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The Wolves of Jasper National Park – Should there be a protective no-trapping buffer zone around the park’s east boundary?

Date: 26th September 2016

Article by Dick Dekker PhD., Wildlife Ecologist.  This article reprinted, with kind permission, from Nature Alberta, Spring 2016.   Article will also appear in Wolf Awareness Autumn edition of HOWLINGS.

Photo courtesy Matt Wilson

Image courtesy Matt Wilson

On December 10, 2015, after several days of vain effort, a helicopter crew chartered by Parks Canada managed to drop their cannon-fired nets on two wolves fleeing over snow-covered Summit Lake in the upper Rocky River valley of Jasper National Park.

The objective of the chase was to equip the captured animals with neck collars and GPS radio telemetry.  Released again after treatment, these wolves were expected to rejoin their local pack and relay their territorial whereabouts electronically to a biologist in the Jasper Park warden office.  Unfortunately, both transmitters failed.

About two months after  capture, one of the collared Wolves was caught in a snare set by an Alberta trapper outside the east boundary of the park. Apparently, this Wolf, probably in the company of its  pack, had traveled from the upper Rocky River down to the lower Athabasca  valley, a distance of some fifty kilometers, plus a further 15 kilometers to the parks east boundary.  Thus, the initial objective of recording the range of this captured Wolf had been partially met.

The snaring of this park wolf became public knowledge after the trapper handed over the Wolf’s collar to the provincial  Fish and  Wildlife officer stationed in Hinton, who, in turn, notified the Jasper warden office.  The details given were that the animal had been caught west of Hinton.  Earlier that winter, a radio-collared park Cougar also died in a snare west of Hinton, outside the national park.

As it so happens, someone working under contract to CN Rail found a trapper’s bait-site near Brule, west of Hinton, just a few hundred meters away from Jasper Park’s east boundary.  The site contained the carcass of a traffic-killed Elk, chickens, and other unspecified meat and bone offal.

Carrion bait sites are in general use by trappers operating in the Alberta foothill forests along the east slopes of Jasper and Banff National Parks.  The baits are maintained over the long term with highway fatalities of hoofed animals or the remains of farmed bison and other meat.  Dumped at the site over extended periods, scavengers, including Wolves, get used to a free meal.  When the fur season opens, the trapper sets any number of steel snares across all access trails through the bushes leading to the bait.  Entire packs of Wolves are caught in this way, as well as a range of non-target animals.

Image courtesy Peter A Dettling © - TerraMagica

Image courtesy Peter A Dettling © – TerraMagica

Besides the collared park Wolf, rumour has it that five other Wolves were caught at the Brule bait site, which could mean that the entire six-member Rocky River pack ended up dead.

On March 16, 2016, a report about the death of the collared  park Wolf was carried in Jasper’s weekly newspaper, the Fitzhugh, under the title “Environmentalists call for buffer zone outside Jasper park”.

The article quoted Jill Seaton, long-term president of the Jasper Environmental Association.

On behalf of her organization, Jill writes an informative website on park wildlife.  She and fellow conservationists would welcome a buffer zone along the east  boundary of the park, particularly at strategic points such as the lower end of the Athabasca valley.

From the perspective of the Alberta Fish & Wildlife Department, the provincial harvest of furbearers is a traditional activity.  The average number of wolves trapped annually along the east boundaries of Banff and Jasper National Parks was 74 over the past 5 years.  Trapping Wolves had become all the more lucrative after bounties of 250-500 dollars on dead Wolves were offered by several rural counties, livestock groups, and hunting clubs.

Wolf and coyote pelts hanging in trappers cabin.

Wolf and coyote skins hanging in trappers window. S.Parr©

Details on the widespread bounty campaign were outlined in a research paper by Dr. Gilbert Proulx and Dwight Rodtka (2015).  In another published study, Gilbert Proulx and six co-authors  presented photo evidence that  the use of snares often results in extended suffering of Wolves that are left to die over days and even weeks.

The Fitzhugh article quoted the Vice-President of the Alberta Trappers Association “We got too many Wolves because of the mild winter, and the reality is that we need to harvest Wolves to get things a little more balanced”.  He characterized trappers as humane and respectful of the animals”. 

The paradox of trappers is that they kill what they love.  Their usual defense is that predators need to be thinned out, otherwise they would die of starvation anyhow.

The current policy of Parks Canada regarding the establishment of a no-trapping zone around Jasper Park is to maintain open contact with the provincial trappers in the interest of their continued cooperation if collared park animals happen to be caught.

THE CASE FOR A BUFFER ZONE AT ROCK LAKE, ALBERTA 

Canada's Mountain National Parks have proven to be a sinkhole for wolves. Extra protection is required to maintain intact wolf families and ecological integrity.

Canada’s Mountain National Parks have proven to be a sinkhole for wolves. Extra protection is required to maintain intact wolf families & ecological integrity.

The north boundary of Jasper National Park cuts arbitrarily across Rock Creek just 4 kilometers above its outflow into pristine Rock Lake, which is about 60 road kilometers northwest of Hinton.  The one kilometer wide valley floor between the boundary and the lake is a rich mosaic of beaver ponds and marshy meadows, while the open hillsides on the west side of the valley are the traditional wintering grounds for the local Elk herd.

