INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. — Have you ever paused at a spot in the woods and wondered, what else walks by here? What’s used this trail in the past week? The past month? The past year?
The researchers at the Voyageurs Wolf Project wondered that and did something to get an answer. They placed a motion-activated video trail camera on a likely looking beaver dam and left it for more than a year.
It’s well known that beaver dams are funnels for wildlife that go around the water, or that use the water; they're wildlife highways for many forest species. But what the Voyageurs researchers captured in a year of video, edited down to six minutes for public consumption, is nothing short of remarkable in the sheer diversity of wildlife seen from one spot.
Between March 2019 and April 2020, at an active beaver dam near Lake Kabetogama just south of Voyageurs National Park, at least 15 species of birds and animals — the researchers didn’t do a formal count — were captured on video with sound.
They include beaver, of course, and lots of them, sometimes actively repairing the dam and including at least one beaver pup; and Canada geese, a pair, apparently nesting on the dam, eventually seen with goslings; swans; raccoons; white-tailed deer, alone, including does with newborn fawns and a buck in the fall; multiple black bear, including one brown-phase or cinnamon black bear; ducks; wolves, including one wolf pack sleeping on the dam; a great blue heron, very close up; otters; red foxes; a hawk; songbirds; mink; and fishers.
The video captures the singular location in all seasons and includes sounds from bugs buzzing and frogs chirping to geese honking and ducks quacking. Most of the animals remain remarkably silent.
“We initially put the video up for a few months. But after seeing all the wildlife activity in the first few months, I got the idea of leaving the camera out for an entire year to capture all the wildlife that crossed the dam,” said Thomas Gable, the head researcher on the project
The video even shows a rare cameo appearance by Austin Homkes, co-researcher, scurrying across the beaver dam.
More stories on the Voyageurs Wolf Project:
- Wolves change the landscape they live in
- The secret summer lives of Voyageurs Park wolves
- Video shows wolves fishing in Voyageurs Park
The effort was more work than it may seem. Blowing vegetation triggered the camera, and researchers had to visit the site monthly to remove tall weeds and replace batteries and video cards. In all there were more than 7,000 20-second video clips to be edited, most of them just leaves or grass blowing in the wind.
The Voyageurs Wolf Project has for the past six years been using trail cameras extensively — video and still images — to better document the habits of wildlife, especially wolves, in and around Minnesota’s only national park. They also have placed satellite tracking collars on many wolves in the area.
Gable said he thought it would be fun to quantify how frequently wildlife use beaver dams. The project, if it continues, hopes to get more cameras on more beaver dams in 2021.
“Understanding how wildlife use beaver dams would be interesting from a natural history perspective for sure,’’ Homkes told the News Tribune. “The data would not be particularly groundbreaking or surprise any biologist. But it is another piece of information that shows how beavers impact a variety of different wildlife!”
The Voyageurs Wolf Project most recently made headlines in November with a published study of how wolf predation on beavers impacts the entire ecosystem by keeping many beaver dams dry rather than flooding nearby forest. It was the latest in a long line of stunning discoveries about Northland wolves made by the researchers, including first findings of summer wolf behavior that had been largely unknown before because most wolf research has been conducted in winter.
The project documented how wolves will sit and wait to ambush prey and not just follow and chase prey as had been previously believed. The project also documented wolves catching and eating fish out of a stream and spending weeks in blueberry patches to feed almost entirely on berries when they are ripe.
On average, there are about 73 wolves in the Voyageurs area but that can fluctuate annually between 63 and 82, spread between multiple wolf packs.
The Voyageurs Wolf Project is a joint effort of the National Park Service, overseen by Voyageurs Park wildlife scientist Steve Windels, and the University of Minnesota, where Prof. Joseph Bump is the project head.
The project has used social media to better explain what they find to the public, and now has more than 61,0000 followers on Facebook. The beaver dam video, online for just a couple days, has been viewed more than 3,000 times.
The wolf project had been funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund that's stocked by the state's lottery profits. But that funding ran out this year when the Minnesota Legislature failed to pass a trust fund bill, leaving dozens of projects across the state without funding.
Gable said Wednesday that the project has cobbled together enough grants to fund partial field work in 2021, with reduced staffing, but that without the state funding, it’s likely 2021 will be the last year for the project that had hoped to go on permanently, such as the Isle Royale wolf-moose study.
Voyageurs National Park is relatively small at 227,000 acres on the Minnesota-Ontario border, much of which is composed of large lakes, including Kabetogama, Namakan, Sand Point and Rainy. It's Minnesota's only national park, much of which is accessible only by water. Unlike the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs is open to motorized boat and snowmobile traffic in many areas.