Wolf : critical to ecological integrity
Updated November 3, 2013
Jasper’s changing packs
It’s the beginning of November; the peaks of the Colin Range are snow-covered and first flakes fell in the valley today. Many of the deer, elk and moose will have moved down from their summer alpine habitat and some wolves have been sighted in the valley: the white alpha female of the Signal Mountain pack was already seen in the Old Fort Point/Trail 7 area with a black wolf in September.
Only two of the thirty or so wolves that used the montane habitat last winter still had radio collars so unless more collars are available data will be hard to come by. Two kinds of collars have been used in the park:
- the GPS (Global Positioning System) collar uses a satellite to store information which can then be retrieved later and used to track wolves at great distances
- the VHF (Very High Frequency) collar where the researcher has to be quite close in order to pick up the signal with an antenna
The two collars that were still working last winter were both the VHF variety. Once they no longer function it may be a question of just getting a general number and location of various packs from their tracks in the snow but with the recent drastic cuts in Parks Canada staff this will be a difficult task.
Records for last winter (2012) showed seven packs in various parts of the montane ecoregion:
- an indeterminate number in the Brazeau pack south near the Banff border
- six in the Devona pack in the Moosehorn area near the east park boundary
- six in the Pyramid pack using the area north and east of Jasper town site; but also seen in the Jacques Lake area in May of this year
- five each in the Snaring and Signal packs and three in the Sunwapta pack southwest of Jasper. There was also a pack of five in Mount Robson Provincial Park that may use the west part of the Jasper park from time to time.
The Sunwapta and the Signal packs each had one wolf equipped with a VHF collar.
Now we will have to wait and see which packs are going to be around to liven up the winter landscape in the Athabasca Valley area this year. Stay tuned (and keep your dog leashed.)
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.
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.