Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saying Goodbye to more Banff Wolves

Sometime in April 2011, the Pipestone/Bow Valley wolf family in Banff National Park welcomed seven new tiny bundles of joy into their world. Six blacks, one grey, all adorable. Each of the pups grew to an age where they started popping out of the den and eventually even moving away from the densite, and then, as often happens in their world, they began to fall at the hands of man.  First it was a pup on the railway in July, then another in August.  By September, yet another had disappeared, never to be seen again.

Things calmed down over the fall and winter, though of the three young adult wolves that dispersed from the family last year while the pups were being raised, only one survives today (I still haven't been able to write about my favourite wolf, Blizzard, who was mowed down on the Trans-Canada Highway a few months ago near Canmore).

By April 2012, as the adults prepared a new densite, the family seemed to have stabilized, with the two leading adults and four surviving yearling pups on the verge of adulthood. And then, once again, as so often happens in our mountain national parks to animals we all love, disaster struck.

On the morning of June 9th, mountain guide Michael Vincent left Canmore to drive to work in Lake Louise. Because of the voluntary closure on the Bow Valley Parkway, he took the Trans-Canada Highway from Banff to Castle Mountain, and it was on that stretch, rounding the corner at the Sunshine exit 9 kilometers out of Banff, that he saw a black, furry object laying motionless on the side of the road up ahead.

Vincent knew immediately what it was, and his heart sank. He called Parks Canada to report the wolf, then got out of his vehicle and pondered taking her picture -- the juxtaposition of the beautiful, lifeless wolf on the highway against a backdrop that included the Sunshine wildlife overpass, the crossing structure it should have been on, not lost on him.  But Vincent couldn't bring himself to do it, instead, he simply stroked the wolf's head and sadly told it he was sorry.

Then, just two days later on June 11th, another Banff wolf was struck and killed on the Trans-Canada Highway near Red Earth Creek, in exactly the area that countless wolves have died in the past five years, including Banff's most famous and beloved wolf, Delinda.

In three short days, the Pipestone/Bow Valley wolf family had been devastated, two young yearling wolves killed tragically on the TCH.

I didn't hear about any of this until Tuesday, June 12th, when a Facebook comment on a friend's wolf picture about "a Banff wolf [that] died yesterday" and an email from fellow wildlife photographer Cai Priestley asking me to inquire about this comment started me digging to discover if the report was true. Unfortunately, Steve Michel, the human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park, confirmed not one death, but two.

From Michel's descriptions of the wolves, I knew immediately that the young black wolf found near the Sunshine overpass on the 9th was Kimi, a gorgeous small female named by canid and wolf behaviour expert Gunther Bloch.  Kimi was the most submissive and the lowest-ranking of the wolf family according to Bloch, and from a number of my own personal observations over the summer, fall, and winter, I knew that she was a tough little cookie to photograph; much like her older brother Skoki, she'd always been the shyest and most reclusive of the 2011 litter.

Kimi on one of two occasions that I got close enough to photograph her individually over the 2011-2012 season

After hearing the description of the other young wolf, a black and brown male that Michel said looked much like a hyena in terms of colouration, I knew it had to be one of Kimi's two surviving yearling brothers.  I'd always had trouble telling the two apart, but based on Michel's description, Bloch was able to determine that it was Djingo that had been killed two days after Kimi.

Djingo was the polar opposite of Kimi in terms of behaviour around humans.  Far from shy and reclusive, he often seemed to seek out human contact much like his twin brother. And like his brother, he didn't hesitate to walk about on his own and explore the roadside meadows and ditches for ground squirrels and mice, much to the delight of countless wildlife photographers and thousands of tourists.

Djingo at six months of age. By spring 2012, he was still hard to tell apart from his twin brother.

Their deaths are tragic in more than just the usual sense.  Bloch is now worried about the social structure of the family, particularly given that the pup caretaker from years past, Blizzard, is gone. Having two less yearling adults to help out with the new pups (if indeed there are any -- we likely won't know for another few weeks at the earliest) could be tough on the adults as the prey population in the Bow Valley remains fairly low.

As the article in this week's Rocky Mountain Outlook mentions, Michel believes that both wolves got onto the Trans-Canada Highway by walking across Texas gates.  The family has been observed occasionally crossing these gates in the past few years, as have a number of grizzly bears (I witnessed one crossing a Texas gate on June 12th), despite the fact they are supposed to be 'wildlife-proof'. These gates, together with holes in the wildlife-proof fence that lines the highway, are the two final major concerns for wildlife safety along the highway corridor now that the fencing is complete.

Bloch is less certain that the Texas gates are the primary concern; he feels that Parks does not patrol the fenceline often enough to check for holes and damage and that Parks staff often leaves open entrance gates which allow wildlife to walk unhindered out onto the busy highway.  I've witnessed a number of holes in the fence over the past five years, some of which take Parks more than six weeks to repair, and I've also witnessed Parks staff leaving entrance gates wide open for hours at a time (and frankly, I'm tired of closing gates behind Parks maintenance staff that sometimes seems laissez-faire about the dangers they're posing to park wildlife).

