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Parks Canada is hoping to capture and collar wolves in the Bow Valley pack to track their movements and monitor behaviour.

By Cathy Ellis

Photo Members of the Bow Valley wolf pack are seen on a a remote camera. Photo credit – Parks Canada

BANFF – A sub-adult male wolf hunting elk with another member of the Bow Valley pack was struck and killed by a train near Vermilion Lakes.

Based on tracks, wildlife experts determined the almost three-year-old wolf was with a younger wolf when it was struck and killed by a train just west of Third Vermilion Lake at about 8 p.m. on Feb. 11.

Parks Canada officials say there have been 10 wolves killed on the train tracks and another 12 on the roads and highways in Banff National Park over the past decade.

“There was strong evidence that it was chasing elk at the time,” said Dan Rafla, a human-wildlife management specialist for Banff National Park.

“Focused on hunting elk, a train coming at night, it was poor timing, and unfortunately the wolf got struck.”

Just 20 minutes earlier, another wolf was reported hunting elk under the cover of darkness in the Banff townsite near Cougar Street, which backs onto the Canadian Pacific railway line.

Given the two incidents were approximately five kilometres apart, it is unlikely these are the same wolf.

Rafla said the more likely scenario is the wolf pack was split up hunting in the general area, which that night included the Vermilion Lakes, Fenlands and Whiskey Creek region.

“They were following where there’s a high density of prey in terms of elk and deer,” he said.

The fact that a wolf was hunting inside the town boundary is a flag to the wildlife team, but Rafla stressed there has been no alarming behaviour from this pack.

He said living in a high-human use area is a risk to this pack, noting there are greater chances of increased habituation or getting food conditioned.

“Even though none of that’s happened, we’re always cautious in paying attention to that wolf pack, especially as they use lands that are adjacent to where a community resides and areas where people are also recreating,” Rafla said.

“Wolves are highly intelligent. Sometimes it doesn’t take long for them to change their behaviour and we’ve seen that in the past, so we will always be paying attention to that pack and monitoring for any shifts in behaviour.”

To that end, the wildlife team wants to fit a couple of the older members of the Bow Valley wolf pack with GPS collars. There are currently thought to be seven wolves in the pack.

A VHF collar on the breeding female, known as No. 1701, has stopped transmitting, while a three-year-old male wolf, known as No. 2001, still has a functioning GPS collar.

Rafla said the team tried to capture and collar wolves earlier this month, but were unsuccessful when the animals remained in the forest, but the plan is to try again this winter.

“We would target the adults, and in the case of the breeding female, we would like to have a functioning collar on her to pay attention to where she’s travelling and moving around the landscape,” he said.

The method used by Parks Canada to capture the wolves is a net gun, mounted from a platform of a helicopter.

“The benefit of a net gun is the animal never goes under the influence of drugs, which although the drugs are safe, they always have an element of risk,” Rafla said.

“The approach is relatively efficient once you have an animal that’s in an open area. The animal is basically held and the collar placed in a matter of minutes.”

A recent study found that wolves in Banff National Park have survival rates similar to wolf populations in unprotected areas because they face hunting and trapping pressures on neighbouring provincial lands.

The study, published in Global Conservation and Ecology late last year, tracked the survival of 72 radio-collared grey wolves in Banff National Park and surrounding area over the past 30 years from 1987 to 2018.

In fact, the risk of wolves dying was 6.7 times higher when they left the boundaries of the park, peaking during the liberal hunting and trapping seasons, which don’t have bag limits, or quotas, in place.

In addition, there have been 25 human-caused wolf deaths in Banff National Park over the past 10 years including 12 animals struck and killed by vehicles and 10 run over and killed by trains.

The three others were habituated and food-conditioned wolves that were killed for public safety reasons – one in 2020 and two others in 2016, including the breeding female of the Bow Valley pack.

According to the study, the overall survival rate for Banff wolves was 73 per cent. John Marriott, a local wildlife photographer who has taken countless images of the Bow Valley wolf pack, was saddened by the news of this latest wolf death.

“It’s s shame. We’re right back on the same carousel we’re always on where Banff National Park is a mortality sink for wolves; it’s not a source for other wolf populations because they just die here,” he said.

“If they do make it out of the park, they die, and if they don’t make it out of the park, they die. It’s very unfortunate that we have this national park that is our premiere national park and this just continues to happen.”

Wolves recolonized the Bow Valley in 1985 following decades of persecution, but Marriott said life has not been easy in terms of ongoing human-caused mortality.

“We’re always going to have these highway deaths, these railway deaths, let alone natural mortality. It just all adds up and it’s unfortunate we don’t have a national park that is truly, truly protected for our wildlife.”

Parks Canada officials say restoration efforts over the past 20 to 30 years are helping wolves.

They include functional wildlife corridors, wildlife crossing structures on the Trans-Canada Highway, seasonal travel restrictions on Bow Valley Parkway and cleared travel routes away from the train racks in high-risk strike zones.

They say they will continue to tackle ways to keep wildlife off the deadly highway, including electrified cattle guards at interchanges. The breeding male of the Bow Valley pack was killed on the highway near Banff in May 2020.

Rafla said the pack does face challenges, including the highway and railway line.

“Those will always exist and these are realities wildlife have to face in the valley bottoms within the Bow Valley,” he said.

“Having said that, we won’t stop trying new and innovative ways to prevent this from happening.”

From a population perspective, the Bow Valley wolf pack seems to bounce back following deaths.

Rafla said wolves will persist on this landscape as long as there’s habitat and abundant prey.

“Individual members are lost, and obviously some members tend to be more important to the pack cohesion dynamics than others,” he said, noting loss of a breeding wolf can change pack dynamics.

“We want to minimize the cause of death from anthroprogenic causes like vehicles, like trains, or management actions, but these animals have existed for time immemorial … they are incredibly resilient, incredibly tough.”

With the death of the breeding male of the Bow Valley pack on the highway last year, it is hoped a new male wolf shows up on the scene in order for pups to be born again in the spring.

Rafla said only time will tell if that happens.

“It is breeding season for wolves, but we haven’t had a good observation of the entire wolf pack, and so I can’t say if a new male has shown up or if there’s an absence of an alpha male,” he said.

“It will be a matter of time if a new male shows up and becomes the alpha male or potentially one of the younger males that’s soon to be an adult goes looking for another female and perhaps brings her back.”

Meanwhile, the wolf pack continues to travel and hunt in wildlife corridors and habitat adjacent to the Banff townsite.

Based on GPS data and reported sightings, the pack spends time at Vermilion Lakes, Whiskey Creek, the aspen grove below Cascade Mountain and throughout that corridor, Tunnel Mountain and the Banff Springs golf course.

“They’ve gone quite a way down Minnewanka, they’ve travelled occasionally west past Castle Junction, up along the Sunshine road, and occasionally east along the Fairholme bench towards the park gate,” Rafla said.

“They’ve been mostly focused in the valley bottom where the prime habitat is, but they definitely do move and are exploring other areas beyond the areas around the town.”

Parks Canada reminds residents and visitors that it is everyone’s responsibility to help keep wolves wild and alive.

They remind people not to approach, forward track or feed wildlife as well as to report kill sites and any sightings in the townsite to 403-762-1470.

“These animals’ lives are pretty challenging and they deserve our respect,” Rafla said.

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