Just west of the lake is the starting point for an ancient horse trail that leads into the vast hinterlands of Jasper Park.  In 1965, when Irma and I first made a back-packing camping trip up that little-used trail, we had to bushwhack across the low watershed divide between Rock Creek and Willow Creek that run in opposite directions.  While Rock Creek flows north, meandering Willow Creek flows south until it joins the turbulent Snake Indian River, a tributary of the mighty Athabasca.

At that time, Jasper Park wardens lived all year in their district, no matter how remote, and we were told by park headquarters that the Willow Creek warden would be at home.  In response to our inquiries, we had been informed that his district was the only place known where Wolves had returned after the decade- long Wolf poisoning campaign conducted by the Alberta government in the 1950s.

The Willow Creek warden—a crusty old-timer— was happy to answer our questions and said that he saw eight Wolves on frozen Rock Lake last winter, when he snow-shoed the 12 km trail to his backcountry cabin.  However, the next day, he had received a radio message from a local trapper that seven Wolves had taken his poisoned bait set out on the lake.

To our great relief, some Wolves had apparently survived, for Irma and I were delighted to come across their fresh tracks on muddy sections of the hiking trail.

Image courtesy Peter A Dettling © - TerraMagica

Image courtesy Peter A Dettling © – TerraMagica

Four years later, the Willow Creek district became the focus of a Wolf study by Ludwig Carbyn, who began a Ph.D. project for the University of Toronto, supervised by late Canadian Wolf expert, professor Douglas Pimlott.  Guided by the new and keenly interested Willow Creek warden, Lu was shown two wolf dens that had recently been occupied.  After these home sites were abandoned, Lu and I happened to find another wolf den, which remained in seasonal use for the next eight years.

In 1973, when Lu left to study Wolves in other Canadian national parks, I had the Willow Creek district again to myself.  Between early June and late October, and occasionally during winter, I made half a dozen visits each year.

In those early years, well before the routine application of radio telemetry in wildlife research, Lu and I had to depend on snow tracking to find out where Willow Creek Wolves were ranging.  It turned out that their hunting circuit included Rock Lake, where the pack would be vulnerable to provincial trappers and hunters.  To counteract that risk, we thought that a 4 kilometer protective buffer zone, extending from the current park boundary, would make sense.  Such and adjustment seemed all the more logical since the lower Rock Creek bottom lands represent a natural extension of the adjacent habitat inside the park boundary.  Unfortunately, up to this day, although many people now see the same need for a buffer zone upstream from Rock Lake, no such initiative has been taken.

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Literature Cited:

Proulx, G. and D. Rodtka. 2015.  Predator Bounties in western Canada cause animal suffering and compromise wildlife conservation efforts.  Animals 5:1034-1046.

Proulx, Gilbert and six co-authors.  2015.  Humaneness and selectivity of killing neck snares used to capture wild canids in Canada.  A review.  Canadian Wildlife Biology and Management 4: 55-65.

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Wolves in Canada’s Mountain National Parks…An Update from Wolf Awareness Inc.:

Nanook was the breeding male of the Bow Valley Pack in Banff National Park. His entire family was lost to hunting, trapping, and transportation route pressures. A new pack moved in to claim this vacant territory and the Bow Valley Pack was forced to rebuild itself once again. The new pack also succumbed to unnatural deaths Summer 2016, with 2 wolves killed by Parks staff after getting into garbage and 4 pups killed on the railway.

Image courtesy Peter A Dettling© – TerraMagica. Nanook was once the breeding male of the Bow Valley Pack in Banff National Park. His entire family was lost to hunting, trapping, and transportation route pressures. A new pack moved in to claim the vacant territory and the Bow Valley Pack was forced to rebuild itself once again. This pack also succumbed to human-caused deaths during Summer 2016, with 2 wolves killed by Parks staff after getting into garbage and 4 pups killed on the railway.

On the front page of Wolf Awareness Summer 2016 edition of HOWLINGS, we briefly covered the tragic news that  the Bow Valley wolves from Banff National Park were wiped out AGAIN over the summer (4 pups killed by train, 2 adults killed by Parks staff after becoming habituated to garbage).

The Mountain National Parks have long been recognized and scientifically-documented as being  a “sink-hole” for wolves—whom will always be dependent upon wolves from beyond invisible park boundaries to maintain functioning populations and genetic viability.

Given the increasing pressures on wolves (aerial gunning, bounties, snares, poison) just beyond the National Parks’ boundaries and the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway within the parks (which will be a major concern for Yoho’s wolves), it is imperative that added  measures of protection be implemented for wolves in and around the Mountain National Parks ASAP to ensure that Canada’s “Protected Wolves” are truly protected and ecological integrity is preserved.  Why not encourage our Country’s Leader to take this important step NOW, while we still can?  To learn more about the continued struggles facing wolves in the Mountain National Parks see http://www.wolfawarenessinc.org/#!more-are-wolves-protected/

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