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Banff wolf collar discovered in Montana

“Like some animals do, they just disappear and you don’t know where they go or what happened to them, so it’s kind of cool that this collar showed showed up 19 years later,” said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife research and monitoring ecologist with Banff National Park.

BANFF – A wolf collar recently found in Montana has been traced back to a wolf that roamed Banff National Park more than 20 years ago.

In Mid-December, a carnivore biologist with Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department contacted Parks Canada to say a collar bearing Banff National Park contact information had been found about 30 kilometres west of Kalispell in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Parks Canada wildlife officials looked up the frequency of the conventional VHF in their database, discovering it had been fitted on a young-of-year pup with the former Fairholme wolf pack in October 2001. The female pup, known as No. 57, disappeared in July 2003.

“Like some animals do, they just disappear and you don’t know where they go or what happened to them, so it’s kind of cool that this collar showed up 19 years later,” said Jesse Whittington, a wildlife research and monitoring ecologist with Banff National Park.

“We don’t know how she made it to Montana or what happened to her and we don’t know how she died. The person who found the collar looked for bones, but they didn’t find any, and there was no sign of damage to the collar other than it was just well aged from sitting in the forest.”

The pup was collared at the tail end of the 1987-2001 Central Rockies Wolf Project.

The young pup was fitted with a conventional VHF collar, which means she could only be tracked from the ground within a certain radio signal range. She was tracked for about a year-and-a-half until she fell off the radar.

Whittington said the last known location of wolf No. 57 was near Two Jack Canal in July 2003.

“It looks like during the summer she was roaming around the Fairholme bench,” he said. “She made a couple of forays down into Kananaskis Country and came back to Banff.”

The tracking data shows the young wolf travelled to K-Country in March 2003, headed west of Highway 40 near Barrier Lake and along the eastern slopes of the Rockies to Elbow Valley. She returned via Boundary Ranch, over Skogan Pass, past Canmore and back to the Fairholme bench in Banff.

While the route the young female wolf took to Montana is unknown, she travelled a driving distance of approximately 480 kilometres.

Wolf No. 57 is not the first wolf known to have travelled long distances from the Banff and Kananaskis region to Idaho, Montana or even Washington state.

The first wolf here recorded to do so was Pluie, a five-year-old female wolf radio-collared in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in June 1991. She covered an area of 100,000 square kilometres to Spokane, Washington, to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana – and back – between 1991 and 1993.

Last year, a sub-adult male wolf of the Bow Valley pack fitted with a GPS collar, known as No. 2001, left his home range in Banff National Park. He travelled south along Elk Valley, passing north of Fernie, B.C., and across the U.S. border into Montana where he was legally killed by a hunter on March 8, 2021.

Whittington said wolf 2001 travelled a total of 341 kilometres over nine days, averaging about 39 kilometres per day.

“These wolves often disperse when they’re between one-and-a-half and three years old when they’re looking to set up their own territory and find their mate and have pups,” he said.

“When you have a breeding pair – an alpha male and female that occupy a territory – they’ll have pups for several years in a row, which means there’s not very many opportunities for young wolves to have pups of their own, which is one of the reasons why these wolves disperse.”

These long-distance dispersals highlight the importance of large-scale landscape connectivity and local conservation efforts to protect important habitats and to create functional wildlife movement corridors.

For example, Banff National Park has a network of highway overpasses and underpasses and established wildlife corridors to help wildlife navigate the busy Banff townsite, including removal of manmade facilities at the base of Cascade Mountain in the 1990s.

“If animals can navigate these local landscapes, it enables them to travel long, long distances to disperse, and when you have connected populations it means those populations are much more resilient to stressors,” said Whittington.

“If something is threatening local populations, if other animals are able to immigrate into the area, it makes that population much more resilient in the long-term… so all those local restoration efforts make it really important for promoting large-scale connectivity.”

While there has been no sign of the Fairholme pack for some years now, the Bow Valley wolf pack uses the Fairholme bench as part of its home range. As of December, there were at least seven individuals in the pack, including the breeding pair.

Whittington said as of last summer, there were at least 11 wolves in the pack, including three adults, three yearlings and five pups.

“Unfortunately, they’ve had a few mortalities, and so our latest count was seven wolves,” he said.

The wolves in the pack continue to roam far and wide, ranging east to Harvie Heights and west past Banff to Lake Louise and the surrounding valleys.

“What’s also interesting is the Bow Valley pack has made several forays up the Cascade Valley,” said Whittington.

At one point in the fall, collar tracking data and remote cameras show the pack travelled through the Wigmore Summit area at the same time the reintroduced bison herd was there – likely the first time the Bow Valley wolf pack has ever encountered bison.

“The wolves followed those bison tracks right up to into the Panther Valley and then they returned,” said Whittington.

“I thought that was pretty neat. I don’t know what was happening on the ground, but I wonder if they were checking out the bison. This is probably the first time they’ve encountered or smelled bison.”

There has previously been a wolf pack in the Cascade-Panther region, but that pack has faced trapping pressure over the years from getting caught in snares on provincial lands outside the protected national park.

A collared female member of that pack was trapped and killed in 2018, leaving behind just one lone wolf in the pack back then. Just months before the trapping incident, another female collared wolf in that pack fell off a cliff in the north fork of the Cascade River Valley.

Over the years, numbers in the Cascade-Panther wolf pack have fluctuated between three and nine individuals, but there have been no signs of any for some time now.

“We still don’t know what we have for wolves up there, but just given the frequency of the Bow Valley pack’s movements up there, I wonder if there is a pack,” said Whittington. “Each pack will have a core territory, but then if one pack peters out, another pack will shift its territory over to encompass that, and so they’re somewhat fluid over time.”

Through tracking and remote cameras, Parks Canada is also aware of two wolves in the Spray River Valley south of the Banff townsite.

“They might or might not be part of the Bow Valley pack, but they appear to be moving independently,” said Whittington.

As for the Red Deer pack, at least two pups were born last spring and at least three adults and the two pups were still alive during summer. Parks Canada doesn’t have final confirmation on the current size of the pack, but will have a better idea once remote camera images are classified.

The Red Deer pack’s territory typically aligns with the east boundary of Banff National Park and includes west to Pipestone Pass and the Siffleur and Clearwater valleys, sometimes ranging into the Panther Valley as well.

“Sometimes in the winter they travel further east where they’re subject to hunting and trapping as well,” said Whittington.