There’s a New Pack Around Town

Photo by Mark Bradley, Boreal Nature Photos

NIKI WILSON – On Science, Jasper Fitzhugh
November 24, 2011

Author’s Note: I wrote this article in response to the killing of a local woman’s dog by a pack of wolves living around the townsite of Jasper. For her personal account, go here.

 

Like many of you, I read Wendy Niven’s eloquent Facebook account of the recent wolf attack on her dog Helio with both sadness for her loss, and a fresh reminder that we live in a wild place. We share the trails with carnivores on a daily basis.

Niven often sees wolf tracks in the snow while running on the Pyramid Bench, and has encountered wolves there before. She recently crossed a wildlife trail she described as a virtual “highway” of paw prints. The Pyramid Bench is wolf habitat, though many of us will never see one because of the wolf’s elusive nature.

The wolf pack responsible for the kill is believed to be a pack that has recently expanded into the area.  Jasper National Park biologists refer to it as the “Pyramid pack.” Wildlife biologist Mark Bradley said “right now, we don’t know if [the Pyramid pack] wolves are different from wolves we see out by Snaring Campground or near [the west gate]. Is it all one big pack, or are there three different packs?”

Wildlife conflict specialist Geoff Skinner was part of the team that investigated the kill site of Niven’s dog. “After following tracks around the area, the team estimated there were five or six animals in the pack, with two of them possibly being young born this spring.” Skinner noted that this matches photos of the Pyramid pack captured by remote camera on the Pyramid Bench in late summer.  The photos identified five to six grey wolves, two to three of which looked like young of the year.

Bradley estimates there are roughly eight to 10 packs in Jasper National Park, with anywhere from four to eight individuals in each pack. That puts the number of wolves that use the park in the range of 48 to 80. It is difficult to know how many there are because relationships within and between packs are constantly changing.

To try and keep track of how many packs there are, and how many individuals reside in each pack, JNP specialists use remote cameras, DNA from wolf scat, radio collars, and sightings from parks staff and the public. Remote camera photos allow biologists to differentiate between individuals using the colour and pattern of their fur. DNA from wolf scat also allows biologists to determine how many individual wolves are using an area. Jasper biologists began collecting wolf scat this summer.

Biologists can track wolf movements through the park by affixing radio collars to pack members. Collaring is expensive, and can be hard on the animal. For these reasons only three wolf packs have collared individuals in this park, largely to gather information for a larger study on caribou. “We have collars on the Signal pack, the Sunwapta pack, and the Brazeau pack,”  Bradley said. “We have a good idea where those packs [move].”

A couple of years ago the Pyramid Bench was part of a large territory patrolled by the Signal pack. At the time, the Signal pack was known to be wide-ranging. Bradley said “some years they ranged from Maligne Lake up to 12 Mile Bridge [near the start of Overlander Trail], over to B.C., and way down to Sunwapta.” But last year, the Signal pack hardly left the area around the golf course, indicating they no longer patrolled the Pyramid Bench. It appears the Pyramid pack had taken over the territory.

Defending a territory is important because it defines what food is available. Wolves will eat lots of things, but the majority of their diet is made up of moose, elk, deer, and sheep, and at higher elevations, goat and caribou. However, large animals are hard to kill.

Bradley noted that all of these species can run faster than a wolf, and can damage a wolf if they’re not careful. “It’s not like every moose or elk they run into is in danger of being killed. [For example], they will see a herd of elk, and approach them to see if there are any vulnerable individuals. If a weak individual is spotted, the wolves will force the herd to run until the individual is isolated and vulnerable to attack.”

Wolves are known as cursorial hunters. This means that they are slower than their prey for short distances, but have incredible endurance over long distances. This facilitates a different style of hunting than an ambush hunter like a cougar, who stalk and kill their prey in a great burst, before the prey can run.

Wolves kill for one of two reasons: for food, and to protect their turf. Some wolf packs are more efficient killers than others. “Every pack has its own culture,” said Bradley. He pointed to the infamous alpha male who ruled the Medicine pack a few years ago. Incredibly, he was able to kill moose all by himself, and his pack was very successful as a result. “Not every wolf can do that. Some packs don’t have a wolf like that, so they kill deer instead. However, in each pack, there are definitely particular wolves who do most of the killing.”

Wolves so aggressively defend their territory that, according to Bradley, one study estimated a major source of mortality for wolves to be other wolves.

Existence for wolves is hard-fought. They’re working hard to make a living in what can be a harsh environment. To see one is to know how absolutely beautiful they are, and to be reminded to travel with awareness in this still wild place.