Wolf : critical to ecological integrity

Updated December 7, 2014

News for Fall 2014

Winter is coming to Jasper National Park. The ungulates are moving down to the Athabasca and other river valleys from their summer habitat in the sub-alpine and alpine areas and their predators are close behind them.

Possibly late on November 2nd or early the next day an elk was killed on the edge of the almost dried-up Jasper Lake near the highway. Eight wolves were sighted – four black and four grey. This could the Devona pack whose territory at times has covered much of the northeastern part of the park. But there are no collared wolves in this pack so identification is uncertain.

The next day the pack was seen again, this time with eleven wolves so it looks as though the elk and other ungulates in that part of the park are in for a tricky winter.

We will update sightings of the other packs as they become available. Once the lakes are frozen we should see more of them. Keep an eye open for ravens – they know where the wolves are.

New update December 7, 2014

  • Devona Pack in the eastern part of the park was seen at the beginning of November. Eleven wolves and possibly twelve.(See above)
  • Pyramid Pack in vicinity of Jasper town site was almost non-existent last winter. However a remote camera picked up the pack this past summer recording five pups. Sometime between December 5th and 7th the pack had crossed through the aspen woods at the south end of Pyramid Lake: tracks of at least six or seven (one very large) heading east. 
  • Brazeau Pack south near the border of Jasper and Banff parks – only three wolves last year. That pack appears to have moved south out of Jasper park.
  • Sunwapta Pack between Sunwapta Falls and Pyramid Bench had four wolves – three of them collared (this was the pack most likely to be able to access caribou habitat in the Tonquin Valley). There now appear to be three wolves with two of them collared – although only one collar may still be working.
  • Signal Mountain Pack once a large pack of 12 was down to probably only two members last winter. This may now only constitute one large black wolf – seen at Maligne once this past summer and also recently on Medicine Lake. Sometime in the past few days a large wolf had  traveled north on the Beaver Lake trail.
  • Snaring Pack east of Jasper town site in the Snaring River area had four uncollared greys last winter. No sign of this pack lately.
  • Robson Pack near the west boundary and over into British Columbia. Four of this pack were seen last week.

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.