BANFF – The alpha male of the Bow Valley wolf pack was run over and killed on the Trans-Canada Highway near the Banff townsite this week.
The death of wolf 1901 raises questions about the future of the pack given the breeding female is at the den site with one-month-old pups, and the other five remaining members of the pack are either yearlings or two-year-olds.
Parks Canada wildlife officials say studies have shown that wolf packs disintegrate about 25 per cent of the time when one of the breeding pair dies.
“We don’t know how this will affect the Bow Valley pack,” said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife biologist for Banff National Park, noting wolf 1901 was a skilled hunter with high success rates predating on elk and deer and bringing food back to the den.
“This will be a loss for the pack, but given that there are some other wolves remaining in the pack, that increases their likelihood of the pups’ survival. We’ll have to watch to see how they fare and whether the breeding female finds another mate next winter.”
Wolf 1901 was found dead in the ditch early Wednesday (May 20) on the Trans-Canada Highway about 1.5 kilometres west of the Banff townsite, in the area overlooking Third Vermilion Lake.
Parks Canada resource conservation specialists responded that morning after getting a call to Banff dispatch. They went to investigate and found the dead wolf.
Parks Canada is investigating to determine how the wolf got onto the fenced highway, but based on GPS data from the collared wolf, suspect it might have happened at the highway’s junction with the Bow Valley Parkway.
Whittington said Parks Canada spends time and money fencing the highway and building overpasses and underpasses to help wildlife such as wolves cross safely, but noted the junctions with secondary roads historically have been weak points in the system.
“We do have cattle guards at those road junctions that they can get across,” he said. “We have plans to test some electrified cattle guards to see if that can work better.”
The alpha male wolf’s GPS data shows he was travelling east from the Bow Valley Parkway towards the Banff townsite at the time he was struck by a vehicle.
“The GPS data for the last week shows the wolves have been hunting around Norquay, Minnewanka and Fairholme bench, and travelling back and forth from those areas to the den,” said Whittington. “He was likely out on another hunting foray.”
Historically, wolves in the Bow Valley have had a tough time surviving – killed on the roads and railway line and navigating a developed landscape that typically 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. One of those was the former alpha female. The current breeding female, who was young when her mother was killed, is the only surviving member of that former pack.
It is not yet known how many newborn pups are in the pack, but typically wolves in this area have between four and six. This breeding female and 1901 have had three litters of pups.
“Wolves in Banff typically den between mid and late April, so the pups at this point in time would be about almost a month old,” said Whittington.
“We’ll get a handle on the number of pups later this spring when they start travelling on the broader landscape. We’ll pick them up on remote cameras and we’ll receive reports of sightings.”
With the death of 1901, the pack is now made up of the breeding female, who is fitted with a conventional VHF collar, two wolves that are two years old, and three yearlings. One of the two-year-olds, a male, is also fitted with a GPS collar.
It’s not yet known how effective the younger wolves are at hunting.
“At this time of year, wolves typically hunt either alone or in smaller groups and come and go from the den,” said Whittington.
“The juvenile wolves sometimes work hard in regularly bringing food back to the den and sometimes they’ll meander off on their own for a few days,” he added.
“At this point, we don’t know exactly if each wolf in the pack was contributing to bringing food to the den.”
As for the alpha female wolf, she will be staying relatively close to the den because the pups are not yet weaned.
“She has started to make forays away from the den to help hunt and eat, and once the pups wean, then she’ll probably travel further afield,” said Whittington “The female is probably also a very skilled hunter.”
The good news is there is plentiful prey in the Bow Valley for the young wolf pack.
“I expect that she’ll still go out and hunt, and typically most wolves in the pack will contribute to looking after the pups,” said Whittington.
“But we actually don’t yet have really good insights into what their pack behaviour looks like at the den site, just because we try to give them space and try not to disturb them.”
The breeding female is savvy as the last surviving member of the previous pack, having learned to successfully navigate the busy and developed Bow Valley.
“It’s been pretty neat to watch how she’s made the Bow Valley her home and how she and the other wolves, including 1901, have learned to navigate the Bow Valley,” said Whittington.
“They’re constantly travelling through wildlife corridors and around the town of Banff hunting, yet people rarely see them; they’re still wary.”
With many elk and deer seemingly in poor shape this spring following a long winter, and with elk calving season underway, it’s hoped the young wolves will have a better chance at hunting success.
“The wolves are opportunistic predators and they will try and predate on whatever is easiest,” said Whittington.
“If deer and elk are in poor condition, they will be more susceptible to predation, so I would guess the wolves would have higher hunting success rates this spring.”
John Marriott, a local advocate for wolves, said the death of a breeding wolf on the highway is a blow to the pack.
“It’s obviously just going through the same cycle over and over of just hitting repeat,” he said. “Every couple of years this happens and the pack gets thrown into turmoil.”
Marriott was hoping this would be a particularly good year for the pack, given Banff will see much less visitation and vehicle traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You think Banff is a nice safe haven for wolves,” he said. “But what we consider to be quiet, may not be all that quiet for the wolves.”
Marriott said time will tell whether or not this pack can make it.
“It’s a 50-50 chance that this is the alpha that is kind of the glue that’s holding the pack together, which we’ve often seen in the past with Bow Valley wolf packs. Sometimes it’s both alphas, but sometimes it’s one,” he said.
“Because they have to navigate so much in terms of human interaction and human development, and human conflict, there’s often one wolf that kind of holds it all together – and I’m just really hoping that the alpha male is not the one.”
Even though the highway through Banff National Park is fenced, Parks Canada reminds people to be alert when driving through the park.
“Wildlife do sometimes of get onto highway and it’s important to obey speed limits and stay alert for wildlife on our roads,” said Whittington.
Any sightings of wildlife on the highway should be reported to 403-762-1470.