Thursday, April 28, 2016

Protecting Jasper's wolves demands no-trapping buffer zone along national park's boundary

Dick Dekker
This grey wolf, resplendent in winter fur, was photographed along the highway just west of Jasper. Keith Lengle / Supplied

On Dec. 10, 2015, a helicopter crew chartered by Parks Canada managed to drop their cannon-fired nets on two wolves fleeing over snow-covered Summit Lake in the upper Rocky River valley of Jasper National Park.

The objective was to equip the captured animals with neck collars and GPS telemetry. Released again after treatment, these wolves were expected to rejoin their local pack and transmit their travels to a biologist in the Jasper Park warden office.

As apex predators, wolves are an important link in the park’s wildlife ecology by keeping the elk herds in dynamic balance with their food supply. Unfortunately, both radios soon failed. However, about two months after capture, one of the collared wolves was caught in a snare set by an Alberta trapper outside the park.

This wolf, probably in the company of its pack, had travelled from the upper Rocky River down to the lower Athabasca valley, a distance of some 50 kilometres, plus a further 15 km past Pocahontas to the park’s eastern border.

The snaring of this park wolf became public knowledge after the trapper handed over the wolf’s collar to the provincial Fish & Wildlife officer stationed in Hinton, who, in turn, notified the Jasper warden office. The details given were that the animal had been caught west of Hinton.

Earlier that winter, a radio-collared park cougar also died in a snare west of Hinton. As it so happened, someone working in the area found a trapper’s bait pile at Brule, which is indeed west of Hinton, but only a hundred metres or so away from the park’s unfenced border. The bait site contained the carcass of a traffic-killed elk, several dead chickens and other carrion.

The use of bait sites is a common practice of trappers operating in the Alberta foothill forests along the eastern boundaries of Jasper and Banff National Parks. The baits are maintained over extended periods so that carnivores such as wolves get used to a free meal.

When the fur season opens, the trapper sets any number of steel snares across all access trails through the bushes leading to the bait. In this way, entire packs of wolves can be caught, as well as a range of non-target animals. Photographic evidence has revealed that some snared animals suffer horribly for days or even weeks.

From the perspective of the Alberta Fish & Wildlife division, the provincial harvest of fur-bearers is a traditional industrial activity. The average number of wolves trapped annually along the eastern boundaries of Banff and Jasper National Parks was 74 over the past five years.

The paradox of trappers is that they kill what they love. Their usual hard-nosed defence is that predators need to be thinned out. Otherwise they would die of starvation anyhow.

But the matter assumes quite a different perspective when snares are set on the boundary of our national parks, which are the time-honoured sanctuaries that are supposed to be inviolate to commercial hunting and trapping.

The notion of establishing a protective buffer zone around Jasper National Park is not new, but today’s need is all the more urgent because several rural counties, livestock groups and hunting clubs are paying a bounty of $100 to $500 on dead wolves.

A buffer zone all the way between Alberta and our mountain parks may not be practical in view of the rugged topography and the understandable opposition from provincial interest groups. But a protective zone of several kilometres wide at strategic spots, such as the end of the Athabasca River valley, seems to be an idea for which the time has come.

Dick Dekker is an independent wildlife ecologist who has studied wolves in Jasper National Park for more than 50 years and published extensively on Jasper wildlife.