Passport
Full Episode
Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo

For thousands of years, wolves have hunted buffalo across the vast North American plains. Although westward settlement of the continent saw the virtual extinction of these vast herds and their eternal predators, this ancient relationship was not lost altogether. On the northern edge of the continent’s central plains, in a place named Wood Buffalo National Park, buffalo and wolves still engage in epic life and death dramas. By following one pack of wolves, wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner captures how these two animal species live together in what seems like a forgotten corner of the world.

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NARRATOR: Every dawn for thousands of years, two warriors prepare for battle.

These are the biggest buffalo and wolves in the world.

Their battlefield -- the vast Canadian plains.

Now, veteran filmmaker Jeff Turner will head into the heart of this remote land.

He'll follow one wolf pack as they struggle to maintain the family business -- bringing down buffalo.

MAN: Okay, looks like we've still got the wolves out there.

I can see them in a tight bunch.

We've got a buffalo/wolf situation here for sure.

NARRATOR: It's an ancient spectacle of offense and defense, but its future is uncertain as the modern world encroaches on our warriors' domain.

[ Wolf howling ] MAN: This is Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, and I love this land.

My name is Jeff Turner, and I've been filming wildlife for 25 years in remote wilderness areas around the world.

But this is one of my favorite places.

While the rest of the modern human world is changing so fast, this remote place still feels ancient and unspoiled to me.

[ Wolf howling ] Despite the weather, winter is the best time to begin following wolves.

This is when the pack is most visible and unified, traveling and hunting together.

The big white guy looks to be the alpha male wolf.

He's one of the biggest I've ever seen.

A wolf pack is at its heart a family.

The leaders, the alpha wolves, are the father and mother wolf, and most of the members of the pack are their offspring of various ages.

It looks to be an average size pack for this area -- about eight individuals.

I'll call them the Delta Pack.

The success or failure of a wolf pack depends on their leaders.

Just as in a human family, the mother and father wolf are the ones that provide food and security.

But the long-term survival of the Delta Pack depends on the parents teaching their kids the family business.

And the family business is hunting buffalo.

There is no prey bigger on this planet that wolves regularly take down.

Buffalo can weigh over a ton, and are 20 times the size of a wolf.

Yet the Delta Pack must try to kill one every week or so.

Buffalo are supremely adapted to winter.

Their massively muscled heads and necks act like snow plows.

They are so well insulated that snow lying on their bodies doesn't even melt.

While this sort of weather doesn't faze the buffalo, I can't say the same for myself.

Look at the front of my lens here.

I think we're probably going to have to call it a day here.

I think we've done about as much as we can do.

It's impossible to keep up with wolves with only my two feet, but this year I have some help.

Each day the Delta Pack can range 30 miles or more to find prey to hunt.

And I've never been able to see a wolf hunt from beginning to end.

But with the aerial camera as my eye in the sky, for the first time I can follow every step.

Okay, it looks like we've still got the wolves out there.

I can see them in a tight bunch.

Okay, good.

We got a buffalo/wolf situation here, for sure.

The Delta Pack are true travelers.

But finding their prey is no easy task.

Wood Buffalo National Park is huge -- it's 11 million acres -- five times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

But the buffalo concentrate around the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, where they find the best winter grazing.

Killing a buffalo is a risky business.

But these wolves have hunted buffalo for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

They know what they need to do.

The wolves have to attack from behind, so they must get the herd to run.

The buffalo know that if they stand and face the wolves, they have the advantage.

Sometimes these standoffs can last for days.

If the buffaloes' strategy was foolproof, there wouldn't be any wolves.

But eventually, the buffalo lose their nerve and decide to run for it.

I can see how the wolves are testing the buffalo, looking for a young animal, or one that is struggling.

During the winter, the buffalo have to break trail, running through the deep snow.

They tire more quickly than the wolves.

Scattering through the bush forces the wolves to split up and reduces their effectiveness.

But the big alpha male is not distracted.

He's got a lock on his prey.

It's a yearling calf.

The big male is such a huge wolf, he's able to bring this 600-pound animal to a stop all by himself.

But the herd scattering through the bush has led one of the younger wolves into his own solo battle.

