June 29th, 2004.
I am standing on the crown of Whistlers Mountain, its talus-covered shoulders, animated by inquisitive hoary marmots, spread out behind me. A raven has landed on the roof of the cable-car station and stares out silently into the impending dusk. At the mountain's foot, the Miette, Maligne and Athabasca Valleys combine, and around them rises Canada's greatest splendour: the sheer flanks of the Colin Range, the dazzing peaks of the Victoria Cross, Pyramid Mountain with the lakes in its shadow. Above them all, mighty Mt Robson, far away across the continental divide, stands glowing in the half-light - an intimidating triangular giant visible from Whistlers only once or twice each year.
Never was perfection in nature so apparent; never did the bane of the mountains appear so innocuous. From 3000 feet above the valley floor, a rumble still echoes from Highway 16, but it is weak, and easily forgotten in the beauty of the high alpine. It is but a narrow ribbon of death, curving through the Athabasca Valley and on to Edmonton amd Prince Rupert. There are many people who would prefer visitors to think no more of it, and to quiet complaints over what it truly represents.
Jasper is the jewel of the Rockies, but its beauty is tarnished.
The brevity of the road's life is hard to grasp. Grey wolves entered this land long before any humans did so, thousands of centuries before the car was conceived. In the western prairies they must have encountered dire wolves and other now-extinct rivals; the ecological relationships of the distant past are not simple to unravel.
We see well enough how they interact with wildlife now. The aspens are overgrazed by elk in the wolf's absence; the beavers decline in consequence. The ponds that beavers build provide habitat for moose and many small creatures. The bison that wolves hunt - where there are still bison - provide carrion for grizzlies. Their predation upon elk feeds fifty other species, including lynx and eagles. Before grey wolves were eradicated from the prairies, they limited coyote populations, providing a safety net for the now virtually extinct red wolf. There is probably more that we are yet to discover.
Jasper was turned into a national park - Canada's largest fully protected one - in 1907. In 1911, the railroad came. It was not until 1970 that the Yellowhead (H16) Inter-Provincial Highway was officially opened, even though much of the original work was done by Japanese slave labour doing World War II. Tourism drove all, but this is not a park road like the Icefield Parkway. It is a commercial thoroughfare, and many of those who use it do not care for the park.
In early 2004, two wolves from the West Highway Pack died on H16. On the 30th June, the night after the perfection of Whistlers, a yearling from the Signal Mountain Pack tried to cross the highway and was killed by the person driving the car ahead of mine. On September 18th, an adult male from the same pack was hit by the Snaring Bridge, and on the 24th another wolf was run down and its carcass poached near Talbot Lake. In October, a puppy from the Devona pack was killed. At least one other pup died on the road before the end of the year and yet another was run down by a train. Bears, elk, deer, coyotes, sheep - they all die on that road, one large mammal recorded every three days on average.
The official mortality report of one of these accidents documents how the surviving wolves reacted to the death of their companion. They are highly intelligent and complex animals, with a pronounced ability to reason, and the suffering caused by this needless bloodbath is immense.
In May this year, I went back to H16 and saw the skid marks on the road marking the site of the old accidents; nothing has really changed. Wolves still die there.
H16 must be made safer and the ecological integrity of the valley restored. Unfortunately, the federal government does not view funding parks as a priority. The wardens struggle with ancient equipment and the facilities fall into decline - too few resources, too many tourists. What we need are proper "green bridges" and tunnels to shepherd animals safely across the valley. Banff has them; Jasper does not.
What the government will not do, we can - to some degree. Wildlife is dying on roads around the world at a rate so horrifying that we can hardly even begin to understand the long term affect on natural selection and habitat connectivity. We need to drive; that is part of our modern culture. But we need much more of an emphasis on wildlife-friendly driving. We can all try to look harder and drive more carefully, and to carry rescue groups' details on our cellphones / mobiles so that we can call for help when accidents are witnessed. Scanning the verges ahead and being aware of eyeshine after dark - and staying well within posted speed limits - can assist greatly.
What do I see? I see a huge challenge, but I also see some hope.
I see reasons why the battle is worthwhile. From foxes in Algonquin to grizzlies on the west coast, here's the best of the North American carnivores which I and my family have filmed over the past seven years.a raven )