CANMORE – For five-and-a-half years, well-known wildlife photographer John Marriott captured the challenges, risks and patterns of a remote wolf pack in Kootenay National Park.
The lengthy project led to documenting the wolves, but also the conservation efforts needed to protect apex predators from the multitude of risks they face.
The work culminated in his latest book, The Kootenay Wolves: Five Years Following a Wild Wolf Pack, which was released this month, with the book release Monday (May 23) at artsPlace.
“It was a big challenge. It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve done in photography,” the Canmore-based photographer said.
“My goal was to just document the story of where they were travelling to and what dangers they faced.”
Among those challenges were the trapping and hunting dangers regularly faced by wolves on provincial lands. While they have protection in the national parks, once they leave the borders they can become prey to those hunting them.
“It is very archaic trapping and hunting regulations for wolves and other predators of wolves in particular. The hunting season just outside of the national park in B.C. for wolves is nine-and-a-half months,” he said. “You don’t have to have a special licence to go shoot one wherever you are driving along a logging road.”
Marriott said a huge concern and worry was when the wolves would leave the national park, some wouldn’t return.
He gave the example of one wolf he named Hawkeye, due to its sharp eye and attentiveness. After following the wolf pack for two years, including Hawkeye, the wolf didn’t return for the third year. Marriott said it could mean he was shot, trapped or simply dispersed on his own, but it highlighted the realities of the pack.
“In our national parks we think of them of being huge, but if you think of Kootenay National Park it’s 20 kilometres wide and 130 kilometres long. It’s not big enough for one wolf pack,” he said. “They have to go outside and follow the deer and then migrate south.
“We think of our national parks as huge, protected areas and they really aren’t. That’s where buffer zones are so critical to implement at some point, so there are safe travel corridors and areas where we can establish good, protected source populations of our apex predators.”
The concept of buffer zones along the borders of national parks is explored in the book, to allow wildlife such as wolves more room to travel.
Marriott began the project while in the fourth year of completing the work for The Pipestone Wolves that followed a wolf pack between Banff and Lake Louise.
He said he was getting frustrated with the various factors impacting wolves such as tourism and traffic and began looking for a new project. It was when a friend from Parks Canada called in August 2012 that a five-and-a-half-year journey would begin.
The friend had picked up a dead moose on the highway in Kootenay National Park and it had a wolf pack eating from the carcass. The idea of a more isolated wolf pack piqued Marriott’s interest in not only the tourism and traffic impact, but also hunters and trappers.
“They were really dealing with everything and it was really a perilous existence. It was quite thrilling to get to follow them for five-and-a-half years both in and out of the park and learn more about conservation issues that surround our national parks. … As soon as you step outside the national park, it’s even worse. There’s trappers setting up snare sets that choke wolves to death just kilometres from the park boundaries.”
In documenting the wolf pack, Marriott would leave Canmore at about 2 a.m. and drive along the highway looking for signs of the wolves. He slowly learned where the rendezvous points and den sites were, but it also raised ethical questions about what his impact on the wolf pack was.
“I had to be extremely careful not to disturb the den. Parks Canada has guidelines of being 200 metres or more away from a den site of wolves or coyotes, so I was set up quite far away from the den.”
Marriott, who is a Canon ambassador, said he had his 500-millimetre prime lens but also borrowed an 800mm prime lens. He shot with a 1.4 extender to allow him to take photos from about 230 metres and was clad in camouflage to minimize his impact on the wolves.
“It was like putting a pair of binoculars on a pair of binoculars. That was the only way I could do it. I couldn't risk getting closer because of Parks Canada guidelines and I didn’t want to risk disturbing them and having them abandon the den site.”
Marriott has previously completed other photojournalism projects on wolves, bears and wildlife in Banff National Park. His next project will have him look at big cats in western Canada such as cougars and lynx.
Marriott said he hopes readers develop a greater appreciation for wolves, but also become more educated on the dangers they face and the need for improved conservation.
“I really hope people take away an additional love for wolves and apex predators like wolves that there are so many interesting stories to tell out there about wolves that we don’t even know about. This is just one pack of maybe hundreds in B.C. and Alberta and one of 1000’s in Canada. It’s a story I was fortunate enough to tell for five-and-a-half years and I hope people really enjoy it and foster their love and desire to care for wolves.
“I think if you foster that love and are educating people and inspiring them to help make a difference that’s where we’re slowly going to make change in how things like wolves are managed and protected.”