Spring is great time of year to visit Prince Albert National Park. The park offers picnic facilities and serviced roads, making it easy to spend time outdoors. The backcountry offers untouched wilderness and solitude for those seeking a secluded experience in nature.
April is also when wolves expand their packs with the birth of pups. Monitoring of collared Grey wolves is providing more knowledge about the wolf packs that roam the west section of Prince Albert National Park. This is one of the most exciting times of year, as the anticipated birth of wolf pups will expand the packs.
Based on data gathered from 2013 to 2017, patterns that make up the life cycle of two wolf packs in Prince Albert National Park are becoming clearer.
“Before the study we already had the alpha male and female from the Amyot pack collared and knew where her den site was,” said Joanne Watson a resource management officer at Prince Albert National Park. “During the study, we were able to collar more individuals from the Amyot and Lofthouse packs and get a good understanding of them.”
Watson is stationed on the park’s west side. She’s led winter field studies to examine the relationship between wolves and plains bison under the guidance of an ecologist and with the help of post-secondary students and volunteers. They have identified two packs and named them after locations – Amyot Lake and Lofthouse Trail – in the territory they each occupy. Geospatial Positioning System (GPS) collars from the individual wolves gave longitude and latitude points of the animals every hour allowing scientists to track their movements and begin to understand their behaviour through site investigation.
Speaking about the Amyot alpha female, Watson said, “Like clockwork, in April, she went underground to have her pups. We knew this because we would stop getting any signals off of her GPS collar.”
On one occasion after the wolves had vacated the Amyot den, Watson and a plains bison researcher from Université Laval hiked to the den site.
“There are actually several dens in the same area that we think are used rotationally. Once the pups are a couple of months old, they are moved to a new den to get away from fleas or other parasites that have become bothersome in the whelping den. This particular site also had a rendezvous area,” Watson said.
One winter, so as not to bother the pack when the pups were young, Watson and a student followed GPS clues that had repeatedly showed up in the same spot and discovered a unique rendezvous site.
“We hiked about 200 metres from our snow machines to the spot,” Watson said. “The cool thing about this one rendezvous site was that, just like a dog does with a bone, the wolves had dragged bones and skulls of all different animals into this small meadow to chew on them so it looked pretty cool and then we saw a wolf. It started to advance toward us but then stopped just in the tree line and watched us so we retreated to give it space.”
The rendezvous area is where the pack beds down during the warm summer months once the litter of four to six pups are old enough to venture aboveground.
Through the four consecutive winters of studying wolves and plains bison, Watson said they discovered that the two identified wolf packs were primarily hunting moose and deer rather than bison. Watson said: “Since bison have been off the landscape for so long, that knowledge of how to hunt them was lost.”
Bison were reintroduced by the province in the Thunder Hills area in 1969, but the animals migrated south shortly after. Approximately six to 10 of those became established to form what is now referred to as the Sturgeon River plains bison herd. They live in and around the southwest side of Prince Albert National Park.
“The Amyot pack has since learned how to hunt them again but we haven’t found any bison kills sites in the Lofthouse pack territory,” said Watson.
Research has determined that it is the Amyot pack hunting the bison because there is a distinct border between the two packs’ territories marked by frequent urine, stool and scratch mark sites along the Lofthouse Trail. At times, they have discovered the bodies of wolves along the territory line that showed signs of having been in a fight.
“There are lots of turf wars. You can see evidence of it so we know that the packs generally stay on either side of that line,” said Watson. “The Amyot pack is in the south where they interact with bison 12 months of the year. The bison are only in the Lofthouse pack’s territory to the north during the winter months so they are not as familiar with them. Being around bison all year probably gave the Amyot pack time to consider how to hunt them.”
Watson said that another reason the wolves might not be hunting as many bison is because moose and deer tend to travel alone or in small groups that are easier to chase to exhaustion and kill while bison have a herd mentality. While the wolves can get bison to run, making them vulnerable, bison are more likely to circle the calves and stand their ground, working together to stave off an attack. They are larger and a more formidable animal for wolves to go after.
Parks Canada continues to collar and track wolves in efforts to learn more about the large mammals. More information and photos about the plains bison and wolf research can be found online at www.pc.gc/princealbert.ca and under the Nature and Science tab at: www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/sk/princealbert/nature/bisons.
DID YOU KNOW?
Grey wolves are the largest wild member of the dog family (Canidae) and commonly referred to as the Timber wolf. A male wolf can weigh up to 70 kg, while the females typically are smaller, weighing up to 50 kg. The fur of grey wolves can vary from greys and blacks, to browns and reds, to almost pure white. The thick fur, with an outer layer of guard hairs and soft undercoat, helps wolves stay warm through the winter. The population of Grey wolves that roam in and out of the park boundary is estimated at 60 to 100. Wolves typically have a litter of four or five pups, however only half of the pups reach adulthood.
In the summer months, Parks Canada hosts Wolf Howl interpretive sessions where the public is encouraged to learn more about the animals. Visitors can call, listen and respond to the howls of wolves in Prince Albert National Park.
Recent wolf sightings in the park include in the clearings and bogs along the Narrows Road, on Waskesiu Lake near Paignton Beach and along Highway 2, a few kilometres before the junction to Highway 264. Visitors can learn more about wolves by reading the outdoor interpretive panels at Rendezvous Ridge on the Boundary Bog self-guided hiking trail.