Wolves are a polarizing animal – many love them and what they represent, others would shoot them on sight, no questions asked. I see them as an integral part of the food chain in the ecosystems where they still exist. In the Banff National Park they are not thriving but the pack of five that I watched take down an elk in late February, are finding their way and I hope they are able to raise pups this spring.
There is one black wolf, one of the younger ones in the pack I have been told, which is a beautiful creature. He seems to be a bit more curious than the others and once the elk was down strode across the bridge deck to the edge of the forest seeming to be momentarily more interested in assessing his surroundings than joining the feast.
I look forward to this wolf and his pack continuing to occupy their rightful place as a carnivore in the Bow Valley’s food web.
The story of the Banff wolf pack’s takedown of the elk last Sunday begins for me where Banff Avenue goes under the Trans-Canada Highway. I had spent some time along the Vermilion Lakes, then the Bow Valley Parkway and was heading for the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. At the stop sign I looked south for oncoming traffic and noticed movement up on the railway overpass. Pulling off the road, I could see an elk from the shoulder up – the body blocked by the solid concrete side of the bridge.
The elk took a couple of paces, doubled back and then repeated that a couple of times. It seemed unusual behaviour so I trained my telephoto lens on her to have a better look. When I did, I couldn’t make out anything unusual – until a wolf’s head came into view when it leaped up and bit the elk’s neck!
At that point, part of me was in amazement but the more important part got to work. I ran up the small hill beside the bridge to get level with the animals. As I did, I could see four wolves (although the pack has five members; I just don’t have one photograph with more than four but all five were likely there) surrounding the elk. I did not see what led to the elk being on the bridge but suspect it was herded there by the wolves.
Over the next seven minutes, the wolves alternated between attacking the animal and walling it in on the bridge. Both the herding and the attacking suggested great intelligence and teamwork.
The large male, likely the alpha, which primarily attacked the face and neck alternated initial lunges with the other wolves at the back. Whoever went first would dodge and parry the increasingly weak counters by the elk while the others would bite viciously while her attention was distracted from them.
When the elk would get closer to one of the ends of the bridge, the wolves would line up along the edge and force her back towards the middle. During the struggle, she was pulled down twice and recovered her legs before being taken down for good by the alpha in a twisting move of immense power.
The cold air, it was about -15°C at 10AM when I came across the attack, condensed the breath and the heat from the open wounds into steam that added to the poignancy of the scene.
When the elk was down, the pack wasted no time in starting their feast. They had about 45 minutes before the carcass was removed which gave the whole pack time to get at least one full meal down.
Parks Canada has said that the elk was removed due to the location beside the tracks in the middle of the bridge and the danger that would pose to the wolves and the other animals the kill would attract. I fully agree with that and hope the carcass is taken to a location where the pack can find it again whenever that decision makes sense. I had hoped they might move the carcass to another location immediately but there are a number of factors involved in making those decisions. I respect the Parks Canada people that follow these wolves on a daily basis and believe they will continue to make those calls with the best outcome for the wildlife. I certainly appreciate their work getting the trains slowed down for a period of time after the attack and giving the wolves a decent amount of time before the elk was moved.
I will post a few more images a little later but wanted to share the story as I saw it now.
I left Jasper early in the morning heading south along the Highway 93, enjoying the empty road given the time of day. I had hopes of finding a bear or two along the forest’s edge during my drive through the park (and did sight a very handsome fellow a little later). I had gone about ten kilometres out of town and then felt compelled to retrace my path, thinking I would drive back to last bridge before town and then head south again. Turning back, I went a couple of kilometres and then saw an animal quite a distance straight ahead.
I pulled off to the shoulder and levelled my long lens quickly. I was happy to have a composition with the wolf in the middle of the road with the surrounding landscape visible. I watched the wolf trot steadily down the middle and shoulders of the highway for several minutes.
She had a route in mind and stayed on it. She paused near an opening to the river, and I had thought she might go down to the water. That wasn’t her path as she carried along the road, passing me on the other side and stopping to give me a stare before moving on. At close range I noticed her tracking collar and it seemed like she had been freshly shaved around the neck so I wonder if she had been fitted with a new collar and was now catching back up with her pack.
Wolves are one of my unicorn animals. That is to say that I don’t see them anywhere near as often as I would like. So it is very special when I do get to spend time with one. Especially one as pretty as this wolf!