BANFF – Wolves in Canada’s premiere national park have survival rates similar to wolf populations in unprotected areas because they face hunting and trapping pressures on neighbouring provincial lands.
That’s according to a study recently published in Global Conservation and Ecology, which tracked the survival of 72 radio-collared gray wolves in Banff National Park and surrounding area over the past 30 years from 1987 to 2018.
“We found that the life of a wolf in Banff looks very much like the life of wolves everywhere else in the province of Alberta,” said co-author Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana in Missoula.
“They are effectively unprotected and subjected to high risks of mortality from hunting and trapping outside the park boundaries, and even highway and railway mortality inside Banff National Park.”
Wolves in Banff, most of which have home ranges straddling the park boundary, had very low survival rates of 44 per cent on unprotected provincial lands outside of Canada’s first national park.
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.
For example, two collared research wolves that spent the majority of their time in Banff were legally killed on a trapline within 10 kilometres of the park boundary two winters ago.
According to the study, trapping and hunting account for 36 per cent and 18 per cent of Banff wolf mortality respectively, while highways account for 18 per cent. The overall survival rate for Banff wolves was 73 per cent.
“Though wolves can often absorb high mortality, our results show the life of Banff National Park wolves is similar to unprotected populations,” said Hebblewhite, noting the results, however, don’t speak to population trends of wolves in Banff.
“The paper highlights most of the death is being caused when they leave the park, but the house isn’t completely in order yet inside the park, and we certainly have seen that in the last few years with human-caused mortality in Banff.”
Jesse Whittington, a Parks Canada wildlife ecologist with Banff National Park, said restoration efforts over the past 20 to 30 years, including wildlife crossing structures and seasonal travel restrictions on the Bow Valley Parkway, have helped wolves.
Whittington, who is a co-author of the study with Hebblewhite, said the results show the vital importance of protected areas for carnivores around the world.
“I feel like in Banff National Park we’re doing a good job of protecting wolves, and of course, there’s always more we can do, but one of the challenges is these wolves don’t recognize boundaries,” he said.
“They have huge home ranges and they easily travel 20 to 30 kilometres a day, and they travel both in and outside Banff National Park.”
In any given year, Banff National Park is home to between four and six wolf packs. The Bow Valley pack is the only one with its home range entirely within the the national park.
Over the past 10 years, there have been 25 human-caused wolf deaths in Banff National Park, 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 earlier this year and two others in 2016, including the breeding female of the Bow Valley pack.
Whittington said highways are the leading cause of death for wolves in the park, noting that the highway interchanges on the fenced Trans-Canada Highway are a weak point in the system.
“Wolves can occasionally come across the cattle guards at intersections,” he said, pointing to the Bow Valley Parkway and the Sunshine interchanges as two examples.
“Once they’re in this fenced corridor, they’re kind of trapped and face high risk of mortality," he added.
“We lost two wolves this year so far due to that exact scenario and one of them was the breeding male of the Bow Valley pack.”
Parks Canada continues to tackle ways to keep wildlife off the deadly highway, including electrified cattle guards at interchanges.
“We have tried these in the past and they haven’t worked very well – and part of that is because of so much vehicle traffic and snow,” said Whittington. “But the current design we’re testing seems promising.”
Hebblewhite said no one has ever put together in a rigorous way the story of wolf survival in the park.
“A 73 per cent survival rate is pretty similar to hunted populations throughout North America, and so there’s very little effective protection of wolves it turns out” he said, noting wolf survival in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S is about 85 to 90 per cent.
“It’s predominantly because of their vulnerability to harvest outside the park, and especially around near Ya Ha Tinda, and the reasons are obvious; they’re following elk outside the park.”
The research suggests that high rates of trapping and hunting can have consequences for ecological processes in Banff National Park, such as possible affects on wolf pack cohesion and predator-prey dynamics.
Hebblewhite, who has been involved with the Yellowstone wolf project for about 20 years, said he was struck by the fact that the leading and dominant cause of wolf mortality there is other wolves – not human-caused mortality.
“There is a trans-boundary mortality in Yellowstone, but it actually pales in comparison to our sledgehammer,” he said.
“In Yellowstone, you’ve got wolves killing each other, but they don’t kill the same wolves we do, and so as a result, the wolves get older and you get bigger packs.”
