Canada hosts the world’s largest wolf population, with more than 50,000 wolves inhabiting its vast landscape. Wolves are heavily hunted and trapped throughout the country, however, and are often killed when they stray from the protection of national and provincial parks. Defenders is working to ensure that Canada’s wolves are conserved and properly managed so that they continue to thrive in the future. Our current efforts are focused on reducing human-wolf conflicts in southwestern Alberta.
In the Field
In southwestern Alberta, wolves are at increasing risk from habitat loss and lethal conflicts with ranchers. Defenders is collaborating with an innovative group of partners to demonstrate that wolves, people, and livestock can share the same landscape.
Management and Policy
Canada’s wolf population is generally considered stable, and receives no federal protection. Defenders is affecting policy change at the regional level by promoting alternative approaches to wolf management.
Wolf Research and Monitoring
Wolves were once the most widespread mammal in North America. However, when Europeans arrived, they brought with them a legacy of persecuting the wolf. As settlement spread, wolf populations plummeted. In the Rockies, wolf control started in the 1920s. Not only wolves, but also coyotes, cougars and lynxes were shot and poisoned even in parks. In the 1940s, wolf populations began to rebound but declined again in the 1950s due to a rabies scare. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, after an absence of thirty years, that wolves were seen again in the Central Rockies. Today, wolves occur in both Yoho and Kootenay National Parks as well as on adjacent lands.
Wolf Biology and Ecology
The type of wolf found in the Rockies is a subspecies of the Gray Wolf Canis lupis irremotis. It is larger than the wolf found in eastern Canada. The male Rocky Mountain Wolf weighs 35 to 55 kg and stands about one meter at the shoulder. Females are smaller and lighter. Wolves vary in colour from brown, black, and grey shades to almost white.
Wolves are sometimes confused with coyotes. Wolves are larger and have blockier heads. Coyotes look more fox-like with pointed muzzles and larger ears relative to the head. Wolves also have relatively shorter, less fluffy tails that they hold straight out when running rather than drooping as coyotes carry theirs. The only other member of the dog family found in the Rockies is the red fox but it is uncommon and not likely to be confused with a coyote or wolf due to its distinctive colour and small size.
Wolves are a highly social and playful species. They live in small, tightly organized family groups called packs. These are made up of about four to eleven members and are essentially extended families. Each pack is dominated by an alpha male and an alpha female who are the only mating pair in the group. The alpha female dens up to deliver and raise the pups. There are usually four or five pups per litter born in late April or early May. The rest of the pack helps to feed and care for the pups.
In the Rockies, wolves need large territories. The Kootenay wolf pack covers an area of roughly 2,800 km². This sounds like a lot of area but typically only about 25% the valley bottom habitat is suitable for hunting. Ungulate densities are quite low in Kootenay and Yoho National Parks and the wolves have to travel widely to find enough food.
Wolves eat everything from mice to moose whatever they can hunt and kill. They favour big game, especially in the winter when smaller animals are hard to get at under the snow or are hibernating. Researchers studying wolves in Kootenay National Park found that they feed mostly on elk, moose and deer.
Research and Monitoring
Researchers are closely monitoring wolf recolonization of the Central Rockies. The Central Rockies Wolf Project started in 1987, with Parks Canada as a partner. This research uses radio telemetry and snow tracking techniques to find out how wolves use their mountain habitat and how human activities affect them. The Central Rockies Wolf Project works closely with governments, communities and landowners to help resolve conflicts in land use that affect wolves. The ultimate goal is to maintain a self-sustaining population of wolves in the Central Rockies.
Researchers track the wolves using radio telemetry. Study animals are fitted with a radio collar equipped with a transmitter that emits a unique radio frequency. A directional antennae and a receiver are used to locate the signal. Researchers sometimes conduct telemetry from the air using an airplane or a helicopter. This can be more economical than ground searching for wide-ranging animals.
In the winter, researchers follow the tracks of wolves and their prey and by looking for other evidence in the snow, can piece together events of the hunt. To avoid disturbing the wolves, the researcher follow the tracks backwards, away from the direction the wolves are traveling. Once a kill site is located, samples are taken from the prey to determine species, age and physical condition. Wolf scat is also analysed to determine food habits.
This research is providing data about wolf movements, habitat and prey preferences, mortality and location of critical areas such as dens. This information is used to determine the level of human use of trails and other park facilities as well as seasonal closures in critical areas such as den sites.