And like Bloch, I wonder if Parks is doing enough right now to address the gate issue in regards to the Texas gates.  We've known for years now that wildlife like wolves and bears can cross these gates, yet it's just in the past year that Parks has started to look into ways to stop these animals from approaching the gates, and even then, it's limited to a few small research projects.  There does not seem to be an impetus to make this the priority it should be, which begs the question, why is it not a top priority (along with the railway issue), particularly given that grizzly bears are a threatened species in Alberta?

People like Michel have their heart and soul invested in our wildlife, but the support behind them seems to be waning at the management level in Parks Canada as budgets and staff get cut and slashed.  It pains me that our current federal government has no problem finding eight million dollars a year to fund audits of our environmental non-profit groups and organizations, yet can't seem to find enough money to stop the senseless killing of our flagship national park's wildlife.

That aside, on a more personal level, the loss of two more wolves once again leaves me feeling empty.  I wasn't even sure I could write about Djingo and Kimi yet, but I've managed to put down at least a few words that begin to describe how I feel about their needless deaths. I didn't know them as well as Gunther did, but I put in just over 120 days in the field in 2011-12 with this family of wolves and photographed them from when they were the size of cocker spaniels all the way to full adulthood.  I just didn't feel like sharing all of the photos I have of them at this point, so I apologize for only choosing two to show you all.

It worries me that twenty years after I arrived in these glorious Rocky Mountains, we still have to say goodbye to our wildlife after they die at our hands.  When are we going to smarten up and learn how to coexist with these magnificent animals? Will we ever figure this out and make this the number one priority in our national parks or are we doomed to forever watch our beloved Kimi's and Djingo's die on our highways and our railways of unnatural causes?

I'd like to think that we're making progress, but then I see Park's budgets being cut, and good, solid staff being let go, and it makes me wonder once again.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, everyone, please let me know how these deaths and this story make you feel; maybe one day soon we'll strike the right chord and make some real change happen.

Sincerely,

John

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23 Comments:

Blogger Wendy said...

heartache after reading.... will comment when I can see through the tears :(

June 16, 2012 at 11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It very sad that these wolves are down in numbers, is it possible to get more so they can get hit by traffic and the tourists can entice them with goodies . I think this is a shame , leave them alone in their own wilderness.

June 16, 2012 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Melanie Lohrmann-Bromm said...

I´m so sad and devastated to read this...how is a wolf pack supposed
to survive if so many of its members die senselessly on the roads?
Just hope that the rest of the family is well, but with so many helpful paws missing in the pack it´ll probably be difficult for Faith and Spirit to raise this year´s pups.
Is anything known about the whereabouts of Lilian and Chester?
Hopefully no more lives will be taken by the hands or wheels of man this summer in BNP.

June 16, 2012 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Gaston Maqueda said...

Absolutely sad

June 16, 2012 at 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Barb M said...

Sad!! I love spending time in the parks and am a avid wildlife observer/amateur photographer. My husband and I get up at the break of dawn and travel through the bow valley park way and other areas at a snails pace and it infuriates me when motorists fly by ignoring the speed limit and warning signs. It is my belief that we are visitors on their land and respectfully have to give them the space and freedom to be. The first and only time I saw a wolf was last year, it was a mama and her baby and it was fascinating to sit in our van, engine off and just watch them from a distance. Its like a addiction for me and the more I see the more I want to see. It breaks my heart to hear tragedy's such as written in your blog! Each individual passing through the parks has obligation to be responsible and respectful, sadly this is rarely the case.

June 16, 2012 at 1:20 PM  
OpenID riversrunphoto said...

Tragic John... Thanks for sharing tho'. People need to know.

June 16, 2012 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Sylvia Nordstrom said...

Heartbreaking. All most people care about is getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and they just don't care about who or what they destroy in the process.

June 16, 2012 at 8:11 PM  
Anonymous Bruce said...

Yes, thanks for sharing, people DO need to know. I live in Seattle and visit Rainier, No. Cascades, Olympics often and they don't compare with the wildlife I saw during my 10 day visit a few weeks ago. The loss of these animals is truly tragic and I can hear the disappointment in your words but you still have incredible wildlife and an amazing ecosystem to save, keep up the fight!

June 16, 2012 at 8:57 PM  
Blogger Ron Robertson said...

Thanks for sharing this information John! It's always a sad day when these beautiful animals are struck and killed by careless and/or uncaring drivers!

It's not surprising this is happening at such an alarming rate when we live in a society where even defensive driving instructors are teaching drivers to hit whatever runs out onto the roads in front of them instead of taking evasive action...or more importantly teaching drivers to drive the speed limit and pay attention!!

It wasn't long ago that I saw a pick-up truck hit and kill three deer that were crossing the highway in an area where they could be seen for at least a half mile! It may have been because this guy was driving at no less than 150 kmh and didn't seem to care what was on the road in front of him?

In the last few months I have driven over 5000 km through Banff and Jasper Nat. Parks and I've found that the parks roadways have turned into raceways and I have yet to see the police in my travels, let alone doing any kind of traffic enforcement!

Maybe if the Province implemented a $10,000 fine for hitting wildlife in or near our parks, and the police actually did some traffic enforcement this might slow drivers down and save more of our wildlife.

