Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Queen Charlotte Islands

Hi everyone, just a quick note to let you all know that I'm embarking on a photo tour of world famous Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands, tomorrow morning with 7 guests aboard the Ocean Light II in search of ancient Haida ruins, 1000 year-old Sitka spruce, and humpback whales!

For those of you that like to 'follow' along on my adventures, my wife Jenn has set up a SPOT link here that you can use to watch where we're going each day (the link has just been activated now, so it may take a few hours for our location to show up).

Happy shooting,

John

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Introducing Quill and Morant!

After last week's tragic wolf deaths in Banff, I figured it was high time for some good news from our mountain parks.  Over the past few weeks I've had the good fortune to run into two of my favourite bears in Banff National Park, the twin grizzly bear cubs that were orphaned last spring when their mother, Dawn, was killed by a Canadian Pacific train near Lake Louise.

As I reported in my blog post, Remembering Dawn, several weeks ago, the twins emerged from hibernation this spring as healthy as can be, much to the delight of all involved in this poignant story.

And while they have a long road to go before this story will be considered a success in terms of Banff National Park's grizzly bear population and, perhaps even more importantly, in terms of the bigger picture of Alberta's seriously threatened grizzly bear population, their survival to date does provide a lot of hope and joy to locals, tourists, parks staff, and everyone else that's been following their tale.

Near the end of May this year, one of the orphans was observed limping badly near Lake Louise, so Parks Canada made a decision to tranquilize the cub and check him out.  To everyone's surprise, the small, male cub had more than forty porcupine quills lodged in one of his front paws, which were promptly removed and treated.

In the days following his capture, I began calling the little guy (he was only 72 pounds when he was captured on May 29th) Quill, and the name seems to have stuck as the Bear Guardians are also now calling him Quill, as are several Parks Canada staff in the Lake Louise field unit.

Introducing Quill, one of Dawn's orphaned twin grizzly bear cubs

I've photographed Quill twice now this spring (though I've seen him a total of nine times), for the most part leaving him be if there's no other traffic or photographers about, as it's critical that he gets good access to roadside vegetation at this time of year.

While checking up from time to time on Quill, I've also been fortunate enough to view and photograph his more reclusive sibling (the two are rarely seen together anymore) -- a slightly bigger, taller, and more rotund version of Quill.  For a week I struggled to come up with a name for this beautiful bear, and then, early one morning, sitting above Morant's Curve where the orphans' mother was killed, it came to me: whether male or female, the second cub had to be Morant.

And introducing Morant, Quill's twin brother (or sister??)

Together, Quill and Morant had the comfort of knowing that they had several hundred pounds of force in combination, as well as each other's eyes, ears, and noses to rely on.  Separate, they face an even more daunting task as they struggle to grow into adults in a landscape rife with cars, trucks, trains, tourists, and towns.

Thankfully, some of you can do your part to help them survive to adulthood. I know that many of you that read my posts are locals, frequent visitors, or amateur/professional wildlife photographers, so I'd like to ask each of you to take on a temporary role as being a bear guardian of sorts with these cubs.  Because we're often the first ones out each morning and the last ones to leave the roads and trails in the evenings, we have an unique opportunity to watch over these two cubs and make sure that they don't get into trouble with people, roads, or railways.

So what can you do to help?  For starters, stay in your vehicles around these cubs if they're near the road (in two years of photographing them, I have yet to step out of my vehicle to get a shot), and better yet, speak up if you see someone else getting out of their vehicle near the cubs. A simple, "Excuse me, would you mind getting back in your vehicle?" will often suffice, though I often follow this up with something along the lines of, "Parks has been monitoring these little guys to make sure they don't get in trouble and they're asking everyone to take their pictures from inside their vehicles, thanks for helping out!"

Why is it so critical that people remain in their vehicles around Quill and Morant?  Because they don't have their mother with them to teach them how close is too close and to guide them in how to deal with people, to know when and how to react, and to know when to run from or avoid humans.

There are already several reports of people feeding these bears, so it's also important that you refrain from sitting in your vehicle right beside them for hours on end.  It's one thing to pull up and photograph them out of your car window with a 500mm telephoto lens from 50-100 meters away (50 meters is close enough to get a full frame shot with a 500mm lens); it's quite another to sit there ten feet from a cub craning out your window with your smartphone to take a pic. If you do see unnatural behaviour from either bear (like walking up to a car window), please intervene and do what you can to get the bear off the road and give it a bit of a scare (pulling up right beside them and hammering your horn seems to work well).

There is no doubt that these cubs are going to have to deal with people and traffic, but we can really help their learning process by being cautious and helping ensure that others, especially tourists from out of town, view the bears in a responsible manner.

A local photographs Morant from 70 meters away with a telephoto zoom lens.

If all else fails and you see one of the cubs feeding on the railway tracks or getting too close to cars or anything else that concerns you, then please report it immediately to Parks Canada dispatch at 1 (403) 762-1470 (program it into your cells!).

With a bit of help and a lot of luck, hopefully we'll still be talking about the exploits of Quill and Morant in Banff National Park long into the future.

Happy shooting!

John

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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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