He tries to grab the buffalo by the front... and pays the price for this mistake.

[ Wolf yelping ] I hope he isn't hurt.

A broken bone would spell the end for him.

Wolves have to be in peak form to hunt buffalo.

He still has a lot to learn from his father.

For a single wolf, killing such large prey is dangerous.

Once he's wounded the buffalo... [ Buffalo lowing ] the big alpha pulls back and wait for the animal to die.

[ Wolf howling ] I never realized until now that one wolf could bring down a buffalo.

It's remarkable what a strong and determined leader can do for his pack.

His family has lots of meat to eat now, which will ensure the female gives birth to healthy pups in the spring.

And they will need all the help they can get -- the spring and summer are the leanest months of the year for wolves.

There will be more mouths to feed, a den to defend, and less chance to roam in search of prey.

That's when it will be time for me to return.

Finding the den and watching how this family raises their pups through the difficult first year will tell me a lot about how well the Delta Pack will endure.

[ Howling ] The landscape of Wood Buffalo Park undergoes a radical transformation in the spring.

[ Geese honking ] Searching for wolves from the ground is time-consuming.

Walking around, it could take me a week or more to find them.

There's a lot of territory to cover.

From the air, it doesn't take long to spot the Delta Pack.

They look different -- they're shedding their winter coats.

These are the older pups, the one- and two-year-olds.

I love watching wolves like this.

It's nice to be reminded that they're far more than just killers.

But this doesn't get me any closer to finding their den.

My best chance is to follow them back from a hunt, when they take food to the pups.

And the spring provides a new hunting opportunity for the wolves.

The buffalo calves are a less risky target.

It's the only time of the year the wolves can hunt buffalo smaller than themselves.

It looks like a big female wolf from the Delta Pack is scouting out the herd.

There looks to be lots of calves in this herd.

But to get to the calves, she has to somehow get past these intimidating adults.

[ Howling ] The female scout calls for some backup.

[ Wolves howling ] Some of the pack quickly responds.

[ Howling continues ] [ Howling ] You'd think, with the calves around, the spring would make easier hunting for the wolves, but it's actually harder.

Buffalo mothers are fierce defenders of their calves, and they're not encumbered by deep snow now.

Again, the only chance for the wolves is to get the herd running and breakup this defensive barrier.

The buffalo soon get strung out in a long line.

This is what the wolves need.

The big male zeroes-in on a lone calf.

But with a burst of speed, it gets back to its mother.

The alpha wolf comes back for a second try.

But even at full gallop, he can't get past the mother.

Wolves can run for hours waiting for their chance.

But the buffalo have incredible endurance, too -- even the calves.

I've seen these chases go on for 20 miles.

But an opportunity for the wolves lies ahead.

The water means the buffalo have to slow down and break their stride.

They can get injured -- or a calf separated from its mother.

Surprisingly, some of the wolves give up the chase.

But the big female wolf doesn't want to give up.

And it looks like she's seen something the other wolves have missed.

One of the calves is lagging behind.

Even with the calves, the wolves find it difficult to make a clean kill.

She has to work quickly, because the mother buffalo will soon come back looking for her calf.

If the buffalo can get back in time, there's a chance she can still save her calf.

[ Grunts ] In these situations, it's hard to know who to hope for.

This mother buffalo and her injured calf?

Or the female wolf with hungry pups at the den?

Though still alive, the calf can't quite make it back onto its feet.

It's frustrating to have to leave now, but the chopper is running low on fuel.

So, we'll come back tomorrow to see what's happened.

This far north, sunrise is about 4:00 a.m.

But it's beautiful.

The next morning, when I get back to the creek bank, I can't see the wolf or the buffalo.

But then I spot the calf.

The calf is still alive.

But I think it doesn't look very hopeful for that calf.

If it had been able to, I'm sure, you know, last night, it would have gotten up and followed her.

So...you know, it's just going to -- it's just a waiting game now between, you know, the cow eventually realizing the calf isn't going to be able to follow her, and she's going to be -- going to go with her instinct to try to find and get back to her herd, and she's going to have to abandon the calf.

She's torn and caught in between these two desires, but the calf is obviously unable to follow her at this point.