To that end, studies in Yellowstone show the age of wolves is important to their ability to hunt, as well as reproductive success and pack stability.
Large packs were more likely to have multiple litters, which guards against the problems should a breeding female be killed during the winter breeding season.
In addition, large wolf packs were often more successful in attacking and subduing large prey such as bison.
Based on this research in Yellowstone, Hebblewhite speculates that trans-boundary mortality here could have ecological implications in Banff, including on the reintroduced bison herd in the Panther Valley.
“Older wolves and bigger packs, it turns out, are better at hunting and especially hunting larger prey, and while these are difficult effects to measures, they could have ecological affects on the ability of wolves to hunt bison,” he said.
“Wolves, if they are going to be a part of the successful story of bison reintroduction in Banff, might need a little break every now and then from such high levels of mortality,” he said.
Hebblewhite wonders what other impacts trapping and hunting have on wolf population ecology in Banff.
“Wolves are social organisms. They live in packs and just like in human families, there is cultural transmission of information,” he said.
“From Yellowstone, we know that the have socialized health-care with bigger packs helping individuals survive injuries.”
Hebblewhite points to wolf 1901, the breeding male of the Bow Valley pack killed on the Trans-Canada Highway near Vermilion Lakes in May as an example.
“He had broken bones that had healed, and how did that wolf feed itself when it was recovering from broken bones?” he said.
“Wolves depend on groups, and the bigger the group, the better the socialized health care and the better the group dynamics.”
Addressing trans-boundary mortality of wolves has proven challenging because of difficulties of reconciling different management paradigms, policies and social pressures across park and non-park lands.
However, Hebblewhite and Whittington’s paper discusses options used in other regions where trans-boundary management agreements provide different options to deal with wolf management.
In Yellowstone and Glacier national parks in the U.S., state and federal agencies reached a compromise of a quota system of two wolves per management unit on state lands immediately adjacent to park boundaries. In Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, a buffer zone protects the endangered eastern red wolf from trapping and hunting.
“A place like Banff isn’t big enough to maintain wolf population dynamics in a way that reflects the ecosystem processes Parks Canada is trying to protect,” said Hebblewhite.
“We have to think about expanding the scope of some of our protected areas – and that doesn’t necessarily mean making all our parks bigger – but making these land uses in adjacent areas a bit more amendable.”
Alberta’s s top carnivore specialist, Paul Frame with Alberta Environment and Parks, declined to comment on the new study.
Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative points to the kinds of changes this landscape has gone through over the 30-year time period in which the data was analyzed in the Hebblewhite-Whittington paper.
“It makes me think about why we have to evaluate things like cumulative effects – the rise in visitors to the parks, the growth in Canmore and what’s planned, busier roads,” said Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist with Y2Y.
“It shows once again we cannot think of the parks as islands.”
Development and human activities push up against the edges of national parks all over the world, which Jacob said has implications for ecological integrity within those protected areas.
“People move to the edge of national parks for a variety of reasons. People develop there, we visit there, we recreate there and we create these hard edges, and then we imagine that the park is going to function ‘normally,’ ” she said.
“We have to think about what happens adjacent to these large protected areas; how activities outside the park affect ecological integrity inside the park, and how management of provincial lands, for instance in this area, has an affect on ecological integrity inside the park.”
Jacob said another key take-away from the research paper is that there is no such thing as a "Banff wolf," adding research shows over and over again that healthy populations of large carnivores are needed for ecosystems to work properly.
“Wolves move across these huge areas. They cross all kinds of borders and so we cannot manage these places in isolation,” she said.
“We have to think beyond one individual wolf, even if it is a well known wolf, and beyond an individual pack. We have to be thinking about stable, functioning populations across landscapes.”
The release of Hebblewhite’s and Whittington’s paper is coincidentally timed to the Parks Canada minister’s biennial round table, which began with small discussion forums on Oct. 8 and concludes with online public consultation Oct. 19-30.
One of the five main themes of this year’s round table is the importance of ecological corridors, which looks at connecting protected places to respond to climate change and biodiversity loss.
“I would really encourage people to either submit comments directly or to look at conservation organizations in the area to speak up for what that means,” said Jacob, noting effective ecological corridors does not mean no hunting and trapping on provincial lands.
“What this reinforces to me is that we can’t think about it on a case-by-case basis, we have to think about how it fits into the larger picture.”