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Banff wolves die in provincial traplines

“Wolves aren’t going to be able to kill bison if the packs don’t survive long enough, don’t get big enough and old enough."

BANFF – Several wolves that spent much of their lives in Banff National Park have been trapped and killed on provincial lands just outside the park boundary, including a female wolf from the Bow Valley fitted with a tracking collar.

Parks Canada and the provincial government declined interview requests on reports that up to 10 wolves had been killed in legal traps in the Panther Corners area outside the park, however, provided email statements.

“A number of wolves whose home range includes Banff National Park and government of Alberta lands are confirmed to have been trapped and harvested outside of the national park boundary this winter,” said Kira Tryon, a spokesperson for Banff National Park.

“While short- to medium-term impacts on local ungulate populations and ecosystems in Banff National Park may occur, wolf populations are resilient and the Bow Valley pack is expected to recover over time,” she added, noting there are believed to be five wolves remaining in the pack.

Trappers and hunters must have a valid Alberta licence, but there is no quota for wolves, so they can kill as many as they wish. There are regulations on hunting and trapping seasons and wolf kills must be registered in many areas, though not all.

Mark Hebblewhite, a wolf expert and professor of habitat ecology in the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana, has done extensive wolf research in Alberta, including Banff National Park over the past 25 years.

He said the Panther Corners area is a known hotspot for wolf mortality from trapping as animals leave the safety of Banff National Park in winter to follow mule and deer.

“They just kind of follow that prey that are migrating. It’s really common for wolves to go out the Panther Valley or Dormer Valley. They loop around and then come back in the Red Deer Valley,” he said. “And so they’re very vulnerable to trapping.”

Through a combination of field and research technicians who live in and around the Sundre area, Hebblewhite said he heard at least 10 wolves have been harvested in the Panther Corners region so far this winter by registered trappers.

“It’s alarming,” he said, noting it is difficult to determine the exact number of wolves killed over a winter because of a delay in reporting.

“There’s also hunting that goes on in that area, so there could have been more wolves shot.”

Most wildlife studies focus on population size and growth rate to inform management of wolves, but relatively few examine species biological processes at scales aside from that of the population, which is especially important for animals that live in packs.

Even though wolf packs are resilient given their early sexual maturity and ability to produce large litters, a new study published in Frontier in Ecology and the Environment, titled “Human-caused mortality triggers pack instability in gray wolves”, explores how packs can change when activities like hunting and trapping kill wolves.

The study of five national parks in the United States from Grant Teton and Yellowstone to Denali shows human-caused mortality accounted for 36 per cent of collared wolf deaths and had  “a detrimental effect” on the survival of the pack and reproduction.

It found the human-caused death of any wolf decreased the predicted odds of a pack’s survival to the end of the biological year by 27 per cent, and reproduction the following year by 22 per cent. Further, the death of the leader of the wolf pack decreased estimated survival odds of a pack by 73 per cent, and reproduction the year after by 49 per cent.

“The pack level measures we examined show that even the loss of a single wolf, especially a leader, can have detrimental effects on the pack,” according to the authors of the study.

Hebblewhite said the results of this study indicate human activities can have major negative effects on the biological processes of wildlife, saying it is spot on when it comes to high transboundary harvesting of Banff National Park wolves and what that means for Parks Canada’s ecological integrity mandate.

“You can take that minimalist approach and can kill about 30 per cent of the wolf population and there’s a good chance that there's probably going to be the same number of wolves there next year,” he said.

“But when we just focus on the numbers, what we don’t see is the potential ecosystem impacts and the broader impacts of harvest on wolves. This issue of transboundary harvest ends up potentially affecting the wolf ecology and wolf population dynamics and ecosystem effects of wolves.”

To that end, Hebblewhite speaks to the impacts of wolves on Banff’s reintroduced bison herd, which has now grown to about 80 individuals since 12 pregnant cows and four bulls were reintroduced into the remote Panther Valley backcountry as part of a $6.4 million pilot project in 2017.

“The high mortality on our of wolves itself leads to changes in the wolf pack age structure. It’s very difficult to get old, big wolves if you kill them all the time,” he said.

“We see from studies in Yellowstone that the ability of wolves to do things like kill bison, for example, peaks at about five to six years old. You need big, old wolves in large packs to be able to do things like kill bison.”

