BANFF – The Bow Valley wolf pack, which had a pup killed on the train tracks last month, has been keeping a low profile this summer and fall navigating the busy region.
Parks Canada wildlife experts say the pack has kept out of trouble and is seldom spotted, unlike most years when wolves are regularly seen along the Bow Valley Parkway or closer to the Banff townsite.
“This pack has been quite secretive all summer and into fall compared to their usual habits and they’ve been rather wary, which is a really good thing,” said Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist with Banff National Park.
“I don’t know if that’s because there’s a new alpha male in the pack as of last year, whether he’s a little bit shyer and keeping the pack a little further off, but we’re quite pleased there haven’t had a lot of interactions.”
Back on Oct. 1, one of Parks Canada’s trail cameras picked up a group of nine wolves at Two Jack Lake. It was difficult to determine the makeup of the pack based on the photo because the wolves were in the distance.
Since then, one of the pups born this spring was found on the Canadian Pacific Railway line on Nov. 9 west of the Hillsdale Split. Parks Canada staff confirmed the grey, female young-of-year wolf had been struck and killed by a train.
“We had six to nine pups spotted in the spring, but until we get some better sightings through winter, we’re not 100 per cent sure of the size of the pack,” said Fyten.
In addition, a young black-coloured wolf from the pack that was injured in mid-October 2020 in the Lake Minnewanka area hasn’t been seen since earlier this summer.
The wolf had an injured back leg, initially making it hard for him to move, but he seemed to keep up with the pack for many months.
He was captured and immobilized in early June and fit with a conventional VHF collar. There had been reports he and another yearling were coming within mere metres of vehicles, a worrying signal they could be starting to lose their wariness of people.
Fyten said this wolf hasn’t been seen in the last few months either running with the pack or alone, and he has not shown up on any remote camera images.
In addition, he said staff had not been able to pick up a signal from his VHF collar.
“Being a sub-adult he also could be in the dispersal phase or maybe he wasn’t doing well with his injury and something has happened to him,” said Fyten. “We don’t know for sure, but we haven’t spotted him for some time now.”
A wolf pack may cover distances of more than 100 kilometres in a single day and can have a large home range territory of 100 to 500 square kilometres.
Typically, the territory of the Bow Valley wolf pack overlays with very busy human-use areas.
A GPS collar remains on one member of the pack – a sub-adult female – so Parks Canada has been able to track her movements.
In the absence of tracks to confirm other wolves, it is impossible for Parks Canada to determine if this two-and-a-half-year-old female wolf is travelling on her own or with other members of the pack based on GPS tracking.
Fyten said collar data shows she is ranging as far west as Lake Louise, then east to near Canmore. She has also been travelling to the east end of Lake Minnewanka and heading north to the Cascade fire road and as far as the Panther River.
“Typically this pack never gets this far, but whether she’s travelling with the pack all those times is hard to know,” said Fyten.
“We have had sightings of several wolf tracks on the Cascade fire road up towards Stoney cabin so it’s likely this pack is ravelling up that part.”
Young wolves often leave their pack in search of new territory of their own, or new packs to join. The most common dispersal age ranges from one-and-a-half to three years.
“She’s at that age where they disperse, so whether she’s out there looking for a mate or a new pack to join, we’re not sure,” said Fyten.
“We’ve seen this in the past with some of our collared wolves, like last year when one of our collared wolves went down to Montana.”
In that particular case, a GPS-collared sub-adult male wolf of the Bow Valley pack, referred to as Wolf 2001, left his home range in Banff National Park on Feb. 28, 2020, and embarked on a 500-kilometre trip to Montana where he was legally killed on March 8 by a hunter with a tag to hunt wolves.
Meanwhile, Fyten said there are plenty of elk and deer in the valley bottoms for the Bow Valley pack to hunt, noting the ungulates are moving closer to the Banff townsite at this time of year.
“This is where the prey base is over the next months,” he said. “We should start seeing a little bit more activity in close to town.”
A closure is in place affecting Tunnel Mountain and surrounding areas because it is important winter habitat for wolves, cougars, coyotes as well as an important winter range for elk and deer.
This closure is intended to increase public safety while providing secure habitat for carnivores using the area during the winter months. Giving wildlife the space they need to successfully find food contributes to healthy carnivore populations and reduces human-wildlife conflict potential.
Specifically, the closure extends just east of the Town of Banff, and includes the area around Tunnel Mountain and east of Tunnel Mountain to the Hoodoo trailhead. Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, Top Notch are also closed, however several officials trails within the closure are open, including Tunnel Mountain trail, Tunnel Mountain Road, Surprise Corner to Hoodoos and the trail parallel to Tunnel Mountain Road.
Fyten said that area saw quite a bit of activity from the Bow Valley pack last winter.
“Our elk spend a lot of time there and there’s a healthy deer population there,” he said. “Where you have your prey species you’re going to have wolves and cougars showing up there also.”
Parks Canada is gathering up its remote cameras scattered through various parts of the backcountry and will analyze the pictures over winter, which will help determine the status of other wolf parks in Banff National Park.
Traditionally, there have been wolf packs in the Red Deer River and the Panther-Cascade areas and sometimes wolf tracks are spotted in the Spray Valley.
Fyten said there hasn’t been any activity from the Fairholme pack, which denned on the bench between Banff and Harvie Heights, for a couple of years.
“What we have seen is the Bow Valley pack is utilizing that area so we suspect the Fairholme pack has either moved on to a different location or no longer exists,” he said.
Parks Canada asks all wolf sightings be reported to Banff National Park dispatch at 403-762-1470.
“If you are out and about and see them, be aware of the distance you are from them and try and maintain at least a minimum of 100 metres,” said Fyten.
“Give them their space so they can go about doing their natural thing.”