Tuesday April 11, 2017

A wolf pack struggles to survive in Banff National Park

In Banff, Alberta, people and wolves have always had a complicated relationship. Wolves have been wiped out from the area numerous times over the past 100 years. Now, they're back — but down to just three when at the beginning of last summer there were at least nine. So what's happening to the Bow Valley wolf pack?

In Banff, Alberta, people and wolves have always had a complicated relationship. Wolves have been wiped out from the area numerous times over the past 100 years. Now, they're back — but down to just three when at the beginning of last summer there were at least nine. So what's happening to the Bow Valley wolf pack? (Parks Canada)

Listen to Full Episode 27:30

**Note: During the production of this documentary, there were three wolves in the Bow Valley Pack. Banff National Park staff was notified in early April that one of the three was shot and killed by a hunter outside the national parks in British Columbia.** 

By Molly Segal

You could say Banff National Park is the postcard image of Canada. People around the world have seen those iconic images of the snow-capped peaks and the turquoise water of Lake Louise.

The Bow Valley Parkway, a scenic highway near the town of Banff, is a big draw for visitors. The single-lane road runs through an area that many animals call home. In the summer, you can often catch a glimpse of elk, black bears, grizzlies, or on the very rare occasion, a wolf.

Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway, near Banff, Alberta. (Molly Segal)

Wolves have have had a troubled existence in Banff ever since the national park was founded in 1885. In the 1920s, wolves were nearly wiped out of the park, and in the 1950s, they disappeared entirely. It wasn't until the 1980s that wolves returned to the park. But the area near the town of Banff — filled with cars, trains and hordes of tourists — has always been especially difficult for wolves.

There is currently a single wolf pack living near the town of Banff. Locals know them as the Bow Valley pack. They first showed up a few years ago, but things took a bad turn for them last year.

Reports of 'concerning behaviour'

Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park, says reports of concerning behaviour among the pack's wolves started in January 2016 near Johnston Canyon, on the Bow Valley Parkway. Someone threw food garbage into a construction bin not realizing that it wasn't a bear-proof (or wolf-proof) bin. "Eventually, the wolves received food rewards from that bin," says Hunt.

Bow Valley wolf pack

Remote camera photo shows wolves from the Bow Valley pack. (Parks Canada)

By late spring, Parks Canada employees estimated the pack consisted of at least nine wolves, including an alpha female and male, along with at least four pups. And in May, the alpha female had an encounter with campers at the popular Tunnel Mountain campground that overlooks the town of Banff.

"The lead female came into the campground and actually pushed people away from their site to access a cooler," says Hunt. "So that's an indication of an animal that probably prior to that had been physically fed by people."

Bill Hunt

Bill Hunt (Andrew Brown/CBC)

In late June 2016, Parks Canada put down the alpha female, hoping to curb this type of behaviour among the rest of the wolves in the pack. This would be the first of many deaths for the wolf pack over the course of the summer. Not long after the alpha female was shot, at least four wolf pups died after they were hit by trains in two separate incidents. In August 2016, Parks staff shot a second wolf that had been acting boldly around people at various campgrounds.

Hunt says it's always hard on his staff when they have to shoot a wolf, especially since they work hard on public education and prevention efforts trying to avoid exactly this kind of outcome. "It's definitely a sad day," says Hunt.

Ultimately, after analyzing all reported encounters between people and wolves, Hunt says he and his staff had to make the difficult decision to put the wolf down in order to keep visitors safe.

Bow Valley wolf pack

Members of the Bow Valley wolf pack, captured by remote camera. (Parks Canada)

While it's unusual for Parks staff to resort to killing food-conditioned wolves, the June and August 2016 incidents were not the first. Hunt says Banff National Park had to kill two wolves about 15 or 20 years ago due to "very similar problems of them just getting into food and then really keying in on human foods."

A dangerous place for wolves

Even if wolves do not become food conditioned, Sadie Parr, the executive director of Wolf Awareness, sees the area near the town of Banff as a dangerous place for wolves to live. "No matter what, there is the Trans-Canada Highway, railways, two major town sites, hydro lines. These things are not going away," says Parr, who gathers scientific data about wolves in the backcountry of British Columbia and Alberta.

Sadie Parr

Sadie Parr, near the Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre in Golden, B.C. (Molly Segal)

A single wolf pack can mark more than 2,500 square kilometres of territory. With that large a range, says Parr, wolves simply don't have enough uninterrupted wildlife once they leave the park. Hunting is allowed on more than 85 per cent of provincially managed parks and protected areas. Parr wants to see a "buffer zone" set aside outside Canada's Rocky Mountain national parks, with limitations on hunting in areas surrounding the parks. 

By mid-March 2017, one of the pack's three remaining wolves wandered west to British Columbia. In early April, a B.C. conservation officer notified Banff National Parks staff that the wolf had been shot and killed.

A painful story repeats again

Peter Dettling, an artist and wildlife photographer who documented a Bow Valley wolf pack from 2005-10, once photographed the pack fighting a grizzly bear over the course of four days. "One year later, most of those animals that I photographed fighting each other were dead — killed on the highway or on the railway."

Peter Dettling

Peter Dettling, on the Bow Valley Parkway. (Molly Segal)

After that, Dettling says staying in the Bow Valley was too painful. In recent years, he has mostly worked on projects outside of the Bow Valley, returning to his home country of Switzerland and spending some time in the U.S.

Dettling learned the news about the current Bow Valley pack while he was out of the country. He worries the remaining wolves in the pack won't last long. He  witnessed a former Bow Valley pack die out, and says that if the current pack dies out or disperses, a new pack will likely claim the territory.

"The story continues again, and then for the future it will be just the same story over and over again," says Dettling. "It definitely is a hard place for a wolf to be."


About the producer

Molly Segal

Molly Segal

Molly Segal produces audio documentaries and features for radio and podcasts from her home in Alberta's Bow Valley. Molly is also a podcast consultant and educator.

Her work has aired on more than a dozen national CBC Radio One programs, including​ The Current, The Sunday Edition, The Doc Project, Tapestry, Out in the Open, World Report and The World This Weekend. She's worked at CBC stations in Halifax and Calgary, and has produced podcasts for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

When she's not working, she's likely exploring the Rocky Mountains by ski, on foot or by canoe.