Five years following a wild wolf pack

The Kootenay Wolves is a recently published book by John E. Marriott.

The Kootenay Wolves – Five years following a wild wolf pack- is a spectacularly illustrated photography book by John E. Marriott, full of behavioural observations and wolf tales that will engage those interested in the state of wild wolves in North America.

Raincoast Senior Scientist, and carnivore expert, Paul C. Paquet wrote the foreword to John’s book, detailing his first encounters with wolves and the history of wolves in Western Canada.

Photo of a wolf straight on with words "the Kootenay Wolves" on top
The Kootenay Wolves book cover. Photo by John E. Marriott.


For nearly 50 years, I have studied and written about the behaviour and ecology of gray wolves, as well as their distinctly tempestuous relationship with humans. Notably, my first memorable experience with free-roaming wolves was in Kootenay National Park. Of all the encounters with wolves I’ve had over the years, fleeting glimpses and prolonged engagements, I remember that encounter and those wolves more clearly than most others.

I was a small 5-year-old boy travelling through the park with my uncle Robert, when we stopped near Vermilion River to watch two wolves move alertly along the parkway shoulder and cross the road toward our car. As they came closer my attention focused until it was only me and the wolves; nothing else seemed to matter. I was spellbound. Although strangely curious about wolves, I had never met a wolf outside of a zoo or my all too fertile imagination. As they approached the car, the wolves moved across the road and trotted down into the ditch and up again, vanishing into the woods between the river and us. “I don’t expect they will be alive much longer,” I heard my uncle say. I did not understand nor care to understand why they would die soon, but I cried nevertheless. Years later I learned that as part of a misguided eradication effort by federal and provincial governments, wolves had been killed routinely by park wardens since Kootenay National Park was established in 1920. Consequently, wolves had largely disappeared from the park, although periodically, dispersing wolves reappeared in unsuccessful attempts to recolonize their ancestral lands.

In the late 1980s, I returned to the Rockies to oversee a study of the recolonization of wolves in Banff National Park and nearby areas (Central Rockies Wolf Project). In early April 1989, I found myself again mesmerised by a wolf on the roadside in Kootenay National Park. This one, however, was already dead – a pregnant female killed by a passing transport truck while attempting to cross the highway. Nearby, another wolf watched and bark-howled as I glumly considered the lifeless body of the female wolf in front of me. This one was a male who I imagined was her companion, maybe the father of her unborn pups. Long repressed emotions rekindled as my uncle’s words from 35 years ago echoed in my mind: “I don’t expect he will be alive much longer.” I knew then that this was the brutal reality of life for wolves trying to make a living within the environmentally compromised regions of Canada’s Rocky Mountain national parks for the past 100 years.

I met John Marriott in late summer of 1994 while tracking and observing a nascent pack of wolves who had recently colonised the Pipestone area in Banff National Park. John, working as a Banff Park naturalist and photographer, was monitoring the same pack. We converged on Highway 1A near Lake Louise. Before my arrival, John had been watching and photographing three adult wolves from the pack of seven. Anxious to get any information about this enigmatic pack, I asked what he had observed. He replied with a detailed physical description of the wolves and a perceptive and empathetic account of their behaviour. Impressed and surprised with the thoroughness and depth of his account, I remember thinking, this is the difference between observing and seeing – the path from being remotely acquainted with wild wolves to truly knowing them.

Blessed with the discerning eyes of a photographer and the attentive mind of a naturalist, John had much to offer. Happily, John continued exploring and recounting with camera and pen the lives of wild wolves in Banff and Kootenay national parks for another 25 years. In The Kootenay Wolves, we are now the fortunate recipients of his amassed knowledge, accumulated experiences and revealing insights about wolves surviving and persisting in an unforgiving environment dominated by people and their often deadly undertakings.

Telling the Kootenay wolves’ story is especially challenging as people grow more removed from nature. The wolf has always been a powerful and discordant symbol of wildness, an icon of a lost wilderness. Few animals provoke as wide a range of emotions as wolves. For many, the wolf represents what they cannot control. For others, wolves represent the hope that humans will not control everything that is wild. Because they are cherished as wild, priceless and irreplaceable for our increasingly urbanized society, the continued presence of animals like wolves makes places like Kootenay National Park qualitatively different from other, simply scenic places.

To appreciate the significance, both symbolically and ecologically, of The Kootenay Wolves and John’s contributions in understanding their ecology and behaviour, a historical perspective is important. Gray wolves were once distributed widely throughout the Rocky Mountains of Canada, including what is now Kootenay National Park. Notably, in the 20th century wolves were eradicated twice from the southern Rocky Mountains because of apparent conflict with humans and a reduction of the wolves’ primary prey of elk, owing to excessive hunting by people. Most wolves were eliminated south of Jasper National Park, Alberta, before 1914, and by 1930 a viable population of wolves ceased to exist in the area between Jasper National Park, Alberta, and Glacier National Park, Montana. In the late 1930s, however, natural recolonization and subsequent range expansion allowed wolves to re-establish in most areas of the southern Canadian Rockies, including Kootenay National Park. But again, provincial carnivore reduction programs (ostensibly for rabies prevention and control) eliminated wolves in the 1950s. Following cessation of wolf control in the mid-1960s, and despite other, ongoing persecutions, wolves began a second recolonization of southern British Columbia and Alberta from where they had been eliminated. In the early to late 1970s, solitary wolves were occasionally being sighted in Kootenay National Park, although park wardens contin- ued to target and kill wolves until as late as 1974. Despite the constant poisoning, trapping and shooting, pack activity was documented in Banff National Park and nearby Kootenay National Park in 1985, and a viable population of wolves was fully re-established regionally by 1996.

