Wolf : critical to ecological integrity
Updated August 19, 2010
Jasper’s changing packs
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 packs will disappear altogether, others will move in and the picture will change again and again.
While there may be 60-70 wolves in the park, an under-funded Parks Canada only allocates enough money to track two packs: the ones that have territories in the habitat of the woodland caribou – a threatened species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
The Maligne pack of six animals, highly visible in the Medicine Lake area in 2005, is now gone; pushed out of its territory by the Signal Mountain pack of twelve.
But by 2009 the Signal Mountain pack was reduced to only four animals. Three of these were radio-collared and indicated that the pack denned in the Five Lakes area this spring so possibly its numbers have increased again. In the winter months this all-grey pack was near Jasper townsite and east of Highway 93. This summer it is up in the Maligne Range.
The very mobile Sunwapta pack hunts west of Highway 93 all the way from Jasper town south along the Athabasca/Sunwapta rivers and up into the Whirlpool and Chaba valleys. Three of these six wolves – two blacks and a grey – were collared and monitoring showed they preyed mostly on moose and deer but the pack split last year resulting in three of them moving into caribou habitat in the Mount Edith Cavell area. This resulted in the death of one radio-collared caribou and possibly one or two other non-collared ones. One of the Cavell wolves is now dead and the other two members of that pack seem to have disappeared. No-one knows if there were any pups in the Sunwapta pack this spring.
Wolves in the southern Brazeau area of the park have not been located recently and could have moved out of the park. There are probably wolves on the bench land below Pyramid Mountain to the north of Jasper town site but none are radio-collared so any data on them would have to come from chance sightings.
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.