Wolf : critical to ecological integrity

Updated March 19, 2014

Jasper’s changing packs

Just four months since our last update in November and once again big changes in Jasper’s wolf packs. The numbers now are down to about 22 wolves from 42 ten years ago in the Athabasca Valley area.

  • The Pyramid Pack of six that two years ago had a reputation for targeting joggers’ and hikers’ off-leash dogs seems to have disappeared completely.
  • The Devona Pack in the eastern part of the Athabasca Valley appears to be the biggest with eight members but there are no radio collars on this pack so it is hard to know what it is up to.
  • The Brazeau Pack down near the Banff/Jasper border has three wolves – two collared (one VHF and one satellite collar). However, a pack of three has been seen recently near the Brewster Skywalk and there is some doubt as to whether that was the Brazeau gang or a separate pack.
  • The Signal Mountain Pack that was a formidable pack of 10-12 wolves a few years ago is now down to just two members. A pale-coloured female was recently hit by a car and there is now one greyish wolf and one very large black one that is seen frequently down in the Athabasca Valley. On March 9th he started up the Maligne Road from the hostel area; his tracks were seen on Medicine Lake three days later and then he was seen travelling up Maligne Lake. At one point he stopped to howl but apparently got no answer.
  • The Sunwapta Pack that travels between the Sunwapta Falls area and as far north as the Pyramid Bench has four members – three of them collared (2 VHF and one GPS).
  • East of Jasper the Snaring Pack of four uncollared greys was seen recently near the Snaring Bridge feeding on a bighorn ram carcass – a carcass later visited by a wolverine.
  • The only other pack seen from time to time in the valley is the Robson Pack of indeterminate numbers near the BC border. It has two wolves collared, one with VHF and one satellite collar.

Their prey numbers have changed too: roadside counts of elk numbers (Parks hasn’t the funds to count the backcountry populations) is much lower – only about 146 – down from 500 in 2003. The drop seems to have been caused by a mixture of predation and traffic kills. At the same time there is an indication that white-tailed deer numbers have risen considerably.

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.