Death to Live

John is a wildlife photographer living in Banff. For more of his stories and photos, please visit his website.

I can’t help but wonder if his days are coming to an end. “Moose”, the big bull elk I befriended almost eight months ago during the autumn rut, is lying in the shade, looking ragged and tired.

He’s paying me no attention, continuously letting his head flop to either side as if he hadn’t the strength to keep it upright. The most telling sign of his ill health is his gut; it looks big and full, yet he’s not chewing. I’ve watched him from a distance all winter and he hasn’t been eating as well as the other bulls; he’s always appeared a step behind. His bloated gut is a sure indication that he doesn’t have any food left to chew on, that it’s been a long hard winter for the king of the Minnewanka rut.

I want to feel sorry for Moose, but I find myself thinking otherwise. He had a glorious run this fall fighting off big bulls and maintaining a harem of close to forty cows, and now here he lies, perhaps ready to pass on and renew the cycle of life.

As much as I hope he makes it and returns for another year of glory, I hope that if he is to go now that he does so in a manner befitting a majestic monarch. I don’t want Moose to die on the tracks or on a road, and I don’t want him to starve alone in a dark gloomy enclave in the trees. Instead, I want him to die at the mouths of a hungry pack or in the jaws of a grizzly. I envision a great fight to the death, where Moose uses up his last reserves in a valiant struggle that ends in death for him, but life for the multitude of creatures that depend on death to live.

Like Moose, many of the grazing animals in the park struggled this winter. The deep snow made foraging difficult and forced the elk and deer to congregate in certain areas, while the extended cold snaps sapped the strength and nutrients from their bodies.

However, a long, brutal winter for the ungulates translated into a winter of feasting for the carnivores and associated scavengers. The deep snowpack slowed getaway attempts and combined with the prey species weakened condition, the park’s wolves, mountain lions and even coyotes enjoyed a successful hunting season.

When these predators have success, it runs down through the food chain. Wolf research has shown that up to 27 different animals feed off of a wolf kill. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to find a wolf kill you’re much more likely to spot coyotes, ravens or magpies on it than the actual wolves.

If you did any exploring this winter in the valley bottoms, chances are that you stumbled upon a scene of death. The Cascade wolf pack made three kills right along the north fence of the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Canmore, and the Bow Valley pack made a few kills beside the Bow Valley Parkway.

In late January, the Bow Valley pack killed an elk in a ditch near Hillsdale Meadows, and that same week wildlife researchers watched and photographed a lynx feeding on the kill.

However, the most spectacular tale of death this winter emanated from the bowels of Johnston Canyon. White Mountain Tours guide Peter Swain was leading a hike up the canyon in early April. When they arrived at the upper falls they spotted a full-curl bighorn ram teetering precariously on the rocks at the top of the falls. The ram was bleeding profusely and appeared to be dying. The next day, on another guided hike, the group discovered that the ram had indeed died and fallen into the creek below. Upon inspection they found puncture wounds in the back of the ram’s neck and saw that its spinal cord had been severed, indicating that the ram’s original injuries were probably inflicted by a cougar.

Numerous animals have also met their deaths this winter on the railway tracks and on the park roadways. A young moose was killed on the tracks near Moose Meadows and three bull elk were killed in one fell swoop by a train at Backswamp in early February.

Unfortunately for the elk and other ungulates, this month’s arrival of spring does not necessarily signal the end of the winter struggle. Animals like Moose continue to use up their reserves foraging on last year’s shrubbery that contains little or no nutritional value, and there is still the threat of another cold spell or snowstorm.

Whether this spring or next winter, I sense that Moose’s time is near. I hope that one day soon I’ll find decaying wolf scat and his weathered bones scattered about in the bush; a sure sign that he died a grand death, a sure sign that the animals that need it, found death in order to live.

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