Wolves, Coyotes and Fox
Everybody loves to see wildlife, and there is nothing more satisfying than spotting a rarely seen animal. The large carnivores usually top the list of exciting animals to see. Recently, I was able to watch a large black wolf, part of the Bow Valley pack, for almost 10 minutes. It was loping along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff and seemed very oblivious of vehicles passing in both directions. While it is exciting to spot a wolf, seeing an animal that is so unconcerned with traffic only underscores the danger of vehicle impacts.
The Bow Valley pack has been reduced to only three or four individuals due to vehicle and train impacts. In Jasper National Park, at least 29 wolves have died in vehicle and train impacts since 1995. Coyotes and fox are not less vulnerable.
Wolves on the increase
Recently, wolves and cougars have been getting a great deal of press in the Banff and Canmore area. Recent news reports indicate that the Banff and Bow Valley supports some 70 wolves, 80 grizzlies and 11 cougars. On one hand, this is exciting news. A strong population of carnivores is an indication of a healthy ecosystem. At the same time, these animals are constantly at risk. Increased traffic and increased penetration of the backcountry by recreational users adds to the potential for conflict. It is important that we all learn to safely play and live in carnivore country.
Wolves interact with other carnivores, often competing for limited prey. Within the last year, one of the Bow Valley's cougars was killed by the Fairholme Pack. Wolves will kill cougars and coyotes at any opportunity. Cougars compete for prey and coyotes tend to steal a large portion of the wolf or cougar's hard-earned kills.
Coyotes on the decrease
It seems that there is an inverse relationship between the success of wolves and that of coyotes. As the Fairholme Pack in Banff has rapidly increased in size, it has led to a corresponding drop in the number of coyotes in the Banff-Canmore area.
Coyotes resemble small wolves. They are smaller, resembling a medium sized gray dog with a grizzled coat with a reddish tinge. The underside is white, and the tail is thick and brushy.
Coyotes vary their social structure depending upon circumstance. On the plains where they feed on mice, voles and ground squirrels, they are usually solitary hunters that lack the social structure seen in wolf packs. However in the mountains, coyotes are often seen in small pack-like groups. Small groups are more efficient at taking down an occasional deer, and also more effective at defending a carcass of an animal they have either killed or adopted as carrion. It is this habit of scavenging on the carcasses left behind by other carnivores that brings coyotes into conflict with wolves.
Carnivore interrelationships are very complex. It seems that a healthy coyote population comes at the expense of this somewhat smaller carnivore. In areas where coyotes are thriving, usually the population of red fox will be reduced. In the Rockies, fox have been a rare sighting for many years. During the last century, wolves were wiped out of many areas, opening up the habitat to large numbers of coyotes. For fox, this meant a drop in their numbers.
What has changed? The rising number of wolves in Banff National Park has created a corresponding drop in coyote numbers. While wolves will kill coyotes whenever the opportunity arises, fox do not directly compete with the wolf for food. Once the wolf takes down a large elk or deer, the coyotes are quick to move in and clean up the carcass. If the wolf pack returns to finish off the carcass, the scavenging coyotes may be caught off guard and unceremoniously killed. Fox on the other hand, are not scavengers to the same degree as coyotes. The end result is that high wolf populations lead to reduced numbers of coyotes and increasing numbers of fox. Keep in mind that much of this is speculation. There have not been any detailed studies of coyote or fox numbers in the last few years so much of the data is anecdotal. Regardless, red fox are now being spotted occasionally along the Bow Valley Parkway as far west as Moose Meadows. Globally, no other carnivore is more wide spread than the lowly red fox.
It's always exciting to see a growing diversity in the carnivore population. In a time of increased development and expansion into wilderness areas, the carnivore population is one of the first to feel the crush of humanity.
Love is in the air
February is an important time for wolves, coyotes and fox. For each of these species, mating takes place in February and early March. In wolf and coyote packs, only the dominant pair mate. Mating in dogs is unusual in that the mating pair become locked together. This copulatory tie, as it is known holds the male in an awkward position for up to half an hour. Some scientists believe that this helps to cement the pair bond while others feel it helps to prevent other members of the pack from attempting to mate. Fox mate in monogamous pairings. After mating takes place, the gestation for wolves is 63 days, coyotes 60-63 days and 51-53 days for fox. Before giving birth in spring, each pair will either dig a burrow, or appropriate a burrow of another animal. For instance, red fox often take over ground squirrel burrows that they will enlarge to suit their needs.
The mountains are a great place to see wildlife, but it is also a place where large numbers die through vehicle impacts. It is important to slow down when traveling through the mountains so that you can help to reduce the number of animals being lost each year. We all need to play a role in keeping our carnivore populations healthy, and highways and train tracks are the top threats to wolves and coyotes in the mountains.