Eye to Eye with the wolves of Banff National Park
Peter A. Dettling
Free roaming wolves versus captive wolves
The wolf (canis lupus) is one of the most fascinating animals of the northern hemisphere and at the same time, one of the most misunderstood creatures of our planet. This may seem strange, as many people would argue, that the wolf is one of the most studied mammals. But the truth is, that about 80% of those results come from captive wolves. It is from those observations (and imagery) where many misleading clichés arise. Things like the existence of a strict enforced pack hierarchy in wolf families, the all dominant alpha pair (where only the alpha female breeds) or the mentioning of an omega wolf come all from observations of animals living in captivity. Wolves in the wild behave quite differently and more complex than most people can imagine. The reason that not more research on free roaming wolves is done is, that most of them live a very secretive lives, avoiding all humans and human activity. Therefore one should not be surprised, that most photographs of wolves in magazines, books or calendars are made with the help of captive animals. Be it in zoos or in so called “game farms”. The wolf photography in game farms is more than dubious, because the animals live most of their lives in small cages. Even if the animals live in large enclosures, they will show some uncharacteristic behaviour, that you would not, or very seldom, see in the wild. Captive animals seem unrest, aggressive and at times even malicious towards their own family members.
Whoever had the luck to observe wild living canids will be surprised of their friendliness and gentle behaviour towards each other. It is a different world out there. Photo shoots on captive animals can, in very rare occasions, have legitimacy. But for the most part, nature photographers use game farm shoots for the sole purpose of enlarging their own personal stock-imagery of elusive animals. This excuse seems to me not only lame, but it also shows little respect towards the animal he or she would like to photograph. I rather have no photographs of a free roaming lynx, cougar or wolverine, than hundreds of a nicely composed images of captive animals. The real challenge to capture such an elusive animal, as the wolf is, on camera means that one has to invest lots of time and energy. Furthermore one has to get to know where the animal lives, what time of year it is best photographed, how it behaves and so on. Those facts alone will elevate the photographer’s knowledge of the animal itself and of the environment the animal lives in. Isn’t it that very thirst of knowledge towards the natural world, that drives most of us nature photographers out there on every possible occasion? Isn’t only the experience itself of observing something very few people have seen, worth all the invested time and trouble? We live in a very fast paced world. Much of what we see on TV, in magazines and books is either fake or manipulated to some extend. It would be nice to see nature photography going a different, more honest route.
Eye to eye with the wolves of Banff NP
In all my years traveling to some remote parts of the Rocky Mountains I got rarely a glimpse of a free living wolf. And if I did, it was most of the times a very brief encounter. To be able to get good imagery of free living wolves was nothing but a dream. As mentioned above, very few books show 100% non captive wolf photographs. Probably the most famous book in that category is “The white wolf – an arctic legend” by Jim Brandenburg. But while those wolves Jim observed on Ellesmere Island showed little fear towards humans, wolves in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks do. The documentation of a single wolf family in that part of the world was not a realistic goal. Luckily for me, everything changed when I met a German field wolf researcher named Günther Bloch, early 2006. We got along well quickly and started a book project.
Thanks to his vast knowledge of the wolves in and around Banff, it suddenly was possible for me to get imagery I could only dream about a few years ago. Our goal was to tell the story of wolves of Banff NP, 100% authentic. Serious wolf research in Banff started in 1987 when two of the most respected carnivore experts, Mike Gibeau and Paul Paquet, started to collect all kinds of data on the canids. In 1992 Günther joined the team and he has studied those large predators ever since. His field observations contradict quite often the existing data observed on animals living in captivity. Our book will be published in 2009 and will present and discuss all the data collected over a 20 year period. Long term studies are essential in the understanding of wolves and their effects on a healthy eco system. One may think, that the wolves living in a national park should have it easier than their relatives on non protected land. But the quite often sad and tragic story of the Bow Valley Wolves tells quite a different story. This fact, the negative human influence (questionable wildlife management, highway/railroad mortality etc.), will also be one of the main issues presented in the book.
The challenges of photographing wild wolves
To obtain the imagery for the book I faced some tough challenges. First of all one has to know, that wolves roam mostly from dusk to dawn. That fact alone makes it difficult to obtain good wolf imagery. Thanks to the hugely improved power of digital photography, I was able to capture interesting scenes even in low light. ISO 1000-3200 was often used. Another problem is the fact that wolves are very shy and elusive. Approaching the wolves on foot, if one finds them in Banff NP, is not an option. They would simply run away and there is no point of getting photographs of fleeing wolves. But wolves may behave differently if approaching a parked car. Wolves and all other animals of Banff NP have to get use to human infrastructure. They will encounter parked cars and cross some roads many times in their lives. If one gets lucky and encounters a wolf close or next to a road with little traffic, one should immediately park the car on the side, turn the engine off, behave very quiet and be patient. I often photographed the wolves from the car using a car window mount as my “tripod”. Do not leave the car, as your chance to photograph this elusive animal will be ruined. Same thing is true with other large carnivores, such as grizzly bears or black bears. But of course I couldn’t solely rely on photographing the wolves from the road. In fact, most of my photographs in the book were made away from the road. As none of the wolves of Banff NP were collared, finding them was by far the most difficult task. It is not possible to “track wolves down”, as one would probably never see the animals or spook them.
Therefore I had to rely on Günther’s many years of experience. Thanks to Günther’s help, I was finally able to document rarely observed wolf behaviour in the wild without disturbing them. Be it adaptive behaviour on human infrastructure, hunting techniques, vocalization, family play and interactions or confrontations with bears. It took me two years of intensive work to get all the imagery needed for the book. As wolves are very tuned in with their environment and very sensitive to any out of place movements or odors I had to use the “sit and wait” tactic, well camouflaged of course. Most of the times I sat somewhere on a observation spot for hours and days without even getting a single photograph. But every once in a while a wolf showed up at the chosen location. If that happened, I had to remain extremely quiet and still. Quite often I had branches or other vegetation blocking a clear view, but I had to live with it. There is nothing more satisfying to observe an animal trotting about 100 meters in front of you without it even noticing you. It is in those situations that one can observe and photograph the most natural behaviour.
Seeing wolves playing with each other or even interacting with a grizzly bear is priceless. Having said that, I used most of the times my largest lens, combined with an extender. 500mm F4 + 1.4X extender was the standard. Would there have been situations, where photographing the animals would have disturbed them, I would not have done it. More than once, for example, did a wolf approach my hiding place without realizing me being there. In those situations I quietly observed the fascinating animal through the viewfinder without even pressing the shutter once.
At the end I simply hope that my photographs may help a little bit to show an often misunderstood animal in a different light. The truth is, that there is still so much more to learn. As a professional nature photographer I feel both blessed and obliged to try to be a visual voice for those who can not speak for themselves. Wolves certainly need any help they can get
Peter's New Book Eye to Eye with the Wolf is now Available online (In German)
View sample of Book Here (PDF)
See Peter's New Book "The Will of the Land " and a video on the Canadian Nature Photographer