The Doc Project

Trains, cars and people make Banff 'a hard place for a wolf'

In Banff, Alberta, people and wolves have a complicated relationship. Wolves have been wiped out from the area numerous times over the past 100 years. After a deadly year in 2016, the local wolf pack nearly disappeared. By 2020, the pack was back to eight wolves, but down to six by 2021. What is at the heart of this difficult relationship?

Despite increased awareness, humans are behind the Bow Valley wolf pack's ongoing struggle to survive

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

This story was originally published in Spring 2017. It has been updated.

For wolves living near the town of Banff, Alberta, people, roads and trains are a continued threat to survival. In 2016, a pack of wolves in Banff National Park went from nine members, to just three. By the end of 2017, the pack was down to two wolves and the pack disbanded. 

By 2020, the pack was back to eight wolves, but down to six by 2021. What is at the heart of this difficult relationship?

The problems wolves face when they live so close to people — even in a protected area like a national park — are not new. 

Wolves 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 they 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.

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

There is currently a single wolf pack living near the town of Banff. Locals know them as the Bow Valley pack. They returned few years ago, but things took a bad turn for them in 2016 when the pack was nearly wiped out, all from human-related causes.

Doc Project host Acey Rowe and What on Earth producer Molly Segal discuss how the Bow Valley wolf pack have fared between 2017 and 2021. 6:11

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.

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 manages how people and wildlife interact in Banff National Park. (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.

A trail camera captures the Bow Valley wolf pack travelling through Banff National Park in 2019. (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, 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.

The two remaining wolves (a male and his daughter, who would be called female 1701 by biologists) left the den and moved on. By the spring of 2018, biologists started sighting 1701 again, only this time with a mate, and eventually a litter of pups. What seemed like a happy ending, with more pups in 2019 and 2020, started to fall into the same deadly traps. Wolves from the Bow Valley pack were hit by cars and trains, including the pups' father; another wolf from the pack travelled to Montana, where he was legally shot.

A painful story repeats again

Peter Dettling, an artist and wildlife photographer who documented a Bow Valley wolf pack from 2005 to 2010, 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, 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 is currently a producer for What On Earth. Her documentary and feature work has aired on more than a dozen national CBC Radio One programs, including​ Quirks & Quarks, Ideas, The Current, The Sunday Edition, The Doc Project, and Tapestry. She was a 2019-2020 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, where she studied the way humans interact with large, toothy animals. When she's not working, she's likely exploring the Rocky Mountains by ski, on foot or by canoe.

 

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook. It was made through the CBC Radio Doc Mentorship program.

 

 

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