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CA AB: Wolves being monitored in bison area

By: Cathy Ellis

Two wolves in the Panther-Cascade pack of Banff National Park have been captured and fitted with satellite tracking collars so researchers can study dynamics between the carnivores and a new bison herd.

Parks Canada worked with a professional helicopter net-gunning crew to capture, handle and fit the wolves with GPS collars on Jan. 8. They were caught about eight kilometres east of Windy Cabin above the Panther River.

Researchers want to see if wolves will switch their diet to include bison, a species that has not been present in Banff’s backcountry for 140 years, and if wolves influence bison movement once they’re released from a fenced pasture this summer.

“Wolves are travelling close to the soft release pasture and certainly wolves and bison are aware of each other,” said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife ecologist for Banff National Park.

“It will be interesting to see if the wolves test and try to predate on bison once they’re out of the pasture and whether or not the wolves will affect where bison travel through the park.”

Fitting the two wolves – the breeding female and a two-year-old wolf from the seven-member pack – is part of the $6.6 million bison reintroduction program, which saw 16 bison from Elk Island National Park brought to Banff National Park in early 2018.

Ten pregnant females and six bulls were brought from Elk Island’s disease-free herd to a fenced, soft-release pasture in the Panther Valley, located about 40 kilometres north of the Banff townsite. In April and May last year, 10 calves were born, bringing the herd number to 26. All bison in the herd remain alive and well.

After the bison have calved again this spring, the gates to the fenced pasture will open to allow bison to wander into a larger 1,200 square kilometre reintroduction zone in the Panther and Dormer valleys.

Whittington said having GPS collars on two of the wolves in the pack would allow researchers to monitor what they are eating.

He said researchers visit areas where there are clusters of GPS locations where the wolves spent at least eight hours at a site.

Wolves can consume smaller prey species like a young deer in less than a day, but will spend several days feeding on elk and moose, he said.

“Wolves eat everything possible. At deer predation sites we are lucky to find a few bone fragments,” he said.

“At elk and moose predation sites, we’ll usually find a few larger bones, such as the femur, that the wolves have gnawed, but were unable to crush and consume.”

Whittington said 75 per cent of the species hunted and killed by the Panther-Cascade wolf pack in summer 2016 were bighorn sheep, but in 2017, 75 per cent of predation sites were deer, with far fewer bighorn sheep.

“It will be interesting to see if wolves learn to predate on bison and how that might affect predation rates on other ungulates over time,” he said.

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, giving biologists there a unique opportunity to study what happens when a top predator returns to an ecosystem.

At the end of 2016, there were at least 108 wolves in 11 different packs living primarily in Yellowstone. There’s an estimated 5,000 wild bison in Yellowstone, comprised of at least two distinct subpopulations, the northern and central herds.

The type of prey killed by wolves there varies by time period and consists primarily of elk. However, research shows predation on other prey such as bison may be increasing.

Research there suggests wolves often pick their prey based on the size of their pack. They generally hunt elk, but bigger packs will tackle bison.

Hunting is a hazardous business for wolves, but Whittington said they would generally prey on more vulnerable animals like young, old or sick ungulates, to reduce their risk of getting injured during the kill.

“About five per cent of wolf kills in Yellowstone are bison, but bison account for about 40 per cent of the wolves’ diet because they also scavenge on bison killed from other causes,” he said.

The bison in Banff come from Elk Island National Park, about 35 kms east of Edmonton – Canada’s only completely fenced national park – and it has predators within its boundaries, including wolves.

“I know periodically wolves have accessed Elk Island National Park, so these bison in Banff may or may not have been exposed to wolves at Elk Island,” said Whittington.

The Panther-Cascade wolf pack has been travelling extensively throughout its range, from Stoney Creek north through the Upper Cascade and Panther valleys, sometimes east outside the park towards Mountain Aire Lodge near Sundre.