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The "old" European belief that predators were vermin and should be shot on sight is an attitude that many pioneers carried across the ocean. With the disappearance of bison and other big game, livestock conflicts increased and predator control programs intensified. In National Parks, wardens destroyed animals such as coyotes, wolves, cougars, lynx, birds of prey and even great blue herons! Only grizzly and black bears were exempt. However, destruction of problem bears by park managers and predator control on surrounding private lands did affect bear populations. By the early part of this century, predators and prey were rare or absent in southern Alberta.
Public attitudes toward predators have evolved from indifference or antagonism to concern for sound management. Predators are now recognized as indicators of healthy ecosystems. The challenges associated with managing predators occur mainly when they have large territorial requirements. For example, in the winter a wolf pack may require a territory of 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. km.) or more! A male grizzly may have a home range two to three times as big as the size of WLNP. As predators wander outside the boundaries of the park they sometimes cause conflicts with livestock. However, scientific evidence indicates that since predators are animals of habit and are capable of learning, we can manage them to minimize livestock losses. Compensation programs that reimburse ranchers for financial losses due to predators, coupled with the removal of predators that develop a pattern of preying on livestock, are both sound management practices.
Sometimes we forget that the characteristics of the wildlife we most value, such as deer, elk, sheep and moose, evolved in part from the relationship between predator and prey. Animals have keen hearing, clear vision, supple well-conditioned muscles and razor sharp reflexes because of this relationship. Even the evolution of the four chambered stomach in our ungulates developed as a result of a need to eat fast in the open and chew later in the safety of cover.
"Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf"
When the first two legged predators arrived in north America, many skills and lessons were acquired by watching their four legged brothers. In early hunter-gather societies, two legged and four legged predators lived in relative harmony for thousands of years, following the sea of bison. Indeed, the early domestication of wolves was a result of employing the refined skills of the canines (dog family) to help the human hunter.
By 1890, bison, as well as most big game, were gone and cattle were well established. The lack of natural game caused many a predator to turn to livestock as a new food source. The wolves were then further reduced by ranchers poisoning with strychnine. By the turn of the century, wolves were virtually gone in southern Alberta. In the 1920's and again in the 1940's wolf populations expanded back into the area largely because of an increase in ungulate populations and reduced hunting pressure during WWII. Again, they became the focus of intensive hunting, trapping and poisoning in and near Waterton by ranchers and government officers. Natural recolonization of the area between 1952 and 1956 was further inhibited by an extensive provincial and federal carnivore reduction campaign in response to rabies found in red fox and coyotes (Van Tighem & Fox, 1994). Wolves were extirpated from the whole south Saskatchewan drainage by the late 50's.
By 1966, wolves occupied permanent territories south to the Bow River with lone individuals reported as far south as Pincher Creek and Waterton. Confirmed sightings increased in the 1970's and 1980's in the Belly River, Oil Basin and Blind Canyon areas. In 1986, the first wolf pack to den in more than 50 years in Montana raised a litter of pups in Glacier National Park. This discovery, along with increased wolf activity in the nearby North Fork of the Flathead River, triggered provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act which gave the wolf total protection in the newly-recolonized area (Van Tighem & Fox, 1994).
In 1993, the first documented den in southwestern Alberta since the 1950's was found in WLNP near the Belly River. This discovery initiated a multi-agency study to monitor the movements of this small wolf pack. Two workshops were held by the Waterton Biosphere Association to inform local interest groups about the wolves and to employ their assistance in monitoring movements. The workshops, in conjunction with a newsletter, only proved partially effective in dispelling rumours and myths about wolves (Van Tighem & Fox, 1994).
In fact, the public outreach associated with the project may have contributed to high hunting pressure on wolves by focussing public concern and attention on a hitherto largely ignored wolf population (Van Tighem & Fox, 1994). Of the estimated 45 to 60 wolves found in southern Alberta, 44 were killed by humans between April 1994 and April 1995. Ironically, the wolves that caused no problems with livestock sustained the highest human-caused mortality.
