Category: Wolves


For those familiar with the Bow Valley Pack of wolves in Banff National Park, it has been a very unusual winter. At this time of year with luck, persistence and knowledge of wolf movements, it’s not uncommon to come across the pack of wolves that frequents the Bow Valley.

BVWPEach winter they travel throughout their territory between Banff and Kootenay National Parks. This winter the pack appears to have splintered with what appears to be only a few juveniles remaining. No concrete information on what has happened to the breeding adults (known locally as ‘Faith’ and ‘Spirit’) has surfaced, but with no sightings of them over the past several months the most likely explanation is that they are no longer alive. Both were getting up in age with each estimated to be around 9 and 11 years old.

FaithIn Spirit’s case, his canine teeth were worn down almost to the jaw line and after most hunts it was not uncommon to see him and Faith limping around for several days or weeks. Only three wolf pups were born in 2014, down from their usual number of 6, which was another indication that their time as the resident pack in the Bow Valley was coming to an end.

SpiritIf indeed they are no longer alive, it will take a while before a new wolf pack moves in and gets established. Time will tell, but for the moment it seems the wolves of the Bow Valley are in a state of flux.

Sunshine

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Raw Wilderness

First a disclaimer. If you are squeamish about seeing footage of nature at its most raw, than the below photos and story may not be for you. However, this is reality. Animals need to hunt to survive and some animals have to die so that others can live.

With that out of the way, below is one of the rarest wildlife moments I have ever seen and captured in photographs. It is an age old battle between predator and prey.  A young wolf honing its hunting skills against a seasoned mule deer.

With each photo, if you would like a closer view please click on it.

How it all started was that I was busy taking pictures of a bald eagle when I heard a big splash just up the river. When I turned to have a look I was shocked to see a black wolf running down the snow bank towards a mule deer that was frantically swimming across the water! I didn’t have much time to react or set up, my own adrenalin was kicking in as I fumbled with camera settings and started taking photos. Undeterred by the frigid water, the wolf bounded into the river in hot pursuit of the deer…

Wolf swimming after deer WM As the wolf made it close to shore, the deer who didn’t want to leave the relative security of the river and was resting along the banks, turned and they eyed each other up for a few seconds… Predator vs Prey WM FBThe pause in action didn’t last long, as the wolf jumped up onto the snow bank and came directly towards the deer. Relatively calmly, the deer turn and jump back into the river and again the wolf followed in close pursuit. By the time the deer reached the other side it had increased the distance between them and I thought it would easily escape. That seemed to be certain when the deer trotted out of the river and started heading for the forest. But then something strange happened. Just as it got to the trees it stopped in its tracks. Whether it sensed other wolves waiting for it in the trees I’m not sure, but for whatever reason it quickly spun around and headed back to the river just as the doggy paddling wolf was getting close to shore. The deer seemed to have made a critical mistake by turning back to the river. As it jumped into the shallows, a split second later the wolf made it to shore. With a burst of speed and water splashing everywhere, it sprinted along the rocky banks and quickly closed in on its prey… Head on off center BW WMWith only a few feet separating them, the deer made one last ditched effort to escape by frantically plunging back into the river. The stamina of both of these animals was incredible. It seemed like they had reserves of energy and any time one needed a surge of adrenaline they got it. It was spectacular to watch this back and forth battle play out in front of me… The Plunge BW WMSurvival in the wild is always a precarious balance. One misstep by the deer on a slippery rock was all that the wolf needed to gain the advantage. With one powerful bite, it leveraged the deer off its feet and the chase was over. Wolf deer water WM For most animals life is a daily struggle with little in the way of certainties. Wolves only have about a 10% success rate during hunts and so the majority of their prey get away to live another day. This particular wolf was just coming into its prime and its possible that the mule deer was an old male that was too weak from winter and the fall rut to outpace the deer. Whatever the reason, nature took its course.

To have wild places in North America where animals can still play out their age old battles and we are the outsiders that only get rare glimpses into their world, is something I hope we can maintain well into the future.

Cheers,

Owen

Red Wolf Pup WM

Would you like to directly impact the future of a critically endangered species?

