Between 10:00 and 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the campers had just finished having a late dinner and were sitting around the fire when the wolves came into the campground.
They hollered and yelled, but one of the wolves continued to advance so the campers retreated into a truck.
Despite honking the horn, the wolf got into their food and left with a loaf of bread.
“It was very, very aggressive behaviour,” said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager with Banff National Park. “It’s been something we’ve been hoping not to see from these front-country wolves.”
It’s one of at least 13 concerning incidents with the highly visible Bow Valley wolf pack since January, when three of the wolves were observed eating garbage in the Johnston Canyon parking lot.
Since then, they were spotted by hikers on Tunnel Mountain, followed a person walking a dog along the Bow River and loped alongside a cyclist on the Bow Valley Parkway — among other incidents.
Hunt said the latest incident shows the Bow Valley pack is in trouble.
“Any of the animals that occupy the Bow Valley, the front-country part of Banff, out of necessity have to be somewhat habituated — they have to be comfortable around people, living and making a living in areas of high human use,” he explained, “but we believe based on this behaviour at least one of these wolves has crossed over into what we call food conditioned.”
One of the world’s leading wolf experts agreed.
“When you moved into conditioning, that’s a learned behaviour through repeated practices,” said Paul Paquet, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary and carnivore specialist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “In this case, they are receiving a reward.
“That’s when it becomes problematic for wolves and for people. The wolves aren’t to blame here. The problem has been with food being made available to them, unintentionally likely.”
Paquet said it’s becoming a dangerous situation.
“Wolves can become more aggressive as they demand food, or insist on having food that’s there,” he said. “It’s dangerous behaviour. I am cautious about saying that because I know the consequences about saying that — for wolves, it may be a lethal solution.”
Paquet added that it’s one of those difficult situations where there’s “no real right thing to do.”
Two of the five wolves in the Bow Valley pack are GPS collared, and Hunt said they have a Parks Canada team in the field trying to dart and collar the remaining three wolves.
“We’ll inspect the wolves and get a sense of their physical condition: Are they starving? Are they injured? Do they have dental problems? What shape are the animals in?” he explained. “It’ll allow us to better understand the movements of the whole pack.”
Hunt said they have also issued a warning to try to keep visitors and residents of the Bow Valley safe.
“We’re asking people to report wolf sightings if they encounter a wolf, make noise, gather together, be aggressive, use pepper spray if necessary and try to prevent wolves from getting any food rewards,” he said. “Absolutely do not be feeding wildlife.”
Some of the other Parks Canada experts are trying to figure out whether there is anything they can do to reverse the conditioning.
“Is this one animal in the pack or should we be concerned about the whole pack? Is there a point of return or is this animal too far gone for recovery?” said Hunt, noting they believe that it’s an adult member of the pack based on the report.
It’s too early to speculate whether they’ll have to destroy any of the animals, he said.
“If there’s one bad apple in the group and we can remove it, then it increases the ability to rehabilitate the rest of the pack,” said Hunt. “We have to keep in mind that they are not grizzly bears, where a single breeding female is a scarce resource.
“Any one animal in that pack could be fairly quickly ecologically replaced by other members of the pack.”
Whatever the outcome, Hunt said it’s frustrating for the resource conservation staff.
“It’s something we’ve worked for the last year to try to avoid getting to this situation,” he said. “Staff are a little concerned that things are looking bleak.
“This is a tipping point in terms of behaviour.”