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Wolves interact with Banff's bison

BANFF – Bison are dancing with wolves but the predators so far don’t seem to be a threat to the reintroduced bison herd in Banff’s backcountry.
Members of the cow-calf herd play in Red Deer Valley April 2019 Photo by.._
Cows and calves in the 34-member bison herd play in the snow in Banff’s backcountry.

BANFF – Bison are dancing with wolves but the predators so far don’t seem to be a threat to the reintroduced bison herd in Banff’s backcountry.

Historically, wolves and bison coexisted over vast areas of North America, and with the return of bison to Banff National Park after 150 years, Parks Canada officials say it will take time for packs to learn how to take down the formidable animals.

Remote cameras picked up wolves and bison passing the same location within 30 minutes of each other, while GPS collars show they came within very close contact of each other several times.

“We do have hints that they have interacted with wolves pretty extensively,” said Karsten Heuer, Parks Canada’s bison reintroduction project manager, noting wolves travel far more extensively than bison.

“We were able to see wolf collars had approached bison collars several times. We saw wolves approach, sniff around, but the bison did not move and the wolves took off. That happened about five times with lone individual bulls and with the rest of the herd.”

The collared research wolves were snared and trapped on provincial lands in December and January – one was a female from the Panther-Cascade pack and the other the five-year-old-breeding female of the Red Deer pack.

There’s believed to be one surviving member of the Panther-Cascade. As for the Red Deer pack, another seven wolves may have also been trapped because they have not been spotted since Parks Canada received confirmation the breeding female had been killed.

More recently, two male wolves in a pack of about six to eight animals were fitted with GPS collars at Ya Ha Tinda on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, in part, to see how these wolves interact with the bison.

In Yellowstone National Park in the United States, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after a seven-decade absence, research found that wolf hunting behaviour changed based on pack numbers and terrain.

While elk remain the preferred prey for the wolves of Yellowstone, studies show that when a pack is large enough and the conditions are right, wolves will hone in on the park’s bison.

Bison were reintroduced to the Yukon in the late 1980s as part of a national recovery plan. While wolves are now hunting bison there, Heuer said it took them about 25 years to figure it out.

He said he’s waiting to see what’s going to unfold in Banff, but so far there has been little indication wolves are moving the bison at all. He added wolves primarily eat deer, bighorn sheep, the occasional moose and mountain goat.

“It may take some time, and it may take a few accidents, like a bison falling through ice, where wolves are more scavenging than hunting to get their first taste for bison,” Heuer said.

“Even in Yellowstone where wolves and bison have coexisted for multiple decades now, most are from scavenging. When you think about it, bison are formidable animals to pull down.”

In the early stages of the reintroduction program, Heuer said it’s probably good that the bison feel the wolves aren’t a big threat.

“Right now our primary objective is to tie them to this landscape in the reintroduction zone. If wolves were pushing them around a lot, that would be a hindrance to that objective,” he said.

“The long-term goal, though, is to have healthy predator-prey ecosystems in which wolves and bison are dance partners again.”

The 34 bison in the herd – four bulls, 10 cows, 10 calves and 10 yearlings – all survived the winter roaming parts of the Red Deer and Panther river valleys and a few side valleys in between.

“All animals look healthy, which is great because we have not given them a crumb of food since we released them last July,” Heuer said, adding he recently checked on the herd.

Parks Canada isn’t sure how many bison cows are pregnant, noting all 10 cows have given birth successfully for the past two years.

“I would be very surprised if we saw that a third year in a row, although for sure some calves are to be expected this year,” Heuer said.

Meanwhile, all land in the Panther River drainage from the headwaters, including North Fork Pass to the eastern Park boundary near Barrier cabin, and the tributary valleys of Wigmore and Snow creeks and the south side of Elkhorn Summit, are closed.

The closure, which is in place until June 30, is to prevent disturbance of reintroduced bison as they adjust to their new home range. Violators may be charged under the Canada National Parks Act and face a maximum fine of $25,000 in court.