There was some very sad and disappointing news out of Banff National Park last week. The alpha male of the Bow Valley wolf pack was hit and killed by a vehicle on the Trans-Canada Highway. His loss is significant. Wolf 1901 (as he was known by Parks Canada) and his partner are the leaders of the pack and studies have shown that the death of a breeding wolf can fundamentally alter the family’s social structure and increase the chance they will dissolve. His death is heartbreaking on another level too, as the alpha female (his mate) is likely now in the den with newborn pups. It makes me sad to think of her at this critical time, knowing she will be without her partner and that the fate of her family now hangs in the balance.
The alpha female has had a tough life. She was born in the spring of 2015. Her family consisted of her parents (the former alpha breeding pair) and her two siblings (one female and one male). In 2016, her mother and sister were killed when they became food conditioned and deemed a risk to public safety. The pack had accessed garbage left behind on the Bow Valley Parkway by two construction companies (who were each later fined a mere $1000.00 each). Soon after that incident, the wolves accessed waste again and also entered campsites in search of food. Following the deaths of the two female wolves, the pack began to gradually disintegrate. Early in 2017, her brother dispersed to British Columbia in search of a mate, where he was shot and killed by a hunter, and her father dispersed south of the park. After those events, it was wonderful to hear that she remained in Banff and had started a family of her own, having connected with a mate from another pack. She successfully raised pups and the pack grew to 7 members over the past couple of years. And now this, another death – the passing of her partner no less. Another blow to an already challenging life.
As mentioned above, the death of wolf 1901 isn’t the first time an alpha wolf in Banff has been killed. Each wolf family that forms in the Bow Valley seems to only last a few years before the death of a breeding member causes its downfall. Wolves in Banff don’t have it easy and face numerous threats. Some are natural; wolf pups are preyed upon sometimes by bears and can also die of natural causes. However, the majority of wolf deaths in the park are human caused. The highway that runs through Banff National Park, as well as the rail line that cuts through it, are huge dangers. Year after year, there are stories of wolves (including pups) being hit and killed by cars and trains. And what makes this most recent death even more disappointing is that the park should be quieter and more peaceful than normal. With visitor numbers lower due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with less vehicles travelling on the highways, that this death could still occur is that much more discouraging.
There are a few issues that 1901’s death highlights. Banff National Park is excellent in that wildlife fencing has been erected throughout the park. There are also several over (and under) passes that allow wildlife to cross the highway safely. These measures are remarkable and save thousands of wild (and human) lives every year as collisions with wildlife are significantly reduced. But the unfortunate part is that the fencing gives drivers a false sense of security. It gives the impression that wildlife won’t be on the roads. Before I became involved in wildlife photography and conservation and started paying more attention to whether wildlife was on the highway, that was certainly my thought. My impression was that the fencing prevented all animals from accessing or crossing the roadway. But that’s not the case. Sometimes animals are able to climb over, or dig under, the fencing. Other times, they will squeeze through small openings that have appeared in the gates or the fences themselves.
There are also roads that need to be accessed by a high volume of vehicles, so the fencing ends and Texas gates are put in. Studies have shown that while Texas gates can be effective, they are not impermeable to wildlife passage. A study undertaken in Banff in 2011-2013 to monitor the use of Texas gates, found that wolves were the 2nd most frequently detected animal attempting to cross them. The study also found that of the number of wildlife attempts to approach and cross the gate, 72% of attempts resulted in successful crossing. This highlights that Texas gates may not be that effective at keeping wildlife, like wolves, from entering the highway. Additionally, when there is heavy snowfall, snow can clog the gates making for easier passage across. It’s interesting to note that wolf 1901 was found dead on the highway west of Vermilion Lakes. Just last summer, another member of the pack was found dead in a spot not far from where 1901 was found. This may indicate that the highway junction where the Trans-Canada and the Bow Valley Parkway meet, and where there is a Texas gate, is a weak point.
In addition to the roadways, there is a railway that runs through Banff. Trains have killed several wolves (and other wildlife, including grizzly bears) in the park throughout the years. In the summer of 2016, four wolf pups were killed by trains. Wolves will often travel along the tracks as they provide a clean, unobstructed corridor through the forest. They will also access the tracks to hunt and eat prey, either live prey, or carcasses left behind after being hit by the trains themselves.
Parks does take steps to mitigate these risks. They enact an annual evening closure on the Bow Valley Parkway each spring to provide extra protection to denning wildlife. Parks also erected new, improved wildlife fencing along stretches of the highway in recent years. I know that Parks wants to see the wildlife in Banff thrive. They care about the welfare of the animals and each death is felt by the employees. But more action is needed – by Parks, CP Rail, and by all of us, as visitors or residents of Banff - if we want to see fewer wolves killed in the park.
Trains could go slower through the park and CP Rail could do a much better job at cleaning up the spilled grain from their railcars. Grain leaks from the cars onto the tracks and is an attractant for ungulates and carnivores, like bears. Additional measures could also be taken at the weak access points mentioned earlier (Texas gates at access roads). As far back as 2016, there have been discussions around placing additional preventative measures, like electro-mats at priority areas along the highway where there are breaks in fencing. Yet I’m not sure much action has been taken since then. In the report about the death of wolf 1901, it was again mentioned that Parks knows these secondary roads are weak points in the system. They stated there are plans to test electrified cattle guards to see if they’ll work better. This is the same thing that was being said four years ago (and also was a recommendation in the study I mentioned earlier). Further studies are needed and improvements must be made as soon as possible in order to prevent more wolf deaths.
Collectively, as people driving through the park, we all need to slow down. Our national and provincial parks are the places where wildlife should have the best chance at survival. It is in these places that we need to take extra time and obey speed limits. We should also be driving slower at dawn and dusk, times when wildlife is generally more active. Much more enforcement is needed to ticket speeders in the park. More signage advising people of the speed limits would also be great. Anything to just remind people to slow down and give those animals that slip through the fencing a chance to safely make it to the other side of the highway. There are over five million people who drive through Banff National Park annually. The speed limit is 90 kph but the majority of people don’t drive this speed. People fly by ignoring the posted limits. If we could all just slow down, this would have a major effect on wolves’ survival.
Returning to the death of wolf 1901, I hope the family can survive his loss. The pack now consists of at least 6 members - the alpha female and two 2 years olds and three yearlings. Wolves are social animals and work together to survive and care for one another. Similar to humans, they form family units and each member has a role to play. At this time of year, when there are pups in the den, members will each hunt or care for the pups in order to ensure the pups are safe and enough food is brought back to the den. Hopefully this will continue and the pack can successfully hunt without the alpha male.
Wolves also live complex, emotional lives. They play, they display affection, they discipline members when they step out of line. I’ve witnessed all of these behaviours myself. Wolves, like us, have different personalities. The alpha female, although having lived a challenging life, has always managed to pull though. I remember photographing her when she was just 7 months old. I remember how curious and playful she was, pouncing on sticks in front of me. I remember how bold she was, fighting with her brother in a tug-of-war over a carcass. I also clearly remember that look of fierce intelligence and strength in her eyes when she glanced over at me. Over the years, I’ve seen and photographed her several times and, on each occasion, I’m left impressed by her. She’s a survivor and with some help from us collectively, I’m hopeful she will have a happy ending.
EXPOSED covered the Bow Valley Pack a few years ago in EP 9, looking at the impact humans have on the success of wolves in the bow valley. They still face the same problems today as they did then.