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Closures implemented to give space, security to wolves

“Having these closures in place ensures an extra level of protection so that these animals do not get disturbed … any disturbance can really have them abandon an area.”
Wolf pups playing are captured on a wildlife camera in Banff National Park. PARKS CANADA FILE PHOTO

BANFF –  The Bow Valley’s montane habitat is considered critically important in spring, providing wildlife with much needed food and a place to raise their young when much of Banff National Park is still covered in snow.

At this time, many wildlife species including wolves during the critical denning period, require secure habitat and space because human behaviour can increase stress and change how animals feed, rest, reproduce and move.

Research shows reproductive success may be enhanced by access to favourable habitat with limited human disturbance, and therefore, Parks Canada wildlife experts say protection of den sites is an important management strategy for maintaining viable wolf populations.

“They’re setting up themselves in these den sites, they’re giving birth and then rearing their young,” said Dan Rafla, a human-wildlife co-existence specialist with Banff National Park. “This is a critical time.”

Each year, Parks Canada puts in place a seasonal closure in an area off the Bow Valley Parkway west of Banff and on the Fairholme bench south of Johnson Lake and northeast of the Trans-Canada Highway to provide wolves with security to den. The closures, in place again this year, typically run April 1 to July 15.

Rafla said local wolf populations have historically used these two areas for denning, as have other species such as foxes.

He said these closures are important for wolves, which are particularly sensitive to human disturbance at this time of year.

“These areas are in the heart of the territory of these animals and the closures provide a buffer of safety because they don’t see a lot of human use,” he said.

“Having these closures in place ensures an extra level of protection so that these animals do not get disturbed … any disturbance can really have them abandon an area.”

Wolf pups grow inside their mother for about 60 or so days and at birth weigh only about a pound. When born, pups are blind and deaf and completely helpless. Other pack members bring food to the mother so she does not have to leave the den.

The pups depend exclusively on their mother for milk for at least the first four to five weeks, but when the pups are a little bigger, they start eating meat, which is brought to them in the stomachs of adults wolves in the pack and regurgitated.

“The wolf pups stay within the den for several weeks,” said Rafla.

In the eight to 16 week range, adults abandon the den site and move pups to areas known as rendezvous sites, which are essentially more open areas that become the hub of the pack’s activity. They’re essentially meeting places where the wolves gather to sleep, play and hang out and babysit the pups.

“Once they do leave the den site, that’s usually when the pups are a bit more capable and have a little bit more endurance to move around, but their endurance is still limited,” said Rafla.

“The rendezvous sites are used as a place to basically stash the pups because they’ve tired out, they're getting in the way, and they are usually looked after by an adult.”

Pups remain at these rendezvous sites until they are old enough to join the pack on their nomadic hunting circuits. Come fall, these rendezvous sites begin to be used less and less.

“Because the wolf pups have grown larger, they’re able to keep up with the adults and then by fall and early winter, the pack is more cohesive and they’re more travelling together,” Rafla said.

“Having grown larger and strong, they're able to keep up with the adults. The pups are almost full size, but not quite, but the pack is moving a lot more throughout their territory.”

The area closure located off the Bow Valley Parkway is for the Bow Valley wolf pack, which is believed to have seven or eight members at this point, including about three pups born to the pack last spring.

It is hoped the alpha female, known as 1701, gives birth to more pups this spring.

Rafla said the sightings of the Bow Valley wolf pack have been fleeting.

“That is a good thing because they remain wary of people and are constantly on the move, which bodes well for their future and for promoting coexistence as opposed to conflict,” he said.

When the annual spring closure on the Fairholme bench was initially put in place several years ago, there was another local wolf pack in the area.

While there have been no signs of wolves denning there in recent years, the Bow Valley pack makes regular forays into that area and there is hope another pack could den there if there is secure habitat.

Based on past experience, Rafla said Parks Canada knows both the Hillsdale and Fairholme sites are good locations for den sites, and therefore the precautionary principle is applied when managing these areas.

“When the closures go in on April 1, it doesn’t necessarily mean the wolves are there setting up a den site at that moment,” he said.

“But they will be exploring and spending more time in these areas in anticipation of denning there and rearing their pups.”

Put another way, Rafla uses an analogy of someone looking to move and searching residential neighbourhoods for a new home.

“That is the pre-denning period, which is now. If they find a neighbourhood with all the things they want, but let’s say it happens to be really loud when they visit, let’s say because there is construction or some other disturbance, they may choose not to settle there and will look for another location,” he said.

However, if the location is quiet and peaceful with all the attributes they are looking for, they may decide to settle there.

“Often you do not move in right away, but go through the process of buying the home,” said Rafla.

“This is similar to these closures by allowing a period of protection before denning, so you are more likely to den there and not be displaced, and not just enact a closure when you actually move and occupy the home or den. By then, any disturbance would have you had chosen that location.”

Parks Canada is calling on the public to respect these legal seasonal closures. Those caught violating the superintendent’s order face charges under the Canada National Parks Act, which includes a mandatory court appearance and potential fine of up to $25,000.

“At the end of the day, these closures are only as effective as people honouring them,” said Rafla.

If anyone sees a person violating the closure, Parks Canada requests it be reported immediately to Banff National Park dispatch at 403-762-1470. Wolf sightings can also be called into the same phone number.

“That’s particularly helpful in managing the wolves and keeping them on the side of coexistence and not getting into trouble,” said Rafla.

Parks Canada also wants to remind people of broader safety associated with living with wildlife, including carrying bear spray, keeping dogs on leash at all times, travelling in groups and making lots of noise.

The park also reminds visitors of the importance of not feeding wildlife, which can lead to habituation and food conditioning.

“Wildlife 101: do not feed any wildlife, don’t leave any food unattended, keep food and attractants secure,” said Rafla.

Parks Canada also reminds people to keep at least 100 metres away from carnivores and not linger when wildlife is seen roadside.

“Please give them the space they need,” urged Rafla. “It’s a pretty hard existence out there for them.”