Unseen by droves of distracted commuters, a tense drama unfolded recently above the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta. But wildlife photographer Christopher Martin saw the signs. First, an elk behaving erratically on the overpass. Then, a second shape. The wolves of Banff National Park were on the hunt and they were closing in on their prize.

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Wolves close in on their prize. Image: Christopher Martin

Over the next few minutes, Martin witnessed a truly hair-raising spectacle. Clouds of warm breath surrounded the animals, echoing the lengthy chase that led them here. "The elk took a couple of paces, doubled back and then repeated that a couple of times," he recalls. "It seemed unusual behaviour so I trained my telephoto lens on her to have a better look. When I did, I couldn’t make out anything unusual – until a wolf’s head came into view when it leapt up and bit the elk’s neck!" 

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The elk's behaviour seemed unusual so Martin trained his telephoto lens on her to get a better look. Image: Christopher Martin
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"A wolf’s head came into view when it leapt up and bit the elk’s neck!" Image: Christopher Martin

The wolves continued to circle the tiring elk, alternating between attack and reposition. "When the elk would get closer to one of the ends of the bridge, the wolves would line up along the edge and force her back towards the middle. During the struggle, she was pulled down twice and recovered her legs before being taken down for good by the alpha in a twisting move of immense power."

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"When the elk would get closer to one of the ends of the bridge, the wolves would line up along the edge and force her back towards the middle" Image: Christopher Martin
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The wolves continued to circle the tiring elk. Image: Christopher Martin
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Almost over. Image: Christopher Martin
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"During the struggle, she was pulled down twice and recovered her legs before being taken down for good by the alpha in a twisting move of immense power." Image: Christopher Martin
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The final blow. Image: Christopher Martin

While it's never easy to see an animal killed, this hunt was a success in more ways than one. Despite their unfortunate reputation, wolves (and other top predators) play an important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. And in Banff, their recovery has been key to keeping elk numbers under control.

"High elk concentrations in Banff over the last 15 years have resulted in serious ecological impacts," explain Parks Canada, who work to monitor grazer numbers in the area. "We've seen vegetation degradation, upsets in predator-prey relationships, and growing public safety concerns."

Wolves in Western Canada were all but wiped out by the 1950s, driven to the brink by flawed hunting policies. With human encroachment, the canids suddenly found themselves living in a landscape overrun with livestock. And despite early warnings that removing the predators would have unwanted consequences, the public's negative perception ensured the wolves' demise. 

It took nearly thirty years for the carnivores to return to Alberta's mountains – and today, wildlife officials are determined to keep them around for good. For Martin, an encounter with healthy wolves is always a moving experience.    

"Watching this [hunt] was a window into survival in nature and I came away in awe of the victors and their tenacity, intelligence and cooperation," he says. "A shadow of sadness for the elk was a part of this story and I gave thanks for what that life lost meant to this pack." 

Leading wolf expert Dr Paul Paquet, who has studied these carnivores in Banff National Park, suspects a kill like this one can sustain the pack for up to 12 days.

You'll notice that the wolves in the photos are wearing radio collars. The 82-kilometre Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park is spanned by more wildlife crossings for its length than any other highway in the world, and these collars allow the Parks Canada team to understand how, if and when the wolf pack uses the passes.

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The 82-kilometre Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park is spanned by more wildlife crossings for its length than any other highway in the world, so tracking the wolves' movements is vital. Image: Christopher Martin

After authorities were alerted to the showdown playing out on the railway crossing, all incoming trains were slowed to allow the predators ample time with their spoils. "When the elk was down, the pack wasted no time in starting their feast," says Martin. "They had about 45 minutes before the carcass was removed, which gave the whole pack time to get at least one full meal down."

The Banff wolves' future looks bright for now, but packs elsewhere aren't as lucky. In British Columbia, growing conflict with endangered woodland caribou has led to plans for controversial wolf culls, which experts have criticised. Suzanne Asha Stone, who has worked on wolf restoration for over 20 years, says such strategies ignore the root causes of caribou decline: poaching, habitat loss and poorly managed hunting.

Here in Alberta, a 2015 study found that while wolf hunts do help stabilise caribou numbers, they do not result in population growth. The researches found that without long-term habitat restoration, a process that can requite decades of work, removing wolves would have no have a lasting impact on the endangered hoofstock. 

Perceived threats to people and their livestock remain the greatest challenges to wolf conservation. But despite the hype, wolf kills account for just one percent of total livestock losses to wild predators, and over the past 15 years, just two people have been killed by wolves in all of North America.

Even the smallest of changes to management techniques can have a lasting impact on the peaceful coexistence of wolves and local farmers – and that's something Stone and the team at Defenders of Wildlife devote their time to. By working with local farmers, rather than against them, they have managed to keep livestock losses down in some of the most densely farmed regions of the continent.    

"When developing a strategy for reducing risk to your livestock, it helps to understand things from a wolf’s perspective," they write. "Wolves are natural hunters, but they are also opportunistic scavengers. Working side by side with ranchers and local officials, our field staff has implemented non-lethal management practices that allow wolves and livestock to coexist side by side.

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"Watching this [hunt] was a window into survival in nature and I came away in awe of the victors and their tenacity, intelligence and cooperation." Image: Christopher Martin
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"A shadow of sadness for the elk was a part of this story and I gave thanks for what that life lost meant to this pack." Image: Christopher Martin
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A kill like this one can sustain the pack for up to 12 days. Image: Christopher Martin

Top header image: Christopher Martin Photography