Photographing Canadian Wolves

by Dr. Robert Berdan
January 10, 2011


Greq Wolf captive by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk is a captive wolf from the Northern Lights wolf center in BC .

There are only a few animals that are more elusive then wolves and that makes them difficult to find and photograph. Wolves often hunt at night and are usually shy around humans for good reason. It is estimated there are about 4,000 wolves in Alberta and about 8,000 wolves in British Columbia. In Alberta your best chance to view a wolf is in Banff National Park along highway 1A and in Jasper National Park along the Maligne lake road. Even for seasoned nature photographers finding and photographing wild wolves is challenging - it takes a lot of time and some luck. Usually the best season to see and photograph wolves is in winter where you can see their tracks and the snow makes them more visible. My encounters with wolves have been too few to satisfy me and in most instances the encounters have been brief. In the arctic I have watched them at considerable distance through my binoculars, but the lack of cover makes it even more difficult to photograph them up close.

Wolf Facts by R. Berdan ©

I have observed and photographed wild wolves in Denali National Park in Alaska, Banff National Park, along the West Coast of British Columbia and in the North West Territories. So far I have only been able to take a few respectable photographs of wild wolves and it is something I plan to work harder on in the future. See wild wolf photos immediately below.

Wild Wolf West Coast BC by Robert Berdan ©

West Coast Wolf near Shearwater, BC - hunting for Salmon (Wild wolf)

Wild wolf on West Coast biting salmon head by Robert Berdan ©

Wolves on the West Coast appear smaller then those in the interior and lighter in colour. These wolves often bite off
and eat only the heads of the salmon.

Wild wolves on Tundra in NT by Robert Berdan ©

Pair of wild white wolves I watched chase caribou (300 mm F4 + 2X teleconverter, Canon 50D - total of 960 mm hand held) and a close up of a wolf print beside my hand. The wolf prints were found around our cabin at Peterson's Point Lake Lodge in the NWT. One white wolf was also seen around our cabins and left its foot prints.

As a nature photographer there is no greater pleasure then photographing a wild animal in its natural habitat and it is something that good nature photographers strive for. However, I have also photographed animals at wildlife rehabilitation centers, zoos and educational centers. I have not photographed at game farms in the US so won't comment on them, but see links below. One of the criticisms by some photographers that have photographed at certain game farms in the US is that the animals were either poorly treated or housed in very small cages. This is not the situation I experienced when I visited and photographed wolves at the Northern Lights Wolf Center near Golden, British Columbia. The Wolf Center was started by Shelly and Casey Black in 1998 and their mission was to care for several wolves and promote wolf and bear conservation. The animals appear to be well cared for and to help offset the cost of feeding and caring for these animals they offer opportunities to go for a walk with their wolves in a wilderness area. Participants are educated on how to behave around the wolves and they restrict the number of people on each walk. The animals are not asked to perform - just behave naturally and photographers can capture images of these beautiful animals up close in a natural setting. They also take their wolves into the classroom and their business has become a tourist attraction in Golden, BC. They currently care for 6 wolves. Anyone can go for a walk with the wolves and you don't even need to be a photographer. See their web site for costs and further information.

Shelly Black in front of Northern Lights wolf poster by Robert Berdan ©

Shelly Black in front of one of her own photographs of Wiley the Wolf used in a Poster to promote their Centre

Shelly and Casey Black in Blaeberry Valley with wolves Tuk and Wiley by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk - captive wolf by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk - along the Blaeberry river (Controlled situation i.e. captive wolf)

Wiley a captive wolf jumping over a log by Robert Berdan ©

Wiley - jumping over a log (CS - captive wolf)

Wolves in the Blaeberry river valley near Golden BC by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk and Wiley exploring the Blaeberry river valley near Golden, BC (controlled situation) 20 mm Wide angle lens and
graduated filter added to the sky afterward using Adobe Photoshop.

I have visited the Northern Lights wolf center four times in the past few years, once in Autumn and three times in winter. I prefer to walk with with the wolves in winter as they are easier to photograph against the snowy background and their fur is at its thickest. Autumn is also a beautiful time to photograph the wolves against the changing colours n the Blaeberry valley. The beauty of the experience is that the wolves are not restrained in any manner and you walk in wilderness area - so the wolves could take off if they wanted to. Casey usually carries a small pot of meat to entice them back. If you move slowly and carefully the wolves will even come up close and sniff you (watch the movie below).

Tuk - Wolf controlled situation by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk - controlled situation in the Blaeberry valley photographed while on a walk along a narrow creek.

Wolf - captive by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk photographed in Autumn - Northern Lights wolf center. (controlled situation).

Wolf captive by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk - controlled situation.

Wolf captive by Robert Berdan ©

Wiley crossing the Blaeberry River near Golden, British Columbia

You would think it is easy to take great shots of the wolves because they are so close, but you would be wrong. The wolves move quickly and you have to focus quickly - try to focus on their eyes. The ideal lens to use is a 70-200 mm F2.8. Sometimes a wide angle lens is preferred if you want to show the animals in their habitat. Also pay attention to the background and avoid sudden movements so you don't spook the wolves.

