‘Remarkable’ Bow Valley pack sighting of 6 wolves lounging on Lake Minnewanka

It had been decades since naturalist Brian Keating saw a wolf in Banff National Park, but that changed dramatically in February.

Keating and his wife, Dee, who live in Calgary, were preparing to spend the day skiing in nearby Banff when a friend excitedly alerted them to a wolf pack sighting nearby. 

Quickly planting their skis upright in the snow, the Keatings abandoned them to hop in the car and race half a kilometre up the road to Lake Minnewanka.

And seemingly without a care in the world, six members of the Bow Valley Wolf pack — two black and four grey — were lounging distantly on the ice, Keating said.

Brian Keating, left, and Dee Keating, right, on the day they spotted the wolf pack, with Lake Minnewanka on the far right. (Sue Webb)

“There they were, as plain as day,” Keating told The Homestretch after the sighting.

“It’s one of the few times I’ve seen wolves in Banff, and it was certainly the most extended and leisurely wolf watching we’ve ever done.”

From their viewpoint overlooking the lake, Keating said the wolves first appeared like black peppercorns on the ice.

In this compilation of photos, Brian Keating adjusts the digi-scope on Dee Keating’s head, left insert. The wolves that looked like “peppercorns” on the ice of Lake Minnewanka are pictured at the base of the mountain, and enlarged in the insert above. (Submitted by Brian Keating)

But using binoculars — and eventually a digital telescope strapped to Dee’s head — they were able to observe and take photos of the pack more closely, and likely witnessed the relaxed demeanour of predators after a kill.

“We were with them [for] probably about 20 minutes but it was perfect, because we could watch unobtrusively,” Keating said.

The struggle of the Bow Valley Wolf pack

There are between five and six wolf packs in Banff National Park, and they are each named after the territory they live in.

Since appearing in Alberta in the 1980s, the Bow Valley Wolf pack has struggled.

Its population collapsed in 2016 when the adults had become too accustomed to park visitors and their food. 

The Bow Valley Wolf pack eats an elk it took down near the highway. The carcass was moved by Parks Canada staff to a safer location, and the wolves were captured here by wildlife cameras. (Parks Canada)

Officials had to euthanize the pack’s alpha female and another adult after they displayed aggressive behaviour. That year, several pups died too.

“This pack has a rough time, and it’s been that way since they first appeared in the valley,” Keating said.

“Between the train, the highway, and these problem encounters with people, the pack bounces up and down between three and eight animals.”

Young male shot dead after travelling hundreds of kilometres

The Keatings heard the wolves howling and wondered if it might be to one young male that wasn’t with the pack but walking about further down the lake.

Within weeks, the two-year-old wolf called M2001 was tracked by Parks Canada as he left Banff National Park to find new territory and wandered through Alberta and into B.C. before trotting into Montana.

Parks Canada says he made his way into Spray Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis, then he crossed the provincial border into B.C., visiting Fernie,  before finally venturing further south and crossing into Montana.

Then, in early March, wolf M2001 was reported dead. A landowner shot the wolf, legally, according to Parks Canada. 

“It is legal in Montana for landowners to remove wolves that potentially threaten livestock, domestic dogs, or human safety,” Parks Canada spokesman Justin Brisbane wrote in an emailed statement. “Parks Canada staff had tracked the young collared wolf for just over a year.” 

It’s common for wolves to travel hundreds of kilometres when they are seeking a new place to live and reproduce, said Marco Musiani, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Calgary. Not all wolves break from their natal pack, but some leave in order to breed outside of their gene pool.

  • You can see the route that the young male wolf took as he travelled hundreds of kilometres from home before he was killed in Montana near the U.S. and Canada border, in this map shared by Parks Canada:

“When they do disperse, they pick a direction and they’re very consistent,” Musiani said. “So they can go a very long distance, almost in a straight line.” 

Musiani said the route M2001 took is an established wildlife corridor.

It’s common for wolves to travel hundreds of kilometres when they are seeking a new place to live and reproduce, said Marco Musiani, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Calgary. Not all wolves break from their natal pack, but some leave in order to breed outside of their gene pool.

The treasures in Alberta’s backyard

In spite of the pack’s continuing saga of population difficulty, some experts are hopeful.

Kevin Van Tighem, former Banff superintendent and biologist, now conservationist and author, told CBC News last month that if younger wolves are venturing off on their own, it’s a sign that they are producing enough offspring.

But to make sure we see wolves in the future, Keating said park officials strongly recommended that park visitors do their part by driving the speed limit, and keeping camping sites clean.

It could help to ensure more visitors are treated to the sound of the wolf-call Keating heard — which he said made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

“We were watching these wolves, and all of a sudden one stuck his face toward the sky, and he started to howl. And the wolves howled in,” Keating said.

“It’s the quintessential Canadian wilderness experience that is really like none other, when you hear that call … these are real treasures to have in our Alberta backyard.”

  • LISTEN BELOW | Brian Keating managed to record the wolf howl and played it on The Homestretch:

The Homestretch9:44Brian Keating on wolves


For more fascinating insights into Alberta’s wild from naturalist Brian Keating, see:

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