[ Sighs ] I mean, the only way to think about it is that this calf is going to feed a family of wolves.

It's hard to watch these predations, but death is a crucial part of the natural cycle.

The young of the buffalo is going to feed the young of the wolves.

With a full belly now, hopefully this wolf will head back to the pups.

This is where being able to follow the wolf from the air is really going to pay off for me.

Most wolf dens are in thick brush.

I'll have to wait to see if she has pups here.

Ah, it's great to finally see a puppy.

They're so tiny!

This must be the mother wolf.

Besides the big father wolf, she's the one most likely to bring food to the pups.

But she's not the same female I saw the alpha male with in March.

It's not unusual for more than one female to come into season in a pack.

But it seems that only this older, larger female has given birth to pups this spring.

They're still very young.

Even so, they're hungry for meat.

They jump and lick at her mouths, which stimulates her to regurgitate the food she is carrying in her stomach.

For the next two months, at least, the wolves will have to continue coming back to this spot with food to keep these pups alive.

It gives me a rare opportunity to film them from my blind and see how they raise the new members of their family.

I don't have to wait long until the rest of the pack arrives.

You can see how the younger wolves are excited by the arrival of their father, the alpha wolf.

These younger wolves are his pups from previous years.

In fact, they still lick at his mouth to be fed, like they did when they were small.

It's so rare to see this.

I feel very lucky.

These teenager-type wolves spend a lot of time hanging out with their younger siblings.

But then I spot a black bear approaching the den.

I see it before the wolves do.

They don't realize the approaching threat.

While the black bear would be hard-pressed to take on an adult wolf, it could be after the pups.

Every time the bear tries to go into the trees where the pups are, the big male bites him in the rear, forcing the bear to turn back to face him.

By working together, a combination of pushing from behind and leading him on, the pack get the bear away from the den.

I think that bear is just as happy as the wolves to be out of there.

The buffalo continue to regain their strength and weight on the spring grass.

But their search for this fresh feed can take them many miles from the wolf den site.

The calves are growing all the time.

They will be getting harder for the wolves to catch and kill.

The summer season pushes the wolves from both ends -- the prey is more difficult to find and kill, and yet the need for more food is increasing all the time.

And although the pups are quite small, they grow fast.

It puts a lot of pressure on the hunting adults.

It's been two weeks since I have seen the wolves make a kill.

The big male and his mate head off with one of their eldest offspring.

It's a big country to search, but they do have a keen sense of smell.

They can tell when a herd has passed through even two or three days before.

The scent has led the wolves into the forest.

The buffalo like to use the forest to hide... but the wolves have found them.

The trees make it harder for the wolves to isolate one calf.

Soon the wolves push the buffalo out from the forest, where they can focus on separating one of the buffalo from the herd.

I can see her holding off the two alpha animals.

But then, the third wolf arrives.

Now she's really gonna have a tough job to get her calf out of this predicament.

The calf knows it's only chance is to stick tight to its mother's side.

The mother's best chance is to get back into the shelter of the trees.

The mother leads her calf back into the trees and I lose sight of them.

I can't believe it, but somehow the mother and calf have given the wolves the slip.

They've also found another calf that was separated from its mother earlier in the chase.

There's no meat for the pups back at the den tonight.

It's been a couple of weeks since the pups have had anything to eat.

Most wolf pups die of starvation in their first summer.

They need to get their pups through these lean times and into the autumn.

Then, with the pups bigger, they can at last leave the den and widen their search for buffalo.

As much as I love watching these wolves, it's time for me to go.

I have my own family waiting for me at home, and it's been more than a month since I've seen them.

I'll come back in the autumn to pick up with the Delta Pack.

I hope the pups will make it through.

September is my favorite month in the park.

When I get back, it doesn't take me long to locate the Delta Pack.

It's good to see them again.

The family has grown in number since I saw them last.

Some of the wandering members of the pack must have returned to the fold.

At first I don't recognize the pups -- I'm shocked at how much they've grown.

They look more like adult wolves now.

But I'm relieved to see that all four pups are still alive.

I think this alpha pair must be really good parents.

I count 17 wolves in the pack now.

During the spring and summer, some of the Delta wolves wandered away in search of buffalo farther afield.