The Kootenay Wolf Pack
The first study of wolf ecology in Kootenay National Park began in 1992 with the capture and collaring of three wolves. Since then, wolf packs have more or less continuously occupied the Kootenay Valley, often moving north or south along the river into adjacent provincial lands. Individual wolves occasionally make long forays outside the park (up to 250 kilometres), sometimes never returning. Within Kootenay National Park, as many as 18 animals have been counted in a single group although this probably represents a temporary grouping of wolves from more than one pack. Intensive research of the Kootenay wolves ended in 1998, but park staff, volunteers and researchers with the Central Rockies Wolf Project have continued to monitor pack status and movements.
Amber, a female wolf named for her striking eye colour, was captured and fitted with a radio collar in 1994. She was the longest-standing study wolf in the Kootenay park, transmitting signals for almost six years. In March 1996, her movements became very localized and researchers found that she was unable to use her right hind foot. The cause of the injury was unknown. She seemed to recover and for a time was able to keep up with the Kootenay packs’ movements. However, sightings of Amber in 1999 confirmed that she was unable to use the injured leg. Amber went off the air in late 1999; it is not known whether she is still alive.
The Highway Toll
On the morning of May 17 2001, the alpha female of the Kootenay pack was struck and killed on highway 93. She was lactating at the time. We believe that the nursing pups were too young at the time to have survived even with the efforts of the other pack members to feed them. This case is just one statistic in a growing toll of animals killed by traffic and trains in the mountain parks. Wolves spend a lot of time where their main prey are – often along major valley bottoms where transportation corridors are also located. This makes them vulnerable to collisions with vehicles. In Kootenay National Park alone, 10 wolves were killed by vehicles on highway 93 between 1992 and 2001.
Wolf Research Update: September 2002
In July 2001, park staff and Central Rockies Wolf Project researchers teamed up to capture and radio-collar two young female wolves. Kali’ was a skinny ash-grey wolf in moderate condition. Aven’, also ash-grey but with darker facial markings was in excellent condition. These wolves sometimes travel with a pack of about six to seven animals. Both wolves have been located regularly between Settlers’ Road in the south to Kootenay Park Lodge in the north but have also left the park for periods of time. By the spring of 2002, researchers and park staff suspected that Kali had become the alpha female of the Kootenay pack. This was confirmed in late June when she was seen with a single pup. Other pups may have been present but not seen.
People and Wolves
The history of wolves in the central Rockies demonstrates that even a resourceful animal with a high reproductive rate can be decimated by human activities. Inside parks, wolves are now safe from direct persecution. But they still suffer high mortality rates from collisions with vehicles and trains, disturbance from human facilities and activities, and loss of habitat along valley corridors. Outside parks, wolves face additional perils due to hunting, trapping and poisoning brought on by perceived competition for wild game or conflict over livestock. In the Central Rockies, wolves have a less than a 1% chance of surviving ten years in the wild. Only 5% of these wolves die of natural causes.
Like other large carnivores wolves occupy large territories, live in low densities and are sensitive to human disturbance. Areas with healthy wolf populations generally have intact wilderness. Conserving wolves means conserving wilderness.
What is Parks Canada Doing to Protect Wolves?
Kootenay National Park uses wolf research results when preparing park management plans, human use strategies, and environmental assessment reports.
- Kootenay is trying to reduce wolf mortality on Highway 93 by enforcing posted speed limits and by liaising with user groups such as trucking associations. Temporary seasonal speed reduction zones may apply in areas where wolves frequently cross the highway.
- In August, 2002, a new wildlife detection system was tested in the park. This system uses infra-red cameras to detect wildlife on the road, then activates a series of flashing lights to warn drivers to slow down.
- Wolves need an adequate prey base. Within Kootenay, populations of large ungulates, such as elk and mule deer have declined in recent years. The park uses prescribed fire to open up the forest and improve ungulate habitat.
- Park Canada works with other agencies, industry and communities to conserve large carnivores such as wolves, cougars and grizzly bears throughout the southern Rockies.
What You Can Do?
- Please obey posted speed limits (and temporary speed reduction zones) when driving through our parks. Vehicles are the major cause of death for our wolves and other wildlife.
- If you see a wolf, do not approach or feed it and do not leave your vehicle to get a closer look or a picture. Wild wolves are more likely to survive than ones that have become habituated or tolerant of people at close range.
- Report wolf sightings both inside Kootenay National Park and on adjacent lands. (This includes sightings from the lower Kootenay River to Canal Flats and the Columbia Valley between Canal Flats and Golden) Contact the park information centre or email to KNP.firstname.lastname@example.org (we regret we are unable to respond to queries at this address) Provide the date, time and details and (optional) a contact number so a park warden can ask you for more details if necessary.
To find out more about wolves in the Central Rockies, visit the Gray Wolf website.
For information about the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative, visit the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) conservation initiative website.