No. 1505, a member of the Fairholme pack, was one of six wolves from three different packs captured and fitted with GPS collars last winter to monitor their movements and get information for several research projects. They’re numbered 1501 to 1506.
At the end of March, No. 1505 left the rest of his pack around the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch and ended up travelling about 40 kilometres north of Nordegg, before turning around and coming right back to join his pack in Banff National Park.
“He covered 481 kilometres over 13 days, so he averaged 37 kilometres a day,” said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife ecologist with Banff National Park. “I’ve always known wolves are travellers.
“It reaffirms that they travel long, long distances and the importance of connectivity along the Rocky Mountains for animals like wolves and grizzly bears that cover large, large areas.”
Stephen Legault, a program director with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, said it’s important information.
“It actually made me think of Pluie, a wolf that, in part, at least, inspired the creation of Yellowstone to Yukon; that was a champion traveller,” he said, referring to a female wolf collared in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in 1991.
Pluie travelled through more than 100,000 square kilometres and crossed two provinces, three states, private lands and First Nations territories in one year before being shot and killed in a legal hunt in British Columbia.
Legault said it shows the importance of ensuring landscapes are connected with wilderness for species such as wolves and bears.
“We have to think at the same scale that wildlife think at,” he said, adding Y2Y has been working to add the Bighorn area, where No. 1505 took his journey, to the network of protected areas in the Rockies. “Animals such as 1505 make us understand the scale at which wildlife need to think in order to survive.”
When No. 1505 first set out on the trip, Whittington thought the young wolf was leaving Banff National Park for good.
“Wolves frequently disperse over 300 kilometres and I was just watching to see how far he would go,” he said, noting he could have been been legally trapped outside of the national park’s boundaries. “I was surprised when he turned around and zoomed back to Banff.
“I don’t know for certain why he came back, but maybe he was hungry.”
The GPS data shows that he didn’t stop to feed or kill anything along the way, so Whittington suggests he might have come back to the Fairholme area where he could again work with his pack to find food.
No. 1505 is now helping his pack hunt during this year’s denning season, when wolf pups are born.
“The Bow Valley pack denned along the Bow Valley Parkway; the Fairholme pack denned in the Fairholme between Banff and Canmore; and the Panther-Cascade pack denned in the Panther Valley,” explained Whittington. “We don’t do direct den observations, but it’s based on the wolves going back to a single point on the GPS data.
“We’ll wait until the pups are seen by the public or they show up on our remote cameras to determine how many pups they have.”
Wolves in the Rockies typically have three to five pups, he said.
Heading into this year’s denning season, the Bow Valley pack had five members (two males are collared); the Panther-Cascade pack had five members (a male and a female are collared); and, the Fairholme pack had at least five members (a female wolf is also collared).The collars, which send a GPS signal to a satellite every two hours, have provided additional insight into all of the packs.
For example, the Bow Valley Pack, frequently spotted by the public around the Banff townsite and along the Bow Valley Parkway, has a large home range that runs from Banff to Bow Summit, along the Icefields Parkway.
They’ll travel as much as 40 kilometres in a day to bring food back to the den, said Whittington.
The Panther-Cascade pack spent much of the winter travelling on wind-swept slopes and ridges, and little time in the valley bottoms.
“That’s probably where it’s easiest travelling and also it’s very likely they are hunting bighorn sheep,” said Whittington, noting they’ll go out this summer to determine what the wolves are preying on by identifying clusters of GPS points and seeing what they ate through the hair and bones left behind.
The Fairholme area pack, which includes No. 1505, spends time between Banff and Canmore, as well as around Lake Minnewanka and in the Ghost wilderness.
Data collected as part of the research will also be used to see how the Bow Valley pack is using the Bow Valley Parkway during a spring travel ban; how much time all of the packs spend in caribou range; how they use wildlife corridors and how they prey on mountain goats.
In the case of No. 1505, Whittington expects the young wolf will venture out on his own again later this year.
“Typically, there’s only one breeding pair in a pack so, if he wants to have his own pups someday, he’s got to go elsewhere,” he explained.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this winter he takes off again for good.”