But with the pups mobile now, the family can hunt together again.

But the pups still won't have the endurance of the adults.

The pack has traveled down a long peninsula of land sticking out into the lake.

Rather than turn back, the big male decides to swim across to the other side -- a distance of at least two miles.

But the wind is coming up, and the waves on the lake are building.

The pups are trailing behind the much stronger adults.

Suddenly the mother turns and starts to swim back.

She must have decided that it's going to be too far for the pups to swim.

Now, some of the sub-adults and other pack members turn back with her and the pups.

But the big male and the other adults keep on going.

They still have a very long way to swim.

It was smart that the mother wolf turned back -- the pups look exhausted.

[ Howling ] She calls for her pups.

Finally, she has all four of her pups back together, but the rest of the pack are far away now.

Adult wolves are excellent swimmers, but it's a long way in the cold water.

I'm always amazed at the endurance of these animals.

They hardly look winded.

The big male and the other adults have just one priority -- to find food for themselves and their family, even if it means leaving the pups behind.

But their swim was in vain -- there doesn't appear to be any animals here to hunt.

Wolves often return to check on old kills.

There is little left here, but they're so hungry, they gnaw the dried scraps from the bones.

Although the mother and pups are far away now, they can still stay in contact.

[ Wolf howling ] Wolf howls can travel several miles over open country.

[ Howling ] [ Howling carrying over distance ] The big male doesn't find anything new to eat, and heads back to meet up with the rest of the family.

The pups will go hungry tonight.

If the pack is to save this year's pups, they need to make a kill soon.

But I think ultimately the pups' future will depend on far more than whether the pack can find a buffalo to hunt.

For hundreds of years, the wolves have lived a protected life in this remote northern park.

But now, our modern human world is knocking on their door.

The Alberta oil sands, the third-largest crude oil reserve in the world, is directly upstream, right on their doorstep.

There is enough oil here to keep Canada going for 400 years.

In the past few years, the emissions of many air toxins have tripled due to the rapid expansion of the industry, while some water bodies downstream of the oil sands have been found to contain at least double the amount of toxic substances as those upstream.

Over the next seven years, oil production from here is expected to double.

How will this affect the wolves and buffalo?

No one knows for sure.

Next morning, I find the whole pack back together again and on the hunt for buffalo.

Luckily, it doesn't take them long to find a herd.

They really need to make a kill now.

They're looking for easy prey.

But as the herd starts to run, it's apparent that there are few if any calves in this herd.

The pups get left behind as the adults push the herd.

I'm not sure what the wolves are looking for with this herd.

There don't seem to be any calves, only adults.

Then I see the big male spot something and sprint past all the buffalo.

Even the buffalo seem surprised by what he's doing.

What is he after?

They're really legging it, but I still can't see what they're running towards.

Two bulls -- a young one and an old one.

I wonder what drew them out here to these two lone animals in the middle of a chase?

The wolves seem very relaxed.

They take a moment to rest up and have a drink.

The pups even catch up.

Finally, the bulls take off and head for the willows.

The wolves don't seem worried at all.

It doesn't seem like a hunt anymore.

It's strange, the wolves just seem to be focused on the older bull, like their waiting for something to happen.

I'll come back in the morning to see if the wolves are still here.

The next day, it looks like the old bull just laid down and died.

There doesn't appear to be any sign of a struggle.

The wolves must have sensed something wrong with this old bull that I couldn't see.

I don't know what happened here, but I do know that we humans rarely realize how sophisticated the wildlife we share the planet with really is.

One of the pups is laying on top of the kill, claiming the spoils.

Finally one of the adults has had enough.

The pups will now have to start to earn their place at the dinner table.

The Delta Pack has enough food now to see them through the next few weeks.

And with the winter soon to be here, the pack will have the hunting advantage again.

I think this family of wolves will manage to get all their newest members through the difficult first year.

This past year with the Delta Pack has given me real insight into these amazing animals and how they have lived in this ancient wilderness for so long.

It seems to me that their success comes down to the strength of their family -- which in turn comes down to the strength of their leaders.

But I think the biggest challenge for these wolves in this remote corner of the world will be that it's no longer remote enough.

[ Howling ]