This week I discuss Parks Canada to try to keep the remaining members of the Bow Valley wolf pack safe. I examine the importance of the bison reintroduction in Banff National Park and finally, I look at some new research looking at the relationship between grizzly bears and the Canadian Pacific Railway through Banff National Park
Story 1 – Bow Valley Wolf Pack
This has been a difficult year for wolves in Banff. The dramatic increase in visitation over the past few years has put wolves living in the Bow River Valley, right into direct conflict with tourists. While other Banff packs have managed to avoid the brunt of human disturbance, the Bow Valley pack finds itself right in the thick of things.
Every year, visitation grows as parks focusses on bringing more and more visitors into the park gates. It seems that Parks Canada has been put into a role where they need to flood the front country while neglecting the back country.
For more information on the plight of wolves in Banff, check out episodes 5 to hear a little bit about the Bow Valley pack’s challenging summer in 2016. The question that is utmost in my mind right now is what will parks do in 2017 to help ensure we don’t get a repeat – or even worse – an escalation on the challenges we saw in 2016.
As parks looks ahead to what, by all accounts, will likely be the busiest year in the history of the mountain parks, parks has set its sights on a number of strategies. After the carnage of 2016, only 3 members of the Bow Valley Wolf pack remain. Of those 3, 2 have now been fitted with tracking collars. This will allow park biologists to track their movement with a greater degree of accuracy than was previously possible. Knowing where the wolves are gives biologists the opportunity to try to keep them out of trouble when possible. They would know if they were being attracted to campgrounds, illegal campsites, or townsites.
The third wolf, a black sub-adult male has a non-working collar. Parks may attempt to recapture him and either remove the existing collar or re-collar him. While he has, so far, stayed out of trouble, a working collar would allow parks to track all the remaining members of the pack.
Last summer, the downfall of this pack was human food conditioning. People offered food rewards, left messy and illegal campsites that showed them that handouts were an easy way to earn a living. Unfortunately for the wolves, they didn’t understand when people refused to reward them with food and they began to act more aggressively. This ended poorly as park wardens were forced to shoot 2 wolves over the course of the summer. In addition to these two wolves, 4 pups were killed by trains over the course of the summer, leaving only 3 wolves left in the pack.
If the collars allow park managers to intervene before the wolves become accustomed to handouts, they may be able to help them walk the gauntlet of ever increasing numbers of tourists.
In addition to increased tracking of the bow valley pack, parks will be stepping up enforcement of illegal campsites. This has been an increasing challenge in the past few years as random campsites pop up in areas adjacent to the townsites and they may attract wolves and bears looking for easy pickings. In addition to increased patrols, they will be using search dogs to ferret out illegal sites. Last summer, parks took a zero tolerance policy on messy campsites and charged numerous violators including two campers whose messy campsite at Two Jack Lake attracted the two wolves that had to be put down last summer.
This will also be bolstered by additional wildlife staff this summer and this will help improve their ability to quickly respond if and when there are incidents.
Story 2 – The Return of the Bison
For the first time in some 130+ years, bison have be released into Banff National Park. The last bison to walk these valleys, at least according to numbers I’ve been able to access, was in 1883. That was the year the Banff Hot Springs Preserve, which eventually became Banff National Park was first established. It was also the year that the westward expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway finally chugged its way into the Bow River valley.
When archaeologists look at ancient campsites in places like Banff, bison made up 48% of the animal remains found in these sites. That compares with 37% for bighorn sheep, 7% for both deer and elk, and less than 1% for both moose and mountain goat. Bison were the single most important food, forming the majority of their diets.
Once the bison began to disappear, they were almost wiped off the landscape in just a few years. At its lowest point, the population dropped to just over 500 animals. One Metis rancher, Michel Pablo, in Montana bought a herd of 13 of these remaining animals and grew that herd to more than 600 by 1907. Unfortunately, as a Metis, the American government took away his grazing rights to the Flathead Reserve and so he sold them to the Canadian Government for $120,000.
This week, 16 wild bison were relocated to a remote area of Banff National Park as the first step in a wider re-introduction of plains buffalo to the park. The group was made up of 10 pregnant females along with 6 juvenile bulls in the hopes that the herd will rapidly increase in size.
Since this is just the beginning of a wider re-introduction, researches want to be able to monitor the newcomers to get a better idea of their reproductive rates, movement, survival and adaptation to both the environment and predation. After 16 months, the plan is to release them into a much larger 1200 square kilometre area along the Cascade and Red Deer River valleys.
Not everyone has been in favour of the reintroduction. Ranchers in Alberta have been less than welcoming to the idea of bison roaming in areas adjacent to grazing lands.
Bison are more than just big cows wandering the landscape, they are ecosystem engineers. Their impact influences everything from ecology to entomology. Their fine down is the second warmest, next only to the musk oxen, in Canada…and they shed a lot of it. Almost immediately, birds will begin to harvest the hair to line their nests. In some areas, eggs and nestlings have a 30% higher survival rates when the nests have this natural insulation.
Bison also eat a lot of vegetation and produce a lot of…waste product. In a single buffalo patty, up to 300 different species of insects may be found with up to 1000 individual insects present. The more insects that call a landscape home, the more insect eating birds that will also be present.
