Wolf : critical to ecological integrity

Updated November 25, 2015

Winter of 2015/16.

November 24th. A light snowfall on the night of the 23/24th showed wolf activity on the Maligne Road. Six wolves had come north from the Maligne Lake direction investigating the bighorn sheep herd and the tracks of two moose at the Medicine Lake delta before travelling along the road above Medicine Lake. They continued north with periodic sorties into the woods, probably hoping to surprise some deer. Midday found them near the Maligne hostel, howling just out of sight up on the hill. At least some of them continued down the road before turning east on the Sixth Bridge road.

So far this winter two wolves of the Sunwapta Pack have been located along Highway 93. One of them is collared. Also two wolves possibly of the Robson Pack (uncollared) have been seen west of town.

November 6th. The tracks of a pack of five wolves were seen on the snow-covered Maligne Road south of Medicine Lake. The next day they were picked up again on the trail near Beaver Lake on the way to the Summit Lakes.

November 18th. The Maligne Road is closed due to heavy snowfall yesterday but it looks as though 3 wolves had come down the road overnight and then followed the tracks of some mule deer down to the Lake Edith area. The mule deer are rutting now.

Status of the wolf packs as last reported in January 2015.

  • Devona Pack eastern part of the park. Eleven wolves and possibly twelve.
  • Rocky River Pack in the Rocky River/Talbot Lake area. Is this the same as the Devona Pack?
  • Pyramid Pack  Pyramid Lake area. Maybe five wolves
  • Brazeau Pack near the border of Jasper and Banff parks – only three wolves. May have moved out of the park
  • Sunwapta Pack between Sunwapta Falls and Pyramid Bench. Three wolves, two of them collared?
  • Signal Mountain Pack once a large pack maybe only two members left. Signal/Medicine area?
  • Snaring Pack in the Snaring River area. Reports of 3-5 wolves.
  • Robson Pack Pack Maybe four in west boundary/Robson Park area

Here one winter, gone the next?

The wolf packs of south Jasper National Park are as dynamic as wolf packs anywhere: shifting territories, new pups being born, other members leaving and some dying. No doubt in the coming years some more packs will disappear altogether, others will move in and the picture will change again and again.

Once wolves move out of the park into either Alberta or British Columbia they run the danger of being killed by trappers. The park badly needs buffer zones on either side to give some added protection to its far-ranging carnivores.

Architect of prey species

A splintered leg bone; a carpet of hair on the trampled grass; a rib cage being scavenged by a raven are signs of a successful wolf hunt: an indication that small part of the park is on the right track towards maintaining a healthy ecosystem for predators and prey.

The wolf is the predator that, over the millennia, has fashioned ungulates into the species we so admire today. It created the long straight legs that speed the elk and deer, molded the strength and power of the moose, created the agility of the bighorn sheep and mountain goats and made woodland caribou specialists in deep snow survival. It is the wolf that eliminates vulnerable individuals and keeps the prey species within the carrying capacity of its habitat. Wilderness is not complete without it.

That is why the US Fish and Wildlife Service introduced thirty-three Canadian wolves to the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem in 1996 to deal with the over-population of elk.

Besides killing many of the 20,000 elk, the wolves also killed half the coyote population. This increased the ground squirrel numbers resulting in more foxes, weasels and birds of prey. The surviving coyotes and an almost exploding population of bald-eagles thrived on carcass remains left by the wolves.

Inroads into the elk population led to a recovery of aspen and cottonwood trees as the elk became more nervous and mobile. This in turn led to an increase in the beaver population resulting in more beaver ponds providing ideal habitat for waterfowl and other nesting birds. Known as a “trophic cascade”, one organism creates cascading effects in a complex ecosystem.

Here in Jasper National Park present and future packs will continue with their age-old interactions with the ungulates, keeping a lid on the elk population and leaving enough remains to benefit the many birds, scavengers, small animal species and insects that are part of the rich fabric of this unique place.

So, in your wanderings in the park when you next see evidence of a wolf kill be thankful that this ‘park manager’ has its priorities straight and is keeping the ecosystem healthy.