Much of The Kootenay Wolves expands on John’s deeply personal journey, a story told with self-effacing humour and compassion for the individual wolves who inhabit the book. The Kootenay Wolves is infused with strikingly evocative images complemented by an edifying narrative of natural history, autobiography and John’s unambiguous philosophical expositions on humankind’s unsettled relationship with nature as epitomized by wolves.

John follows the daily lives of these wolves over five years, and generation to generation. By sharing their story while chronicling his own, he reminds us that wolves and other individual animals have intrinsic value. Very simply, John portrays the wolves of Kootenay National Park as individuals like you and me. They know what  happened yesterday, they have plans for tomorrow, they have curiosities, and they have intimate relationships with other wolves. Their strong family relationships and emotional attachments are real. As John makes abundantly clear, wolves are not “resources” for us to “conserve” or “use” for our assumed benefit. From his perspective, there is not a more powerful imperative to protect wolves, or even to conserve them, unless it is a moral imperative.

Although many wolf populations worldwide are now under conservation-minded management, those in BC are largely managed to reflect political and economic interests. Provincial wildlife managers are fervent believers in predator control, a quasi-theological conviction that lowering the numbers of wolves is the single best way to ensure survival and growth of deer, elk, moose and caribou. Hunters and trappers sit outside the boundaries of Kootenay National Park with no limits on the number of wolves they can kill. 

The result is an ongoing dispute over wildlife management suffused with contemporary politics. Managing for the well-being and benefit of wolves with a focus on their persistence, as John advocates, is quite different than managing wolves for the benefit of people. From their dominant position as top predators, wolves play an influential and essential ecological role, possibly unmatched by any other large mammal. Human exploitation of wolves, even if sustainable numerically, can undermine ecosystem integrity as changes to wolf populations resonate throughout ecological communities. Their direct influence on prey numbers and behaviour creates a series of indirect effects that trickle through an ecosystem affecting species that seem ecologically and taxonomically very distant. Consequently, declining numbers and shrinking distributions of wolves due to human persecution predictably result in a loss and reconfiguration of biological diversity in the affected natural communities. These trophic cascades are very important in areas that evolved with wolves. When trophic structure is dismantled, ecosystems simplify, fluctuate to extremes and degenerate – sometimes to complete collapse. For me, the most compelling aspect of The Kootenay Wolves is the immediacy of John’s work. Throughout, he is close enough to the wolves, physically and emotionally, to provide detailed written accounts and intimate photographs reminiscent of the first-hand ac- counts of a conflict journalist. The visual eloquence of John’s photography conveys and buttresses the same empathy, sensitivity and concerns of John’s written words. Both employ reality in order to reveal truths about the life and welfare of Kootenay wolves not apparent to the uncritical eye.

Prominent among these truths is that these are not good times for recently recovered wolves in the southern Rockies. Low densities, large home ranges and the secretive nature of the gray wolf complicate conservation efforts. The extensive spatial requirements of wolves and the potential for conflict with human activities generate socio-political friction that spans administrative boundaries and government agency mandates. Although the Rocky Mountains of Canada are now a stronghold for many wolves in the North American continent, the region continues to be breached by human settlement, transportation, resource development and exploitive wildlife management. As a result of regressive and anachronistic policies, wolves are once again being callously trapped, strangled, poisoned and gunned from aircraft. Consequently, wolf populations are now largely confined to fragments of relatively undisturbed habitat and vulnerable to accidental deaths on highways and railways, as well as deliberate legal and illegal killing. As John laments, killing wolves and degrading environments are not only inseparably linked; they are also mutually reinforcing.

A persuasive visual and written appeal on behalf of wolves everywhere, The Kootenay Wolves will be appreciated and ultimately treasured by any reader wanting to learn about the lives of wolves and to extend their own relationship with nature. The ideas are sophisticated enough for scholars, and the writing is accessible to any engaged reader. John’s observations advance our fundamental understanding of biology, ecology and social behaviour of wolves, while underscoring seldom addressed moral issues that affect wolves, such as quality of life and their welfare as individuals. If we understand that artful storytelling often employs authenticity in order to con- vey reality, the unambiguous message here is that when it comes to empathy, tolerance and respect for other beings, there is an enormous gap between where we are and where we ought to be – a powerful statement about living truthfully.

About John E. Marriott

John E. Marriott is one of Canada’s premier professional wildlife and nature photographers, with a career spanning two decades and images published worldwide in National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, Canadian Geographic, Maclean’s, and Reader’s Digest. He is also the wildlife photography columnist for Outdoor Photography Canada magazine. His books with RMB include The Pipestone Wolves: The Rise and Fall of a Wolf Family (with Günther Bloch), What Bears Teach Us (with Sarah Elmeligi), and The Kootenay Wolves: Five Years Following a Wild Wolf Pack. John has also produced four coffee-table books, including: Banff & Lake Louise: Images of Banff National Park, Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies: A Glimpse at Life on the Wild Side, The Canadian Rockies: Banff, Jasper & Beyond, and Tall Tales, Long Lenses: My Adventures in Photography. John prides himself on being a conservation photographer known for capturing wilderness scenes and wild, free-roaming animals in their natural habitats. He currently lives in Canmore, Alberta, with his wife, Jennifer.

Foreword copyright © 2021 by Paul Paquet
Photography copyright © 2021 by John E. Marriott

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