Currently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of determining if the Red Wolf Recovery Program will continue.  This project has great personal significance to me, given that I was directly involved in efforts to save this species. In 2009,  while working at Lincoln Park Zoo I flew from Chicago with four, 1 week old red wolf pups in a carry-on suitcase!  We were head to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina to link up with biologists to cross-foster the captive born pups into wild red wolf dens to bolster the wild red wolf population.

Click here for my 2009 travel blog featured on Lincoln Park Zoo’s website with lots of photos.

This species is one of the most endangered carnivores in the world (only about 80-110 in the wild) and drastic measures were and are needed to save it. With the intensive conservation measures mentioned above the population is slowly increasing but more work is required.

If you feel that red wolves are worth saving, please send your comments, concerns, or information to the following e-mail: redwolfreview@fws.gov.  Input needs to be provided by September 26th (next Friday)

Additional information on the Red Wolf Recovery Program can be found by clicking here.

Thanks for your support!

Owen

 

Wild Pup

Wolf pup black 2014

Wild wolf sightings are always thrilling, but seeing and photographing wolf pups takes it to a whole new level. Finding them is the first challenge. Getting any decent photos is the next. I positioned myself next to a small clearing and silently waited, hoping one of them would come out into the clearing. Luck was on my side that day and I managed to get a few decent photos of this little black pup, no more than 3 months old before it trotted off to join its siblings as they explored their surroundings.

Gray Wolf

Wolf head profile wm fb

I came across this gray wolf in Muncho Lake Provincial Park in Northern British Columbia.

If you spend any time photographing wild wolves, they make it clear from their body language if they are relaxed with you around. This 2-3 year old wolf (based on body size and teeth condition) could have cared less that I was just a short distance away. It kept its ears forward, jaw relaxed and pace at a slow trot, paying no attention to me while scanning the clearings for any caribou or stone sheep.

The entire sighting was over within a few minutes as it disappeared into the trees, but like with any wolf encounter, it left me with an adrenalin rush that kept me going for the rest of the day.

Wolf black, snow muzzle wm Powerful, intense, resilient and beautiful. To me the wolf symbolizes nature and wilderness as it’s meant to be.

I took this photo on one of my recent trips into the Canadian Rockies!

Feel free to share and/or comment  and as always, please click on the image for the full size!

Cheers,

Owen

Seeing and photographing wild wolves is always a thrill,  even more so this year since finding any has been a lot more challenging. On the few occasions when I have been lucky the glimpses were always fleeting or with lots of trees and bushes obstructing my view.

On one day late in August I got my best glimpse this year. Some of the pack was resting deep in the forest near a kill site and the only way I knew they were there was from the periodic howling. After awhile I noticed some movement between the trees and it soon became clear they were on the move. I had a pretty good idea of the path they would take and where they would come out of the forest for a few seconds so I drove ahead a few minutes, parked my car and set up my camera. With the settings dialed in, I didn’t have long to wait. The two year old female emerged from the trees and came trotting along the clearing. She stopped not too far from where I was parked, turned and looked behind her as if waiting for something.

Wolf 2y old WM

It didn’t take long to see who it was. One grey and one black pup soon appeared and followed in her footsteps through the clearing.

Wolf pups 2013 WMWith the pups close behind I only had a few seconds to get some photos before the adult lead the pups back into the forest and out of sight.

Coat Change

Wolf yearling creek crossing WMThe last remnants of a winter coat cling to the neck and sides of this wolf as he makes his way along the rocky banks of a river.

With only small amounts of snow remaining on the mountain peaks, wolves become even more like ghosts of the forest during the summer. Coming across them is always, to some extent based on luck and usually the glimpses are very fleeting.

With the sunlight trickling through the trees I only had a few seconds to steady my camera and get this photograph before it disappeared back into the dense understory of the bush. Such remarkable and elusive creatures!

