There are far more Wolves in K-Country than you probably realize. Because they’re secretive and do their best to stay away from people, they’re rarely seen. However, they are captured on back country research cameras regularly.
The term “Grey Wolves” refers to the only North American species of Wolf (Canis lupus). These Wolves are known for their generally grayish fur. However, Wolves can come in many colour variations, from black through browns and whites.
This means that sometimes individual Wolves or even Wolf packs can be identified by the camera trap photography. By this, very rough population estimates can be made of populations and pack size. Ordinarily, camera traps can only indicate animal presence – they they’re on the landscape – and not abundance – how many are on the landscape. With Wolves, you can sometimes do both.
Wolf habitat and diet
K-Country’s mix of mountains, forests, and wilderness provides excellent habitat for Wolves. They can be found in various ecosystems within Kananaskis, including the foothills, subalpine, and alpine areas. Wolves have been caught on camera as high as the summit of Mt. Allen and Collembola hunting sheep, and in the valley bottoms in the Bow Valley near Canmore – both with some frequency.
Gray Wolves are carnivorous animals and primarily prey on larger ungulates such as deer, moose, sheep, goats and elk; the populations of all of their prey is excellent in K-Country. They are apex predators and play a vital role in regulating prey populations and maintaining ecosystem health.
Plus, they are pack hunters; they rarely hunt alone. They commonly work together as a team to get a single prey out of a herd and capture it, or to take down large animals like moose. The picture to the right was followed by another of 2 more wolves.
More on packs
Wolves are hugely complex animals, with intricate social structures and social processes.
Wolves typically live in family groups known as packs. The pack structure of Wolves can vary depending on several factors, including habitat, prey availability, and environmental conditions.
The size of a Wolf pack can vary, but it usually ranges from 2 to 15 members (count the eyes in the pic to the right!). Most packs in K-Country are estimated to be between 4 and 7 animals. A typical Wolf pack is often made up of a core family unit consisting of an “alpha pair”, which are the dominant breeding male and female, and their offspring from various years. These offspring can include “subordinates” and pups.
It’s important to note that while the alpha male and female are often considered the leaders, the concept of an “alpha wolf” as portrayed in popular media can be oversimplified. Wolf pack dynamics are more complex, and the term “alpha” is sometimes replaced with “breeding pair” or “dominant pair” in scientific literature to better describe the leadership role.
The breeding pair are responsible for making most of the decisions, such as when and where the pack hunts. Subordinate Wolves within the pack may include the previous year’s pups or other non-breeding adults. They assist in hunting, caring for the young, and defending the territory. Pups in the pack are cared for by the entire pack, with older siblings and subordinates helping to feed and protect them.
The pack structure helps Wolves form strong social bonds and maintain stability within the group. Social interactions, including body language, vocalizations, and grooming, play a crucial role in pack cohesion.
Pack recovery from loss
When an alpha male or female wolf is removed from a Wolf pack, the dynamics within the pack can undergo several changes; the pack may experience a period of instability. Here’s what typically happens in such situations.
Most commonly, there is “Leadership Succession”. A new alpha male or female will emerge to take the place of the deceased or absent alpha male and female. This often involves a process of dominance contests, where subordinate Wolves compete for the vacant alpha positions. Dominance can be determined through physical confrontations, vocalizations, and other social interactions. Sometimes, dominance is established through breeding.
However, the emergence of a new alpha pair is not always guaranteed. It may take some time for the pack to settle on new leaders. Sometimes, two Wolves from the existing pack will take on the roles of the alpha pair if they were the most dominant individuals below the previous alphas. In other cases, Wolves from neighboring packs might join the group and establish themselves as the new leaders.
Illustrative of pack complexity, pups born to the deceased alpha pair may face increased challenges if new leaders do not readily adopt and protect them. Subordinate Wolves and older siblings may step in to help care for and protect the pups.
In some cases, the death of an alpha Wolf can lead to the fragmentation of the pack. Subordinate Wolves may leave to join or form new packs, and the original pack may split into smaller groups.
The specifics of how a Wolf pack responds to the death of an alpha wolf can vary based on factors like the pack’s size, the personalities and relationships of its members, and environmental conditions. The process of establishing new leaders and maintaining pack stability is a natural part of Wolf social dynamics and is essential for the survival and adaptation of the pack in the wild.
Wolves have a breeding season, and it’s typically referred to as the “wolf estrus cycle.” The timing of the breeding season for Wolves can vary based on factors such as geographical location and environmental conditions, but it generally occurs once a year during the late winter or early spring.
The Wolf breeding season usually takes place from January to March, although it can vary slightly depending on the specific region and the Wolf population. The female reproductive cycle typically lasts around 21 to 24 days. They are receptive to mating during a specific period within this cycle, which lasts about 5 to 14 days.
The alpha male and female typically form a strong pair bond that lasts throughout the year. They are the primary breeding pair within the pack and are responsible for reproducing and raising the pups. After successful mating, the female Wolf has a gestation period of approximately 60 days, which means that Wolf pups are typically born in late spring or early summer, usually in April or May. This picture of 3 wolf pups is from July 25.
After giving birth, the female Wolf and other pack members work together to care for and protect the Wolf pups. Pups are highly dependent on their mother’s milk initially and are gradually introduced to solid food as they grow.
In some Wolf packs, subordinate females may experience reproductive suppression, where they do not breed and help care for the dominant female’s pups instead. This helps ensure the survival of the dominant female’s offspring.
The size of a Wolf pack’s territory can vary widely depending on several factors, and it is not solely a function of pack size. Instead, the size of a Wolf pack’s territory is influenced by various ecological and environmental factors
The primary factor that influences the size of a Wolf pack’s territory is the availability of prey. Wolves are opportunistic hunters. They need a sufficient supply of prey to sustain their pack. In areas with abundant prey, such as large populations of deer or elk, Wolf territories may be smaller. While pack size can influence territory size to some extent, it is not a linear relationship. Smaller packs may require a smaller territory, while larger packs may need a larger one to support their dietary needs. However, pack size alone does not determine territory size.
Wolf packs will defend their territory against other Wolf packs. The need to defend their territory can also impact its size. If a pack encounters rival packs in the vicinity, it may need a larger territory to reduce the chances of territorial conflicts. The type of terrain and habitat can affect territory size. In areas with dense forests or rugged terrain, Wolf territories may be smaller. In K-Country, Wolves tend to have large ranges up and down valleys.
Human activities, such as development, activity, disturbance or urban expansion, can affect the size and stability of Wolf territories. Human presence can lead to smaller, fragmented territories; Kananaskis Country’s Wolves tend to avoid areas with high human activity. Camera data suggests the Town of Canmore and nearby developments including the quarries are a significant blockage to Wolf movement. Human use in the wildlife corridors deters Wolf transits. Data often shows Wolves enter the wildlife corridors around Canmore, but they do not emerge on the other side. Instead, they turn back and retrace their steps.
Seeing wolves is rare. But seeing evidence of wolves is fairly common. The first thing you’ll find is their tracks. Wolf tracks look like dog tracks, except they’re huge. At 6 months old, wolves have bigger feet than any domestic dog. Wolf tracks are bigger than pole baskets, or the front half of most people’s feet. You’ll also find wolf scat. It, too, looks like domestic dog, except again, its much, much bigger.
Given that wolves are active all year round, it’s also fairly common to find wolf tracks in the snow.
See more of the fascinating critters of K-Country here!