It was Sunday night, probably around 6:30 pm, when my girlfriend and I were on our way home from a New Year’s trip to Jasper. On our whole trip we were fortunate enough to see a total of 12 wolves from 3 different families. On our way back, last Sunday night, we encountered our 12th wolf on the Bow Valley Parkway. It was very dark at that time. Nonetheless, we were able to see (thanks to our car headlights) a wonderful young, juvenile black wolf. The behavior of this young wolf was very interesting, even strange. We speculated that it had found some kind of food source in the deep snow and was trying to dig it up. By doing so, he (or she) was very timid and at times jumped back as if it was hit by something. We couldn’t make sense of it all and decided to park the car next to the road, turned off our engine and observed what was going on. The young wolf stuck around for a while, dug up some more snow and eventually left the scene without giving us a clue of what it has been after. In turn, we decided to see what attracted the wolf’s attention for so long and investigated the site only to find some strange looking, frozen bones and - to our surprise- two pieces of rotten vegetables.
Three days later. I received a call from CBC who asked me if I was interested to give some comments on air about the recent incident where wolves had been baited by some photographers in order to get some pictures. Shocked to hear that somebody would actually do such a thing I strongly condemned the actions. Luckily however, I had some time to investigate the incident before I had to give the actual interview on air the following day. I found very quickly some articles describing the incident accusing a few photographers of luring in the wolves by placing food next to the road, along with some harsh comments by local authors, photographers and park staff. Luckily, my girlfriend pointed out to me the comment section of the local newspaper where I read the comments by one of the (anonymous) accused ones. His/her statements made me nearly as furious as the idea of someone throwing out food of a car to wild animals. Not because the statements were irresponsible or ridiculous. No, his/her description supports what I had seen on that Sunday night, i.e. the behavior of the young wolf and the – to the wolf – rather strange pieces of food ( including rotten veggies) laying out of sight (when viewing from the road) in deep snow. It all leads me to believe that the accused photographers, as a matter of fact, did not lure in the animals by placing food next to the road. After all, who with a sane mind, would try to bait wolves with food right next to a well driven road and on top of that also bait the wolves with some meat and veggies? The answer is most likely, no one. For the sake of argument, let’s assume somebody wanted to bait the wolves with food. Then I would suspect that this person would have tried to lure the animals far away from the road where chances of disturbance by people or park wardens would have been close to nil.
It certainly all points to the possibility that the wolves found some food thrown out the car window by some boneheads and maybe thrown further off the road by the snowplow sometimes on Saturday, January 4th. The photographers simply found and photographed a wolf digging for some kind of unidentified food source until a Parks Canada employee showed up by chance not long after. I would strongly recommend anyone who is interested in this story to at least look into what one of the accused has to say – read here:
What really bothers me about this story is the fact that someone could very easily have been falsely - and very aggressively - accused (talking about receiving a bad reputation…) and that people jump all too quickly to conclusions without getting all the facts, all and foremost some reporters keen for a sensational story. Personally, if I would be one of the accused ones – and I am not, to make this very clear - I would under no circumstances accept the way this story has been handled and would call my lawyer immediately, along with inviting some reporters and Parks Staff to join me for a serious talk.
The fact that Parks Canada is very harshly pointing the fingers, repeatedly in the last few months and years, towards “unethical photographers” is also a trend that should be looked upon more closely. After all, national parks are the places where people should come, seek and find a close connection to nature – a place that is particularly set aside for people to come and view and observe the wonders of the natural world. Being able to see, observe and document wildlife is the prime reason why national parks are so important to our modern culture. As a matter of fact, it should be promoted in a way that is an enjoyable experience for both, wildlife and people. In my career as a professional nature photographer I have visited many national parks, from the Maasai Mara in Kenya to Svalbard in Norway, from the Galapagos Islands to Yellowstone National Park. In all those places I was inspired by the management of the places in where the viewing, observing and photographing wildlife safely (for both, animals and people) is the paramount task for the national park managers. In the Canadian Rocky Mountains, all too often I come home feeling frustrated and sad of the happenings in and around the Parks roads. Part of it has to do with Parks Canada’s declared goal, which is to lure in ever more people for reasons that have very little to do with wildlife viewing and getting to know the natural world. In fact, Parks Canada promotes the park as a place where you can come and ski on commercial ski runs, play golf on an ancient native and archeological site, participate on a bike race that disturbs bears, wolves and other wild animals in critical spring time and so on. Parks also promotes (and rightly so) that this is a place where one can encounter iconic animals such as grizzly bears or wolves. Contrary to places such as Yellowstone however, all too often one can’t enjoy the sightings because one is being chased away by – at times very unfriendly - Park Staff, who don’t seem to have the time to stick around. The point is, if you (Parks Canada) create an atmosphere of industrial mass tourism, you better make sure you can control and manage the attracted visitors in a way that nourishes a pleasant, enjoyable and inspiring atmosphere for both, humans and the wildlife living on protected land.
So, who is to blame here? The photographers who were photographing wolves in a meadow inside a national park feeding on some (to them & the wolves!) unknown food source or Parks Canada for not creating a place where people are provided a well-managed wildlife observation possibility? Or should one blame the media for not taking the time to dig deeper and report a story with good founded arguments and evidence? Each and everyone has to create his own opinion. Personally, I simply hope, that people take the time to dig a bit deeper and make their homework before dashing out all too “heroically” at people who potentially are innocent. Remember, it could have been you parking on the side of the road and trying to find out what the wolf was digging out in the snow just before a Park Warden drives around the corner….
One last point I would like to make is that if anything good came out of this story, then it is the evidence, that feeding wildlife in a national park is an absolute taboo – and rightly so. We all too well know, a fed wild animal is all too often a dead one. On the other hand, to accuse somebody of something that is potentially false and inaccurate or not well researched is profoundly irresponsible and to my mind- unquestionably unacceptable and unethical as well.
Note: Rocky Mountain Outlook has deleted all the comments on their website, including the comments of the accused photographer who tried to clarify the situation.
Peter Dettling is author of "The Will of the Land" a book that describes the plight of the wolves in Banff National Park.