Parks Canada’s efforts to track how wolves reacted to the initial reintroduction of bison in the Panther River Valley were hampered by a high number of wolf deaths from trapping on neighbouring provincial lands.

However, according to Parks Canada’s Report on the Bison Reintroduction Pilot 2017-2022, two wolves were fitted with GPS collars and survived for a few months before being trapped outside the park in the winter of 2018-19. The wolves approached the bison repeatedly, but their advances did not elicit any fear or cause the GPS-collared bison to flee.

Parks Canada’s remote cameras also show a similar lack of response from the bison to the presence of wolves, according to the bison report, and in a couple of instances, curious juvenile bison males actually chased wolves.

“Wolves aren’t going to be able to kill bison if the packs don’t survive long enough, don’t get big enough and old enough,” said Hebblewhite.

“That to me plays directly into Parks Canada’s efforts to restore bison, not just because bison are cool, but they’re trying to restore bison because of the ecological interactions that bison bring back to the national park. That includes predation by species like wolves, which so far they have been able unable to do.”

In 2020, Hebblewhite co-authored a study with Parks Canada ecologist Jesse Whittington, titled Wolves without borders: Transboundary survival of wolves in Banff National Park over three decades.

Published in Global Ecology and Conservation, the study found wolves in Canada’s premiere national park have survival rates similar to wolf populations in unprotected areas because they face hunting and trapping pressures on neighbouring provincial lands.

The researchers tracked the survival of 72 radio-collared gray wolves in Banff and surrounding area over 30 years from 1987 to 2018.

Wolves in Banff, most of which have home ranges straddling the park boundary, had very low survival rates of 44 per cent on unprotected provincial lands. In fact, the risk of wolves dying was 6.7 times higher when they left the boundaries of the park, peaking during the liberal hunting and trapping seasons, which don’t have bag limits, or quotas, in place.

According to the study, trapping and hunting account for 36 per cent and 18 per cent of Banff wolf mortality, respectively, while highways account for 18 per cent. The overall survival rate for Banff wolves was 73 per cent.

“What we now know is that when we kill wolves in packs, like in Banff National Park, that leads to a higher rate of the whole pack dissolving, breaking apart wolves dispersing and loss of the social structure and social function of wolves,” Hebblewhite said.

“It can also lead to other things like other wolf packs coming in and killing the now weakened wolf pack.”

The Alberta Trappers Association has loudly opposed any quotas on wolf harvest.

Bill Abercrombie, the group’s president, said wolves travel outside the park following the ungulates, particularly in winter where there is better habitat.

“Particularly in the Banff area, there’s a lot of wolves that do not winter in park areas simply because habitat is not good there and it’s much better on crown lands or private lands outside the park,” he said.

Abercrombie said he can understand the frustrations of researchers, but said trappers do their best to manage wolf populations effectively.

“We’re not there to kill as many wolves as possible,” he said. “What we try to do is manage the population of furbearers on traplines as effectively as we can.”

Abercrombie said people want to manage wolves for different reasons, whether it is to help with caribou recovery or to assist with stable ungulate numbers.

“Our scope is broad and we’re looking big picture, not just in a study area,” he said.

According to the 2022-23 Alberta guide to trapping regulations, 683 wolves were trapped in 2017-18; 722 in 2018-19; 544 in 2019-20; 507 in 2020-21 and 318 in 2021-22, with a five-year harvest average of 555 wolves harvested.

The province of Alberta declined several interview requests and attempts to get public information on trapping numbers in specific management units along the boundary of Banff National Park.

Heather Kaszuba, assistant communications director for Alberta Forestry, Parks and Tourism, said the province’s program experts “are very busy” and some of the information requested by the Outlook is in the hands of different people and program areas.

“Unfortunately, we are not able to provide specific reported trapping numbers broken down for wildlife management units 416, 418 and 420, as there are multiple sources of information from a variety of reporting processes,” she said in an email.

Kaszuba said the department has determined wolf populations in Alberta are stable, as measured through a variety of direct and indirect data sources.

“It’s also important to note that wolves have no natural predators and due to their adaptive nature, they can increase the number and size of their litters in response to changes in environmental conditions,” she said.

“This means populations can remain sustainable, while supporting trapper and hunter harvest.”

Hebblewhite takes a different position.

“Are trapping and guided outfitting wolf hunting right outside Banff a big problem for Banff ecological integrity? I believe so,” he said.

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