Friday, 10 February 2012

Blizzard The Wolf (2009-2011)

In May of last year, I finally returned to my second home of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies to continue photographing the incredible wildlife and scenery of the mountains. After a week or two of well needed photography and amazing wildlife encounters, my bubble was popped by the news of another grizzly bear death on the Canadian Pacific railway.

A grizzly sow that I photographed in early spring, had been killed the following day by a speeding train leaving her two yearling cubs orphaned. This news was hard to take and all of a sudden I snapped out of my euphoric state and came back down to reality with a thump. Things aren't perfect out here by any means. Animals are still being killed by humans in huge numbers throughout the year, on our roads, railway lines and for just simply being wild.

Now, as my time in Canada is coming to a close once again, I'm saddened to learn of the death of 'Blizzard', my favourite wolf. She was struck and killed by a vehicle on the Trans Canada Highway on the 28th of December, 2011.

A recent portrait of Blizzard from our final encounter (December, 2011) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

I first encountered Blizzard back in February, 2010 when she was just a pup at about 9 months old. I was fairly new to wolf photography at the time so none of my photos were any good. However, I still remember the encounter vividly as it lasted well over 30 minutes, which at the time was the longest wolf encounter I'd ever had. Back then Blizzard had a jet black coat and I'll never forget the joy I felt watching her playing around in the snow with her brother Skoki.

A couple of months after my first encounter with her, I came upon an injured moose whilst out driving early one morning. Had I arrived about twenty minutes earlier, I would have seen the Pipestone wolves attacking the moose and forcing her to retreat to the safety of the Bow river. I stayed nearby for five whole days until eventually the wolves returned to see what condition their prey was in. During this encounter, I took a series of images which feature in one of my previous blog posts, 'Survival In The Bow Valley'.

Blizzard takes a break on the ice as the pack check on the injured moose (April, 2010) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Blizzard sits patiently as she watches the injured moose (April, 2010) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

In June of 2010, I hired a driver for the month and spent almost everyday out looking for wildlife across the Rocky Mountains, from Kananaskis to Jasper. During this time I had several encounters with Blizzard and the Pipestone wolves. Even though she was a very social wolf, most of the time Blizzard would be by herself, off on a little excursion from the rest of her family. But just when I thought she might leave the pack, I saw her one morning as she was babysitting the new litter of pups. Unfortunately I didn't see the little ones, but I could hear their yips and squeaks of joy after Blizzard crossed the road to join them in the forest. She still seemed to be a vital member of the pack after all.

Once I was back in Britain the following winter, I was eager to keep up to date with news of the wolves, especially Blizzard who I had spent much more time with than any other members of the pack. It was during this time that her brother Skoki (who wore one of the two GPS collars which help Parks Canada track the wolves movements) finally left the Bow Valley in search of his own territory. Blizzard however, remained an important part of the pack, becoming one of only only three adults. Parks Canada then darted her from a helicopter, and fitted her with a brand new collar.

When I returned to Banff in the spring of 2011, it had been almost exactly one year to the day since I had seen her last. I was rewarded with a twenty minute encounter which was like a big breath of fresh air. It was an amazing feeling to see her again, knowing she was ok and still successfully navigating her way around the bustling Bow Valley.

Sadly, this encounter began with her walking along the side of the Trans Canada Highway. I'm not sure how she got onto that dreaded stretch of road, which has killed so many wolves and bears over the years. It sometimes takes Parks Canada weeks to fix holes or damages to the wildlife fence and I've also seen gates used by construction workers left wide open for hours on end, with nobody around to prevent wildlife from walking out onto the highway. However she did it, I prayed that she would stick to using the overpasses and underpasses, and avoid that highway like the plague!

Blizzard approaches though a patch of dandelions at the side of the TCH (June, 2011) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Other than that, I barely saw her this summer. A fleeting glimpse every now and then but that's all. The last time I photographed her was late last year during an incredible encounter with the whole pack.

Blizzard (left) and her mother Faith, looking very similar (December, 2011) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Blizzard taking a stroll in her thick winter coat (December, 2011) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

A magnificent wolf! (December, 2011) Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Shortly after this encounter, Blizzard took off again on one of her excursions. This time she was gone a whole month, probably looking for a territory of her own, a process known as dispersal. During this time her GPS collar, which hadn't been working for over a year, dropped off. When she returned to the pack this time, friend and fellow photographer Brandon T. Brown watched as the pups greeted her, pleased to be reunited with their elder sister after so long. However, Faith (Blizzards mother and alpha female of the pack) chased her away across a meadow. With Blizzard spending more and more time away from the family, and mating season just around the corner, Faith wasn't willing to let her stay this time. This defining moment in her life was surely the end of her time in the Bow Valley and she vanished again one last time. I hoped that she had headed the same way as her brother Skoki, who used Spray Valley to make his way into Kananaskis where there are few wolves and lots of prey.

Unfortunately it was only one week later that I saw the article in the local newspaper which read, 'Banff wolf killed on TCH near Lac des Arc'. My heart sank as soon as I saw her photo.

Unlike Skoki, Blizzard headed East out of Banff, following the direction of the train tracks and the biggest highway in the country. The Trans Canada Highway is fenced throughout Banff National Park, and Blizzard had managed to navigate around this dangerous road her whole life, using the wildlife underpasses and overpasses to cross from one side of the valley to the other. However, outside the park only some of the highway in fenced. The stretch which passes Lac des Arc has claimed the lives of so many animals over the years. A large adult cougar was killed there late last spring and now Blizzard has become the most recent animal to be hit by someone likely driving too fast at night. With no fencing, speed cameras or traffic cops to be seen anywhere nearby, this will continue to happen until spotting wildlife in our national parks will have become a distant memory.

If you want to learn more about wildlife mortality in the Bow Valley, click this link to hear a WildSmart speaker talk by John Paczkowski. His presentation is called 'Where the Wildlife Roam: Wildlife Movement and Corridor Use in the Bow Valley'.

I'll be moving back home to Wales at the end of the month, but I will continue to campaign on behalf of these animals, and try to update you on the situation here in the Canadian Rockies as best I can. If you haven't done so already, please 'like' my Facebook pages 'Save Banff's Wildlife' and 'Cai Priestley Photography' for news, updates and recent photos.

Even though I'm getting ready to leave the mountains once again, I'm looking forward to the opportunity of photographing some British wildlife for a change, lots of which I've never even seen before. I'm hoping to make several trips to the Pembrokeshire coast for the marine life and I'm exited about a new fox project which I hope to get underway as soon as I get home.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for another blog post about the wild horses of Alberta in the next few weeks.



  1. So Sad, man.

    She is my favourite wolf too

    I can believe

  2. Her memory lives on in your amazing photos and story, thank you for sharing!

  3. Excellent shots and wonderful pictures.

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