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.
On the weekend I was able to watch an amazing encounter in the Banff National Park. A pack of four wolves hunted and took down an elk on the outskirts of the Banff townsite. The wolves had trapped the elk on a train overpass and wore the much larger animal down with continuous lunges and bites. I will detail how the scene unfolded in an upcoming story but I wanted to share this image while I had a few minutes. Watching this was a window into survival in nature and I came away in awe of the victors and their tenacity, intelligence and cooperation. A shadow of sadness for the elk was a part of this story and I gave thanks for what that life lost meant to this pack.
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!
We were in Banff to celebrate my father’s birthday on the weekend. Sunday morning I was on my own and I decided to explore the Bow Valley Parkway as I have not spent any time there this winter. I stopped at the lookout above the Backswamp and was there for a while before I noticed a light-colored wolf laying down out in the middle of the plain. Some small motion must have caught my eye finally because I had mistaken her for a tree stump from that distance of close to a kilometer. Once I started watching this wolf, a companion cleared the forest and trotted over to the first one. They were pointed west and when they met up, the two wolves slipped across the snow in that direction. I lost sight of them behind the tall trees on the river’s edge a couple of minutes later.
These were the first wolves that I had seen anywhere in the Banff National Park so I did not that to be the end of this encounter. I thought I would try to flank them by driving further west to Muleshoe where I could park and then hike down to the river. The hope being to meet up with the wolves when they passed by – if they did go that way and I was able to notice them.
When I got to Muleshoe, I slung my camera and tripod over my shoulder and started down. My stroll was a bit more arduous than anticipated as the crust of snow was thin so most of my steps broke through. This slowed my progress a bit but it paid off well once I got down to the tracks. There, about two hundred meters east of me, were the two wolves walking briskly along the train tracks. I watched them quietly for a minute before the sound of an approaching train drew their attention and the wolves ran into the forest. The pale wolf went north towards the lower slopes of the mountains along the Parkway. That was my last glimpse of that beautiful creature on the day. The black one slipped into a thin line of trees between the tracks and the river and disappeared.
When the train had passed, I discovered my new friend crossing the snow-covered ice at a bend in the river. The black wolf caught sight of me at that point and hastened to the other side.
Once on the far bank, I was drawn in by the gleaming yellow eyes that stared out above the snow where it had just laid down to watch me.
The wolf waited for more than a few minutes, even laying its head on the snow suggesting it may have a nap, before getting up again.
Stretching a little as it stood up, the wolf kept its eyes on me and then walked in an arc away from me and north towards the tracks. Against the dormant nest of branches I photographed the wolf a couple more times. Then it dashed up the berm to the railway, crossed the line and disappeared into the brush on the northern side.
It was a special first encounter with a couple of the Bow Valley wolf pack. I hope to see them in another quiet moment again soon.