time of these individuals and packs is probably unrivaled for any other free-range mammal in the world.

Wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, and ever since, the Yellowstone Wolf Project has been collecting one of the most extensive and long-term data-sets of any mammal in the world. Emily Almberg, who has been a part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project since 2004, was there during a particularly acute outbreak of canine distemper virus, which caused wide-spread and high mortality among the park’s wolves, and became interested in studying the dynamics and impacts of infectious disease in wildlife. 

Wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, and ever since, the Yellowstone Wolf Project has been collecting one of the most extensive and long-term data-sets of any mammal in the world.

After earning a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, studying infectious disease in the park’s canids (wolves, coyotes, and foxes), she met her current adviser, Peter Hudson, director of Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and professor of biology, and Andrew Dobson of Princeton University, on one of their trips to Yellowstone.  “I was hooked,” she says. “I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Penn State, with all its world-renowned faculty in its Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.”

Trouble in the Packs

Following the restoration of gray wolves to Yellowstone in 1996, researchers collected blood from the animals to monitor parasite-induced disease and death. They also tracked the wolves in each pack to follow their survival and allow additional data-gathering.

Wolves from Mollie's Pack on the snow.

Mollie's Pack

A photograph of some of the wolves from the Mollie's Pack in the interior of Yellowstone.

Image: National Parks Service

"Many invasive species flourish because they lack their native predators and pathogens, but in Yellowstone we restored a native predator to an ecosystem that had other canids present that were capable of sustaining a lot of infections in their absence," Emily says. "It's not terribly surprising that we were able to witness and confirm that there was a relatively short window in which the reintroduced wolves stayed disease-free."

The researchers found that within a year after the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, 100 percent of the wolves tested had at least one infection, but mange did not infect wolves living in the park until 2007. Mange is a skin infection, caused by scabies mites, that makes the wolves scratch and lose fur. A diseased wolf can lose enough body heat in the winter to freeze to death.

“There are so many eyes and lenses out there every day, watching and photographing Yellowstone’s wolves," Emily says. "It made so much more sense to invite these photographers and visitors to be part of the science.”

In January 2007, Mollie's pack was the first in Yellowstone to show signs of mange infection. As of March 2011, they had recovered. The Druid pack, which had been one of the most stable and visible packs in the park, according to Emily, started to show signs of mange in August 2009.

"It was in a very short amount of time that the majority of the animals [in Druid] became severely infected," she says. "The majority of their hair was missing from their bodies and it hit them right in the middle of winter. The summer before it got really bad, we saw that many of the pups had mange."

The Druid pack was gone by the end of the winter in 2010.

"We're down to extremely low levels of wolves right now, we're down to [similar numbers as] the early years of reintroduction," Emily says. "So it doesn't look like it's going to be as large and as a stable a population as was maybe initially thought."

Yellowstone Wolf: Project Citizen Science

Yellowstone Wolf: Project Citizen Science has its origin in Emily’s work tracking the impacts of sarcoptic mange on the park's wolf population. Recording monthly observations of every radio-collared and uniquely identifiable pack member is a formidable task. Emily and her colleagues came to rely on park visitors' photographs — culled from various websites — as a way of augmenting their field observations.

Crowds gather on an early morning to watch and photograph wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

A Crowd at Slough Creek

Crowds gather on an early morning to watch and photograph wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Image: National Parks Service

After discussing the idea with field staff and non-scientists, alike — who responded with enthusiastic encouragement — Emily and her colleagues decided to launch a crowd-funding effort on Kickstarter, an online fundraising site.

“There are so many eyes and lenses out there every day, watching and photographing Yellowstone’s wolves," Emily says. "Many of these folks are really passionate about the science, too. We realized that it made so much more sense to invite these photographers and visitors to be part of the science and solicit their photographs through a citizen science website.”

What Emily and her colleagues are proposing is simple: to create a website that makes it easy for the public to upload their photos of Yellowstone's wolves along with any other relevant information, such as location, suspected identity, and pack affiliation. Emily and the other researchers, in turn, will be able to cross-check the data with their own observations — potentially capturing a wealth of information that would have otherwise been impossible to gather on their own.

“We are hoping that this really takes off, and that we are able to provide a formal outlet for the public to participate in the research on Yellowstone’s wolves," Emily says. "If the funding project is successful, it would be hugely helpful to our efforts to track and understand the dynamics of sarcoptic mange in the wolf population. It would be amazing if this turned into something long-term, too, and continued to provide data streams useful for all sorts of new research questions.”

“I think the most exciting part is that this is something that will belong to the public," Emily says. "It will be their resource. We’re hoping that with the public’s help, this will become a top-notch educational site for anyone interested in wolves.”

 

This story includes segments from a story by Victoria M. Indivero and a story by Seth Palmer.

Feature image: Emily Almberg in Yellowstone National Park.