Alberta has a Wolf Management Plan that calls for a population of 50 wolves to be maintained in southwestern Alberta. This plan is consistent with the interest of Parks Canada for maintaining wolf populations as part of healthy park ecosystems. The recovery of wolves in southern Alberta is complicated by current hunting regulations. Albertans can hunt wolves without a licence for about nine months of the year. Land owners can destroy wolves on or within five miles of their land. There is also no quota on how many wolves trappers can take each year.
The goal of managing a stable wolf population with minimal conflict is further complicated by the many myths, legends and misconceptions associated with them. Here are some of the myths on both sides of the argument:
The protection of wolves in national parks alone will not ensure their future survival. Wolves wander extensively outside of Waterton Lakes and Glacier to find food and shelter. For example, one of Glacier's radio collared wolves travelled north, almost to the Yukon, in one winter! Each year, as more habitat is lost and travel corridors close, space for wolves and other wildlife shrinks.
Over the past century we have proven that we can eradicate wolves. The real challenge will be to see if we are wise enough to listen to the howl of the wolf objectively and find creative ways of sharing the landscapes we both depend upon.
Fox, E. and K. Van Tighem. 1994. The Belly River Wolf Study. unpublished interim report, W.L.N.P., Alberta.
The cougar (puma, mountain lion) was nearly or completely absent from the WLNP area when the park was created. Unregulated hunting, low numbers of prey species, and an aggressive predator control policy combined to keep numbers low through the early part of the century. Sporadic predator control continued within WLNP until the late 1960's.
The solitary and elusive cougar is now seen more frequently as populations gradually recover. The townsite and campgrounds, with their habituated deer and sheep, have become a favourite hunting ground for some cougars, especially in the quiet fall and winter seasons.
Cougar attacks on humans are rare. There have been two incidents within Waterton Lakes National Park in the last decade where a child received minor injuries. Females with kittens and animals which are cornered, surprised or feeding on a kill may act aggressively. Cougars often show curiosity toward human activities without behaving aggressively.
Living in cougar country increases your chances of observing one of these fascinating predators. It also comes with some risks and responsibilities. Here are a few important guidelines to reduce the risk of human injury and help protect cougars by avoiding the stress of relocation or the need to destroy an animal.
Marshal, Locke. 1995. Cougars - Waterton Lakes National Park. Heritage Communications, Parks Canada, W.L.N.P.
Management of a healthy population of grizzly bears in Waterton Lakes is complicated by their large territory requirements, their low reproductive rate, their defensive nature and an increase in backcountry use.
Most visitors never see a bear, but all of the park is bear country. Whether visitors plan to hike for days or simply sightsee for a few hours, it is important to take the time to learn about special precautions in bear country. While a negative encounter with a bear in the park is a possibility, statistically, waterfalls are more dangerous than bears.
Bears live in a world of scent. Even though their eyes are good, they mainly perceive the world through their nose. On the other hand, we perceive the world mainly through our eyes. People moving up a trail quietly into the wind may not be aware of messages the wind carries like - "Hey, there is a grizzly feeding on a carcass up ahead." Meanwhile, because we would be downwind from the bear, it would not receive the message of a human moving along the trail. This is a perfect scene for a startling encounter between bear and hiker; likely negative as the bear may defend its food source.
Bears will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching. Making noise is an effective strategy. Bells are not as useful as many people believe - talking loudly, clapping hands, and calling out are more effective. Sometimes trail conditions make it hard for bears to see, hear, or smell approaching hikers. Hikers should be particularly careful when hiking near a stream, against the wind, or in dense vegetation. A blind corner or a rise in the trail also requires special attention by hikers.
Watch for signs of bear activity - like tracks, torn up logs, trampled vegetation, droppings and overturned rocks. Bears spend a lot of time eating so avoid obvious feeding areas like berry patches, cow parsnip thickets, or fields of glacier lilies.
People should never intentionally get close to a bear. Individual bears will react differently so you can't predict their behaviour. A minimum safe distance is 150 to 300 metres (500 to 1000 ft), although there is no guarantee of your safety.
Here are a few suggestions when hiking in bear country:
All encounters with bears should be reported to the Warden Service. The safety of others, and the bears themselves, may depend on it.