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.



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