June 16, 2012 at 10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an animal lover my heart goes out to those innocent animals who have no voice to defend for themselves. I wonder why the Banff National Park does not enforce the speed limit to be more slower in certain areas where there are many animals had been killed in the past.? They know certain areas of the National Parks roads are more vulnarable to these animals. They should do more research on this subject and must make some new regulations to protect the wild animals.

June 16, 2012 at 11:19 PM  
Blogger Tony Bynum said...

And had we implemented Ron's plan years ago, we could have saved more lives and 100 of millions of dollars on construction costs. I've always said fine drivers for killing wildlife, we would just need auto insurance companies to provide wildlife damage riders . . . The key is speed . . . Forget all bs engineering and just sloe the heck down for a few miles. . . Thanks for the update.

June 17, 2012 at 6:34 AM  
Blogger Raymond Barlow said...

Nature and wildlife would be the main reason people visit your area, why not protect it? It just makes simple sense. Thanks for the article!

June 17, 2012 at 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Desperately sad, I adore wolves -such beautiful creatures. When we were in Banff three years ago we were so privileged to see a wolf; It was walking down the middle of the road - I wonder if it is with us still? I will never forget the sight and hope one day to return to Canada and especially BC and to hopefully see again these glorious creatures - if our fellow men haven't taken them all from us.

June 17, 2012 at 5:49 PM  
Blogger Manel Dias said...

I suggest that the Banff National Parks should be aware of these animals vulnarability and the areas where they are being mostly killed by people/traffic. Authorities are suppose to be doing just that to find out where the problems occure and to minimise these beautiful creatures untimely deaths while protecting them. The wilderness beauty remains only if these wolves and other wonderful animals remains in these forestry areas. Otherwise what is remaining there to see. Simply the trees!! Also to impose the new speed limits (to be more slower than the current speed limits) which some people does not care two hoots about. Or else to employ more traffic Police on those areas sorrounding the Banff and Lake Louise National Parks alike.

June 17, 2012 at 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Chris Conway said...

Parks Canada is no longer the guardian of our national parks. Parks Canada is now the administrative facilitator of government revenue targets and private commercial gain. Protection of wildlife is a secondary priority only because that's is what the tourists come to see. This is not to say there are not dedicated staff within Parks Canada, but they are now the muzzled employees of an agency that has been hijacked by Harper's barbarians and his corporate friends. It's time to understand that Parks Canada is not what it once was.

June 18, 2012 at 10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, First let me say how very sorry I am for your loss and the loss to all of us. I live in CT, and have never been to one of these National parks aside from living near Acaida when I was a child. I can tell you I have grown up studying all species of wildlife and was a rehabber at one time. In the last year I have learned more about the plight of our wolves than I ever knew was out there, so much so that I have choosen to go back to school so that I may get my degree and help them in a fashion where I will be taken more seriously. I agree we as humans need to wake up and start protecting what it is we have already started destroying.

June 18, 2012 at 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to write about this sad tragic story. Your words are heart felt and I to feel anger towards the federal government for their negligence and towards the Parks Staff that leave the gates open; I to have closed them many times. Christine LaRocque

June 18, 2012 at 11:33 AM  
Anonymous Vincent Piotrowski said...

Very sad to hear. I would hope that everyone in the park feels engaged in conservation and takes responsibility to drive cautiously and pay attention to their surroundings. Parks Canada does their part but they shouldn't be relied on as the soul source to keep our parks natural and wild. People need to think.

June 18, 2012 at 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Izabela Matej said...

Oh my God..tragic..seems like wolves are marked for death..here in US hunting, trapping, snaring and who knows what else.. in Canada tragic events on the roads plus the hunt in order to pave the way for the tar sands plants..sad reality..humans need to slow down when driving or maybe fence along railorad would help..what is happening to us humans?

June 18, 2012 at 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hiya John, I'm so angry and upset at this news, I had not
known about this till reading your blog, there should be more
news coverage of this, I wish Parks Canada would set up huge
speeding fines in Banff and and Lake Louise and Jasper,
there should be a fine of five or ten thousand dollars
maybe then people would slow down.
I see people ignoring the posted speed limits all the time
right from the moment people drive in the gates, there need to be lots more photo radar and more police on the highway, I have also
witnessed gates being left open and have stopped to close them.
Keep up your fight John and thanks for all you do.
Hope to catch up with you soon.
Steve Woods

June 20, 2012 at 4:40 AM  
Anonymous Jussy said...

So sad, having chanced upon these guys a few times this past year but a solid article.

My opinion is that it is the government’s responsibility to foster innovation to create a culture where solutions to problems can be found. Such as

A. Double demerit and monetary fines for speeding motorists within park boundaries.
B. A $43.2 million (approx lost revenue over 10 years) fine for each bear or wolf killed on the railroad tracks.

June 20, 2012 at 2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your so right we should look after the wildlife not kill it it was here before roads etc

July 26, 2012 at 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wolfs are having a real hard time at this momment i feel for every lost wolf its about time something was done

July 26, 2012 at 4:51 PM  

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