BANFF – A pack of wolves in the Bow Valley is wandering far and wide in Banff National Park.
They’re hunting regularly for elk and deer, including around the Banff townsite, and getting ready to den, which typically happens mid to late April.
Wildlife experts say wolves typically travel throughout their extensive home ranges until a few days before they actually den to have their pups, which they say is classic behaviour for these wild animals.
“I’m kind of curious to see what the Bow Valley pack does right now; they’re ranging pretty much from Canmore to Lake Louise,” said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife ecologist for Banff National Park.
“Historically, they’ve denned along the Bow Valley Parkway, but usually we have a Fairholme wolf pack we haven’t seen for the last couple of years, so there’s good denning areas on the Fairholme.”
The Fairholme bench, on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway between Johnson Lake and the park boundary near Harvie Heights, and the Hillsdale area along the Bow Valley Parkway, are both closed until July 15 to protect wolves at this sensitive time.
Whittington said the breeding male and a yearling male of the wolf pack are fitted with GPS collars, which download their locations every day. The breeding female has a conventional VHF collar.
“We’ll be able to tell where they are likely denning based on their movements,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see where they set up shop.”
The seven-member wolf pack currently consists of the breeding pair, two yearlings and three young-of-year pups born last year.
Typically, wolves in this area have anywhere from three to six pups. Last year, the pack produced at least five pups.
Like many wildlife species, wolf pups have a fairly low survival rate during the first year, and Parks Canada does not know what happened to two of the five pups.
“There’s lots of hazards on the landscape, including vehicles and trains, but also grizzly bears and other predators, as well as other wolf packs,” said Whittington.
“The interesting thing about the world of wildlife is there’s always questions.”
Historically, wolves in the Bow Valley have had had a tough time surviving - killed on the roads and railway line and navigating a developed landscape that draws more than four million visitors a year.
In 2016, two female wolves were killed for public safety reasons after they got into human food and were boldly approaching people in Banff National Park. The current breeding female is the only surviving member of that pack.
Whittington said the GPS collars on two members of the pack allow Parks to track their movements in an attempt to make sure they don’t become food-conditioned.
“They’ve been doing great through this late winter, early spring,” he said.
“They’ve been predating on elk right around the Banff townsite, but staying out of sight and continuing to be wary of people, which is what we like to see.”
With visitors banned from the country’s national parks to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Whittington said it will be interesting to see how the wolves react.
“Wolves typically try to avoid encounters with people and with low numbers of people coming through the Bow Valley, it should increase the amount of habitat available to them,” he said.
“It will be interesting to see if they start using some of the roads and trails more now that some places in the park are closed.”
The Bow Valley Parkway, from its east end junction with the Trans-Canada to its junction with Highway 93 South, is closed to vehicle traffic during the COVID-19 crisis. However, this is the time of year when there’s a seasonal, dusk to dawn closure of a 17-km stretch of the parkway for wildlife anyway.
John Marriott, a prominent Bow Valley photographer who has long studied the wolves in this area, said wolves will have the chance to explore the full extent of their terrain without interference from people and vehicles.
He said it would likely be the first time in decades, since the Bow Valley Parkway was built, and since the first few years that wolves had recolonized the valley, where a Bow Valley wolf family can raise its pups in “relative peace and quiet.”
“It will be really interesting to see how much they use the road now without having thousands of cars per day on it, and how much they travel in the middle of the day versus their usual dawn/dusk hours now that the traffic and people are missing from the equation,” said Marriott.
“Will it mean they run into more problems with humans when this is all over, based on getting used to travelling on the roads and pathways and into more visible areas on Tunnel Mountain and the golf course, for instance, or will it mean the opposite? Once traffic and people are back, will the wolves react adversely and stay away from humans even more? That of course would be the most desired outcome.”
In terms of other wolf packs, Parks Canada hopes that the approximately 300 remote cameras scattered throughout Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national park will give a better sense of what other wolf packs are up to.
The status of the Red Deer and Cascade packs are unknown at this stage, but remote cameras picked up a small wolf pack in the Spray River Valley last summer.
There is a den in the Spray Valley, which is one of the first known sites used by wolves when they recolonized the southern end of Banff National Park in the 1980s. Members of that pack eventually migrated to the Bow Valley where they formed a pack here.
“There is a historic den site in that area so it’s possible those wolves use those dens sites, but we can’t say for sure where they denned or where they travelled,” said Whittington, noting remote cameras picked up two wolves travelling with a pup last summer.
“We also picked up tracks of three to four wolves early in winter that did not appear to be the Bow Valley pack, but we don’t know if that pack is still roaming that area or dispersed into other areas.”
In addition, eight wolves showed up in the Lake Louise area in January.
Whittington said those wolves were picked up by remote cameras and people saw their tracks, too.
“We don’t know where they came from, but we don’t think it was the Bow Valley pack,” he said.
“There’s a chance they came from Kootenay National Park, perhaps the Red Deer. It’s one of those mysteries we just don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Parks Canada's monitoring program – which includes collaring, remote cameras and winter wildlife tracking to better understand how wildlife use habitat within the park and determine common trends – is suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A spokesperson for Banff National Park said Parks is following the advice of public health experts and is implementing measures to support the federal government’s efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus and to reduce risks to employees.
“While Parks Canada team members do their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19, wildlife monitoring is temporarily suspended,” said Justin Brisbane, public relations and communications officer, in an email. “Parks Canada looks forward to resuming these important long-term monitoring projects when it is appropriate to do so.”
While visitor services are temporarily suspended, Parks Canada continues to deliver a number of critical functions, including human-wildlife coexistence services. Please report wildlife sightings to Banff Dispatch at 403-762-1470.