Wolf - captive by Robert Berdan ©

Maya running towards me Northern Lights wolf center

Wolf hair viewed in microscope by Robert Berdan ©

Hair samples viewed under a light microscope with polarizing filters and a quarter wave plate. Hair appears similar to other animals in the Dog Family.

Howling wolf - captive by Robert Berdan ©

Wiley - howling

Howling wolf showing breath (captive) by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk howling in response to my meager wolf howl - Northern Lights Wolf Centre by Robert Berdan ©


  • to notify location to other members of the pack
  • to attract a mate
  • to rally a pack for a hunt
  • to startle prey
  • upon waking
  • after intense sessions of play
  • when stressed or lonesome
  • they do not howl at the moon
  • they may respond to human wolf howls
  • a wolf howl lasts from 0.5 to 11 seconds
  • when wolves howl together they use a different note or pitch possibly so the pack sounds larger

Wolves in Blaeberry valley (captive) by Robert Berdan ©

Wide angle lens was used to capture Wiley and Tuk in front of a Mountain in the Blaeberry Valley

Wolf (captive) by Robert Berdan ©

Maya - peeking through the bush (controlled situation)

Northern Lights wolves by Robert Berdan

Photographing captive animals may not be for everyone and certainly if I thought the animals were not treated well I would not support them. Also if photographers do photograph captive wolves I believe they are obligated to indicate this along with their photographs and\or movies out of respect for the trainers and for other nature photographers that have captured pictures of wild wolves. Wolves are not only symbols of the wild but one of the most beautiful wild animals perhaps because we relate to dogs as pets or perhaps because they work together as team much like humans. Unfortunately wolves are still hunted in BC and Alberta and hunters are allowed to bait the wolves. Wolves play an important role in a wilderness ecosystem and their importance is only now becoming realized after they have been reintroduced back into Yellowstone National Park.

Black wolf (captive) by Robert Berdan ©

Tuk turned around to look at us as he lead us along this old road (controlled situation)

Walking with the wolves by Robert Berdan ©

Going for a walk with two wolves from the Northern Lights Wolf Centre (Maya left and Wiley on the Right).

For some "wild life" photographers photographing captive animals is unacceptable because the conditions under which the animals are cared for may be poor or they may generally feel that no one should benefit financially from the sale of these captive animals. But what some don't realize is that the images are sometimes donated and used to help the species and protect their environment. I have done this with some of my photographs of a swift fox and have donated many of my wildlife photographers for various conservation groups such as CPAWS. Ultimately I feel it is the care of the animals that is critical and determines what is acceptable. Zoos and Aquariums may play important roles in education, but I also believe that certain animals such as wolves, bears, and Killer whales should not be kept in captivity simply for our entertainment. I also believe rehabilitation centers preform a valuable service though sometimes rescued animals can not be released back into the wild.

Wild Lands Advocate cover shot of Wiley by Robert Berdan ©

Wild Lands Advocate - Timber Wolf on Cover (Wiley from the Northern Lights Center by R. Berdan - Download PDF)
See the Article "Alberta's War on Wolves" The photographs were donated by R. Berdan to help protect wolves in Alberta.

Even wild life photographers that photograph animals in the field can make mistakes that affect the survival of the wild animals. In one instance I know a photographer that inadvertently showed the location of where he photographed wild wolves and hunters who identified the area subsequently came in and killed the wolves. So it appears prudent that in some instances where hunting is allowed that photographers should not reveal where the animals were photographed for the protection of the animals. In regard to photographing captive animals I believe if the animals are well cared for and used as ambassadors to help their species survive through education then I have no regrets in photographing them. However, I do feel that photographers, magazines and web sites that post photographs of animals in controlled situations should reveal so out of respect for those photographers that have captured pictures of the animals in the wild and so as not to mislead others into believing they too can capture such pictures.

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Movie - A visit to the Northern Lights Wolf Centre in Golden BC and walking with wolves by R. Berdan
Taken with Canon 5D Mark II

Robert Berdan and Maya (captive wolf) by Kamal Varma ©

Rob Berdan with Maya, photograph by Kamal Varma. Ideal lens for such close encounters is a 70-200 mm zoom lens.

Links and Additional Resources About Wolves and Wolf Photography

Two books I recommend about Wild Wolves in Canada that also include outstanding wild wolf photographs

The Last Wild Wolves book cover Ian McAllister          The Will of the Land book cover by Peter Dettling ©

"The Last Wild Wolves" by Ian Mcallister available from Greystone Books and "The Will of the Land" by Peter A. Dettling (see book review) available from Rocky Mountain Books.

Another xxcellent book I recommend is "Wolves in Canada" by Erin McCloskey (2011), Lone Pine Publishing. Well written anf full of useful facts. $18.95 ISBN 978-1-55105-872-6.


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