‘Wild things happen,’ Jasper hiker says of pack killing her pet
BY BRENT WITTMEIER, EDMONTON JOURNAL
With her 10-year-old daughter at a dance lesson, Wendy Niven had a free hour.
Like most days, she used the late afternoon of Nov. 14 for a run with Helio, her four-year-old Entlebucher mountain dog.
Jasper’s backcountry has been Niven’s backyard for three decades. She helps lead the Jasper Trail Alliance, a group that maintains a Facebook page full of trail advice and tips.
On that day, Niven selected an unnumbered stretch along the Pyramid Bench on the northwest edge of town. As her feet pounded the snow, Niven’s thoughts turned to something she’d been composing for a creative-writing class.
A few metres behind, Helio began to sniff at something. Niven heard a sound and turned around.
“It was almost like a squeak, a bird chirping,” she said. “I looked around and here was my dog, Helio, running full tilt down the trail toward me and behind him was this big husky dog loping down the trail.”
At first, Niven thought the dogs were playing, that at any second another owner would come around the corner. Then both animals zoomed past.
“That’s not a dog,” Niven realized. “That’s a wolf.”
When a wolf makes a decision to kill, it fixates on its target to the exclusion of everything else, said Steven Malcolm, one of four human-wildlife conflict specialists at Jasper National Park. It’s classic predatory behaviour, and once it begins, it’s pretty much unstoppable.
“It basically ran right beside Wendy on the trail,” Malcolm said. “It had no idea somebody else was there, it just focused on the dog.”
According to Malcolm, between 40 and 80 wolves live in about 10 packs within the 10,000-square-kilometre park. Three have territories close to town: the Pyramid pack roams west of the Athabasca River, the Signal pack ranges to the east, and the Brazeau pack covers a huge swath between Jasper and the Saskatchewan River Crossing 150 kilometres to the south.
Park officials base those numbers on images from remote cameras. Precision is difficult since juvenile wolves bounce between packs. But with growing numbers of whitetailed deer, park biologists are watching closely to see if the stable wolf population explodes.
Wolves have perfected group hunting. A large 40-kilogram male will target an adult moose or elk. The others simply wait in ambush. And when hunts are no longer fruitful, the pack moves on.
Unlike the more brazen coyotes – seen in the townsite scouting for dogs and cats at night – wolves rarely venture into town. Things are different, however, when humans encroach on their territory. Attacks like the one Niven experienced are “not a common occurrence,” Malcolm said, but they’re not uncommon either.
“Wolves target dogs, they target coyotes, they target fox, they target anything,” Malcolm said. “And very few dogs will be able to defend themselves against an adult wolf.”
When Niven realized Helio was in danger, she ran the few metres from the trail to the road. She yelled, hoping Helio would loop back and human odours would scare the wolf away. That’s when she heard “that bitey dog sound.”
Niven grabbed the biggest stick she could find and ran back up the trail, reaching a hill where the wolf was dragging Helio into the brush. She followed them, still hoping to scare the predator, increasingly afraid her dog was seriously hurt.
Dusk was setting in. When Niven stepped farther into the woods and clambered past fallen trees, she had lost sight of the animals. She could hear panting, but couldn’t tell if it was Helio or the wolf.
More than an hour had passed. Her thoughts returned to town, where her daughter’s dance lesson would be over. People might wonder where she was. She vowed to walk a few more steps to a final tree.
“I went and looked and didn’t see anything,” she said. “I just thought, ‘This is dumb to be walking around at night.'”
Niven went home to break the news to her daughter, then called park specialists. Malcolm and another wildlife officer found the kill site the next day, and escorted Niven there.
“When we got there, there was nothing,” Niven said. “Nothing but a couple bits of hair, some pink snow, and his collar.”
Malcolm initially thought it might have been a territorial kill. But he was more concerned about the possibility of a starving lone wolf habituated to people. Based on the paw prints and what was left, it was simple. Two adult and three juvenile wolves – the Pyramid pack – had chosen Helio for dinner.
Malcolm and the other specialists handle between 800 to 1,500 conflicts per year, including 150 to 200 where animals are killed by motorists or trains. They also remove animal carcasses killed by predators near high-traffic areas, since predators are known to linger.
Even with those precautions, confrontations with wildlife on Jasper’s trails and pathways are inevitable. Malcolm preaches caution: move in groups, make noise, bring pepper spray, and keep children and pets close. If you run into a predator, assess what’s happening.
“We try to get people to differentiate between a predatory and a defensive attack, because your actions determine your success,” Malcolm said. “If it’s defensive, not aggressive, create space, use bear spray, remove yourself. If it’s a predatory attack, that’s not going to work.”
It only took a few metres of separation to spark a predatory attack that day. But Niven’s aggressive actions weren’t enough. Had Helio been on a leash, things might have been different.
The story of Niven’s encounter buzzed around Jasper the next day. She took to the Jasper Trail Alliance Facebook page.
“Last night a wolf killed my dog, Helio,” Niven began in her account, later printed in the local paper.
“We get so complacent. That place we call our backyard is wild, and all kinds of wild things happen” she said.
Returning to the scene a month after the attack, Niven stepped over Helio’s name – carved into the snow by a friend – to point to the spot where she lost her pet.
Writing helped her deal with the loss.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “My dog Helio kind of suffered or lost his life because of my mistake, but I don’t expect it to happen again.”