Wolf Junction Butte pack PS SS WM

The trip to Yellowstone wouldn’t have been complete if I didn’t get a chance to photograph wolves. On the second morning we lucked out and came across the Junction Butte pack. We had seen them the day before but through a spotting scope since they were a few kilometers from the road. Overnight the pack must have traveled a fair distance, but as luck would have it they were right next to the road. This one was slowly making its way through the sage brush right past a herd of adult bison. The bison clearly knew how to behave around the wolves as they stood their ground and just stared at the wolves who quickly determined that they should keep going.  As the sun crested the hill, this wolf paused for a few seconds to see where the rest of the pack had gone giving me the perfect opportunity to get a few photos.

Grey pup BW PS SF WM

I guess I spoke too soon in my recent post about this wolf helping the pack with puppy chores in the spring. Just a few days ago, on the morning of Friday, April 5th this wolf’s life was cut short by a CP train in Banff National Park.  The young male was just shy of its one year birthday.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that it was killed by a train, after all this has been a routine event in Banff for years now. Trains remain the number one killer of Banff grizzly bears and in the past year numerous black bears and several wolves have also met their demise on the tracks. This is not even mentioning the elk, deer, moose and coyotes. Everything from the smallest birds to the largest mammals are commonly hit by the trains as they travel through the park.

The pack that this wolf belonged to has 2 of 6 pups remaining from last years litter.  Only 1 of 7 pups from the previous year has survived. Of the two surviving 1-year-old pups, one was hit by a train in late fall while she and the rest of her family were feeding on a rail killed deer carcass next to the tracks.   Somehow this wolf managed to survive the strike and miraculously has made it through the winter and appears to have almost completely healed from what I suspect was a fractured left hind limb. Of the seven pups born the previous year all but the surviving wolf were either hit by trains or cars.

Efforts continue between Parks Canada and CP Rail to research the factors that influence these train mortalities.  While it’s great that they have committed time, money and staff to this problem, the fact remains that train caused wildlife deaths in the park have occurred on a frequent basis for years and despite some attempts to address the problem, it continues to happen on a very regular basis.The vacuum truck that is supposed to remove the grain spills doesn’t seem to come along the high risk areas of the tracks during the winter and it would seem that grain spills, which as you will see are pretty obvious, go unreported. Wildlife-train collisions are also not always reported and the strikes that are reported are not always appropriately removed from the tracks.  Add in that parks staff have been cut thin to the point that they can’t always adequately respond to all the human wildlife conflict events in a timely manner and several other variables that are a product of chronic underfunding and we have a recipe for more wildlife carnage.

CP train and spilled grain PS SSOne has to see the hypocrisy that signs in Banff state it’s illegal to feed wildlife and yet these trains are doing just that, like a giant cafeteria conveyor belt. Expecting others to act responsible while allowing this to occur is a perfect example of do as I say and not as I do.

While it is simplistic to say that all the train mortalities are caused either directly or indirectly from the grain, one has to accept the fact that even if grain or other food attractants aren’t present at the time of the event, animals will still travel the tracks looking for the free handouts whether they are there or not. After all, this has become a learned behaviour passed down from generation to generation. They have been condition from the time they are old enough to walk or fly that the tracks offer a steady supply of food so one cannot truthfully state that a particular train mortality wasn’t associated with grain or a carcass simply because these attractants weren’t present at the time of death. This is misconstruing the root of the problem. It will take years of continuous negative feedbacks for animals to stop coming to the tracks to look for handouts. The reduction in spillage to current levels is a start but breaking this pattern will require no less than complete prevention of these spills and quick removal of any carcasses from the area.  Only then will researchers be able to tease apart the other minor factors that might be at play.

In the grand scheme of things this is only one more human induced wildlife death in the long record of deaths that have happened in Banff and all along the tracks from Saskatchewan to Vancouver. However, it should serve as a prime example to every stakeholder that sooner than later added actions are required to address this problem and there is no better place to start than in Banff.  Parks and CP rail should not simply state ongoing research will be used to investigate possible solutions. Short term solutions are required now while the longer term options are investigated. However, the buck doesn’t just stop with them. Instead of visitors just complaining about all the most recent deaths and demanding something be done, they too should take actions of their own. If you are a visitor to the park and are walking near the tracks, report any carcasses, grain spills or any other concerns to Parks by calling Banff Dispatch at 403-762-1470 (24hrs/day). Even better if you can follow-up to make sure that the problem has been addressed and if it hasn’t, report it again. Every time a call is made a paper record is created that must be reviewed by Parks Canada management to make sure that the problem is taken care of. Other options include photographing what you see and forwarding it along or contacting Parks and CP staff directly with your concerns.