Natural fertilizers in the droppings also benefit the growth of grasses which in turn benefits other large hoofed animals like elk and deer.
Bison are also ravenous grazers and so they can help to maintain grasslands by inhibiting small trees from encroaching on the grasslands. Essentially, they transform the landscape to benefit themselves along with many other species of birds, insects and hoofed animals – and this in turn benefits the predators that prey on these animals.
The reintroduction of plains bison to Banff National Park has been a very long time coming. I for one, am rooting for them to increase in population and reclaim their role as one of the keystone species in the mountain parks.
Story 3 – The bears are ruling the research
Three recent studies conducted in Banff National Park have revealed some amazing insights into the day to day life of grizzlies in the area. When studying wildlife, there are a number of indicators that help biologists determine the health of a local population. Using central Rockies grizzles as an example, researchers have always focused on the survival rates of breeding females. They are the reproductive engine of the population and they are key to the health of the overall population. Unfortunately, in the Canadian Rockies, as first discovered by the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project in their 2005 report, our grizzlies have one of the lowest productivity rates of any bear population in the world.
Here in the central Rockies, female bears are often not giving birth for the first time until they reach 6-12 years of age and they are keeping the cubs with them for up to 4 years – during which time, they will not mate. When you consider the average life span of a female grizzly to be 20-25 years, this means that the average female produces only 1.7 female cubs during her lifetime.
Looking at the current picture for grizzlies in places like Banff, recent research has also found that the survival rate of young bears is exceedingly low. While the overall population is precariously stable, those tiny cubs currently nursing in the dens only have a slim chance of surviving through next summer. Looking at the overall population, current estimates for the bear population in Banff, sit around 50-70 bears which translates to around 14 bears per 1000 square kilometres or 386 square miles.
However, despite the low reproductive and survival rates, the current density of 14 bears per 1000 square kilometres is actually pretty good when compared to other areas of the province. Looking farther north in Alberta, the area around Hinton and Nordegg hosts only around 11 bears in the same area and Jasper, just 12.
One challenge for bears in the Bow valley is the attractiveness of grain spills leaking from the tens of thousands of grain cars that ply the railway tracks heading westward to the coast every year.
Grain spills have long been a challenge for biologists and wardens trying to reduce the number of bears being killed along the tracks. Recently, biologist Aditya Gangadharan conducted a study specifically looking at train tracks and how grain spills impact grizzly bears. He estimated that some 110 metric tonnes of grains were spilled along the tracks within Banff and Yoho National Parks every year, equivalent to the annual caloric needs of some 50 grizzly bears.
Unfortunately for bears, train tracks also offer other menu items as well, the most important of which is carrion. Over the course of the years, many animals, including bears, have been unlucky enough to encounter the business end of freight trains. Their carcasses attract bears from a long distance. Even in the early spring, when bears are first emerging from their long winter slumber, the tracks offer an easy corridor for foraging.
So how do we keep bears off the tracks? There is no simple answer! Parks continues to work with Canadian Pacific to improve current techniques while experimenting with potential technological innovations that may help in the future.
As they investigated the timing and location of bear fatalities along the tracks, a disturbing trend became apparent. It seems that while more bears use the tracks in the west end of Banff National Park, in particular a large siding to the west of Lake Louise, it seems that the majority of fatalities occur in the eastern end of Banff. While the research is ongoing, one hypothesis is that the eastern edge of the park is busier and that bears are often surrounded by noisy highways that may make it harder to hear the approach of trains. They are also looking into the fact that bears may need better sightlines in order to spot oncoming trains.
When a bear is confronted by a train, in particular at night when many bears along the eastern edge of the park tend to use the tracks, the headlights can make them freeze – or try to outrun the train by running in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the fastest bear is no match for a freight train. In order to help bears to better avoid oncoming trains, researchers, in conjunction with Canadian Pacific, are experimenting with flashing lights in conjunction with alarms to give bears a warning of approaching trains. They are testing these warning signals in four different locations at the present time.
As researchers studied the statistics on bear fatalities along the CPR mainline, one unique statistic stood – no confirmed bear death has occurred through Banff since 2012. to help add some perspective to this 5 year lapse in fatalities; between 2000 and 2017, 14 grizzlies were killed between the east Banff border and the west end of Yoho National Park…but since 2012 – nada!
One of the most well-known local grizzlies is Bear 122, locally known as the Boss. He’s the biggest, baddest, bruin in Banff and is particularly fond of the CP mainline through Banff and Yoho National Parks.
As biologists began to look at the drop in fatalities along the tracks, they begun to wonder whether a dominant male bear might be able to discourage other bears from wandering into the Boss’s territory. Colleen Cassidy, the head researcher on this most recent study speculated that bear 122 has been effective at deterring other bears from encroaching into this food rich habitat.
It’s well known that bears strongly defend territories. By bear 122 calling the tracks home, he may well be signaling to other bears that this narrow strip of landscape is out of bounds. Now that doesn’t exempt 122 from the danger of trains, and if rumours are to be believed, he has already danced with the business end of a freight train and somehow survived. This is one tough bear!