Parks set to collar wolves
Thursday, Jan 22, 2015 06:00 am
Parks Canada plans to capture and collar several wolves in Banff to get information on what the packs are up to.
The plan is to fit two wolves from each of the three packs – the Bow Valley, Red Deer and Fairholme packs – with high-tech GPS collars this winter to get information for four different research projects.
Specifically, researchers want to know how much time wolves are spending in caribou range, how wolves are using Bow Valley Parkway during a seasonal nighttime closure each spring, their use of wildlife corridors and wolf predation on mountain goats.
“We’ll do the wolf captures in February or March using a helicopter net gun,” said Jesse Whittington, a Parks Canada wildlife biologist for Banff National Park.
“We’ve noticed a lot of wolves disperse around Christmas, so it’s a good time to do radio collaring after the wolves have done their dispersal.”
Faith and Spirit, the breeding pair of the Bow Valley wolf pack, both disappeared last summer. They are older wolves, believed to be about eight or nine years old. There are no records they were hit on the railway or roads.
There were reports of one, perhaps two wolves, struck but not killed on the Trans-Canada Highway last summer. Whittington, however, said the description of the animals did not match that of Faith and Spirit.
Whittington said the last record of Faith was on July 31, 2014, when a remote camera recorded her in the Hillsdale area near Bow Valley Parkway. She was fitted with a radio collar in 2009.
“We last picked up her VHF signal around the same time she disappeared. Thus, there’s a slim chance her collar is still working, but she’s not in the Bow Valley,” he said. “Faith is a really old wolf and we were actually wondering last spring if she would survive another year.”
Parks radio-collared Spirit in 2012, and his GPS collar remotely blew off in May 2013.
“The last sighting that I am aware of was in early August,” Whittington said.
Faith and Spirit are believed to have come to the Bow Valley from the Red Deer Valley region in 2008, and through the years have covered a large area from Banff to Bow Summit. Wolves have large home ranges, often up to 1,000 square kilometres.
Whittington said the Alpha male and female produced at least three pups last year.
“One of the neat things about Faith and Spirit is they survived a long time in the Bow Valley, and they learned how to navigate highways and railroads and they made a living in a very busy place,” he said.
“They had pups every year. Some of the pups were killed every year, on the railway and highways, but many pups survived and some dispersed to other areas and formed or joined other packs.”
Remote cameras detected nine wolves travelling together near Brewster Creek on Dec. 30. The pack of nine wolves has also been seen since on Spray Lakes on neighbouring Alberta provincial lands.
“It will be interesting to see if this is a new Bow Valley pack,” said Whittington.
“Often with wolves, if a breeding pair dies, or disperses, then the pack dynamics change and sometimes new wolves come it.”
As for the Fairholme wolves, the pack travels along the benchlands between Banff and Canmore and Whittington said the home range likely extends north in the Minnewanka area and beyond to Stoney Creek.
Last June, remote cameras recorded images of three pups.
“Our corridor monitoring crew recently picked up tracks of at least five wolves on the Fairholme,” Whittington said.
One wolf in the Red Deer Valley pack is currently fitted with a radio collar, but Parks Canada has no information on how many individuals are in that pack.
Park researchers examined the pack’s den last fall to determine if the pack had produced pups that year. They found the remains of a dead wolf at the site, but there was no distinctive cause of death.
“We’re in the process of trying to figure out what’s happening with that pack and where they are ranging and how many there are,” he said.
“The pack’s range has shifted over time, but as of last year, their home range included the Red Deer and Clearwater valleys and poked into the Pipestone and Upper Siffleur.”
Collaring and tracking the movement of wolves from three different packs will allow Parks Canada to continue monitoring wolf use of caribou range, which is critical in the plan to reintroduce caribou to Banff or augment dwindling populations in Jasper.
Banff’s remnant caribou herd of five animals was wiped out in an avalanche in 2009 and three of four herds in Jasper have dropped to critically low numbers, with two of the herds – the Maligne and Brazeau – having less than 10 animals.
The Calgary Zoo has pulled out of a captive breeding program, but Whittington said Parks Canada remains committed to the program.
“When we have caribou ready to release into the wild, we can make an informed decision about where caribou have the largest conservation value and highest probability of success,” he said.
Parks Canada also hopes information gathered from the GPS collars will give a better sense of how wolves travel across the Bow Valley Parkway, now that there is a mandatory nighttime travel restriction each spring.
“Before the restriction, previous analysis showed wolf crossing rates decreased as vehicle traffic increased,” Whittington said. “We want to quantify how wolf use of the Bow Valley Parkway has changed since implementation of the closure.”
Parks Canada is also interested in information about wolf predation on mountain goats.
Whittington said Parks Canada was surprised to discover – after visiting sites where data from GPS collars showed wolves had been congregating – that wolves had frequently preyed on mountain goats in the summers of 2009 and 2010.
Wolves typically prefer elk, deer, bighorn sheep and moose, but in those two summers, there were 16 known mountain goats kills by wolves, ranging from Castle Mountain to Bow Summit to Lake O’Hara.
“We don’t know if they’ve always preyed on mountain goats or if this is a recent phenomenon; if wolves have switched prey species given the decline in elk abundance,” Whittington said.
“We want to know if wolves consistently do this in summer and what effect that might have on mountain goat populations.”
Lastly, Parks Canada also wants to learn how wolves, particularly members of the Fairholme pack, are using wildlife corridors in the Bow Valley, inside and outside the national park.
Parks is working with wildlife biologist Adam Ford, a postdoctoral fellow from the Department of Integrative Biology at Ontario’s University of Guelph, who is conducting a large-scale analysis of factors affecting use of wildlife corridors.
Not only will Ford use tracking information from collared wolves, but he is going through 20 years of research from transect monitoring, and winter snow tracking of wildlife using corridors in the mountain parks, as well as in Canmore, Harvie Heights and Exshaw.
“We want to combine such a rich data set to determine why wildlife use some wildlife corridors a lot and other corridors very little,” Whittington. “Having this analysis will allow land managers to make more informed decision about how to design wildlife corridors.”