My hope is that this most recent death helps initiate more concerted efforts by everyone to actually solve this decades old problem. One can still hope can’t they?

Grey pup 3 months PS SS WMA 3 month old grey wolf pup takes in its surroundings after recently leaving the den.

Grey wolf pup 10 months PS LFSeven months later he has grown into an impressive animal with thousands of miles under his feet and has learned how to hunt deer and other small prey on its own. Over the coming months he will be relied upon to help provide food, puppy sitting duties and protection for a new litter of pups.

Wolves sleeping watermark

Fast forward to last week for this image (please click on the photo for the larger version).

For anyone that has had the privilege of seeing wild wolves in their natural environment, you can appreciate how fleeting the glimpses usually are. Often times they are visible for only a few seconds, usually in poor light with something obstructing the view. In these situations I often won’t even bother trying to take pictures. I will just watch them from a distance and enjoy the moment before they vanish into the forest.

Last week I was having a very unproductive morning with no good wildlife sightings to speak of so I decided to start heading back to town.  I rounded a corner and my luck drastically changed. There, basking in the mid-day sun were three wolves! It is very rare to see them during the day and for them to be lying out in the open is exceptionally rare!  I quickly pulled my car over to the side of the road, rolled down the window and turned the engine off in the hopes that I wouldn’t disturb them. Thankfully, within seconds they relaxed and went back to lounging in the sun!

To me nothing is more rewarding when watching wildlife then to have them be seemingly unaffected by my presence. I think this should be the gold standard for anyone that wants to watch or photograph wildlife.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but if an effort is made to make this the first priority then it will occur a lot more often than not. In this case by keeping my distance, staying in the car and making as little movement or noise as possible I was able to watch them undisturbed for several minutes. One walked down the hill right in front of me while these two stayed on the ridge above. The two on the hill would periodically lift their heads to check on the other wolf below. The most amazing moment that illustrated that they weren’t concerned with me in the least was when they laid their heads down and closed their eyes for a few moments.  To me this was the ultimate compliment.

You might be wondering how it all ended? I wish I could tell you that I left the wolves were I found them but unfortunately as is all too common these days a vehicle came around the corner, stopped behind me and the person got out of their car. In a split second the wolves on the hill leaped up, swirled around and vanished into the trees while the one of the road bolted up the hill and out of sight.  Frustrating to say the least but hopefully the wolves were able to find a more secluded sunny spot to rest in for the remainder of the afternoon.

Buzz off!

Predator or Prey wolf mosquito watermark

Let’s continue to ease back into the winter photography. Here is one from my bank of images taken in the summer.

The predator and prey roles are reversed when a ‘pack’ of hungry mosquitoes descends down on a wolf. They are mostly kept at bay by the thick coat, but just like when a wolf goes in for a kill, the mosquitoes hone in on the most vulnerable spots where their prey is less likely to be able to defend itself.

The wolf didn’t seem to be too bothered. I on the other hand was cursing at them under my breath.  The welts that I soon developed and the itching that happened for days afterwards was a small price to pay.

It almost makes me appreciate the long mosquito free winters. Almost!

Wolf Faith Snow watermark

A radio-collared wolf pauses to survey her surroundings before plowing through the deep snow. While looking ahead she used one ear to listen for members of the pack following behind as they co-ordinated their movements up a hill in search of prey.

From Little Red Riding Hood to present day, the wolf is often given an image that is not even close to factual. Hollywood continues to portray wolves as human killers (eg. the latest Jason Bourne film) and groups advocate for open hunting seasons because they feel the wolf is killing all their deer or free ranging livestock. On the other extreme are the advocates that think wolves can do no harm. As usual, somewhere in between these two extremes is where the wolf belongs. Here, one sits down in a field of daisies just long enough for me to snap off a few pictures before rejoining the pack.