BANFF – Wolves and cougars are being given safe and secure habitat to hunt elk and deer close to town this winter.
Parks Canada has closed off a chunk of Tunnel Mountain and the surrounding area until March 31, 2022, although many formal trails within the restricted area still remain open to people.
Wildlife experts say the area is well-documented winter habitat for cougars, wolves and coyotes and important winter range for ungulates.
They say this closure is intended to increase public safety while providing secure habitat for carnivores using the area.
“Carnivores are hunting in those areas and we don’t want them to be disturbed,” said Dan Rafla, a Parks Canada human-wildlife coexistence specialist with Banff National Park.
“It also reduces any sort of risk to people, whether it’s disturbing a carnivore or risking potential defensive behaviour from that animal if it’s on a kill site.”
The closure extends just east of the Banff townsite and includes the area around Tunnel Mountain and east of Tunnel Mountain to the Hoodoo trailhead. Several official trails within the restricted area remain open, such as Tunnel Mountain Summit Trail, Tunnel Mountain Road, Surprise Corner to Hoodoos and the trail parallel to Tunnel Mountain Road; however, all other trails are closed, including Star Wars, Return of the Jedi and Top Notch.
Rafla said it is a closure of certain areas for only four months of the year and the rest of the time it is fully open.
“The winter is a relatively hard existence for a lot of wildlife and this just gives the carnivores, but also the ungulates, a little bit of breathing room, less disturbance, less need to flee if there’s people wandering through the bush,” he said.
“But at the same time, we’re recognizing that there are areas where people can go on official trails, where people can enjoy themselves, go for walks, enjoy that beautiful landscape, but knowing that they can’t go off-trail.”
The Bow Valley is an increasingly popular destination for people to visit, live and recreate.
Much of the valley is taken up by urban and commercial development, with the Trans-Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific Railway cutting through the middle.
However, these prime montane lands are also highly desirable for wildlife. Many species require secure habitat away from disturbance to feed, rest, reproduce and move to meet various life history strategies.
A lack of secure habitat may result in increased risk of human-wildlife encounters, which led the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence task force to recommend proactive seasonal closures.
The technical working group indicated human-use restrictions can be implemented every year where predictable patterns occur, as pro-active management allows people to plan recreational pursuits while allowing wildlife to learn predictable patterns of human use.
The group concluded reoccurring seasonal area closures provide habitat security to wildlife while reducing the need for reactionary closures in response to high rates of human-wildlife occurrences. Reactive area closures, however, will remain necessary where unanticipated.
“In the big picture, in the longer-term thinking, this montane valley bottom area within the Bow Valley is quite important and so we’re setting aside some of this habitat for wildlife,” said Rafla.
Tunnel Mountain and the surrounding areas that fall under the restricted activity order have long been known as prime winter range for elk and deer, and as a result, good hunting grounds for carnivores.
Rafla said GPS collar data from tracking wolves, remote camera footage and confirmed kill sites of both cougars and wolves show this is an area they consistently use.
“We have fairly well documented evidence of cougars and wolves using that area to hunt in the wintertime,” he said.
“That’s because we have elk winter range and mule deer winter range throughout this area. Every year since time memoriam, ungulates use Tunnel Mountain and the predators follow.”
Parks Canada did a fall survey of the elk population between the east gate of Banff National Park and Castle Mountain, but the results weren’t known at press time.
However, a survey earlier this year indicated the elk population had declined from about 190 in spring 2019 to 148 in spring 2021. The spring classification count did not occur in 2020 due to COVID-19.
The cow-calf ratio this year was down to 13 per cent, compared to 29 per cent in 2019. This indicates higher elk mortality either from human causes, like railway or highway mortality, or natural deaths due to lower calf survival in spring or lower pregnancy rates.
Surveys aside, Rafla said it’s not about annual changes, but about how elk consistently use this area over time.
He said the importance of the lands adjacent to the Banff townsite was also confirmed in the 1996 Banff-Bow Valley Study.
“Regardless of what the numbers are, or where we’re seeing elk currently today, we know that Tunnel Mountain and the surrounding area, is important ungulate habitat, particularly in the wintertime, and in the spring when there’s green-up,” he said.
As for reported cougar activity so far, there was a kill site at the top of the Star Wars trail on Tunnel Mountain on Oct. 31.
A spike elk was found dead, presumed to be killed by a cougar.
“But the absence of confirmed kills doesn’t mean there aren’t kills occurring; it’s just the ones that are reported are because people have run into them,” said Rafla.
“Now with this restricted activity order, there very well could be a kill by wolves or a cougar on the landscape, but now they have that security, and we may not be aware of it.”
Last winter, the Tunnel Mountain closure was put in place as a reactionary measure to elevated cougar activity. Cougars, which are generally shy and wary of people, were spotted somewhat regularly, sometimes venturing into town.
It ended up being a tough year for the local cougar population with the death of two female cougars, including one in her prime, as well as three kittens – one found dead of natural causes and another two struck and killed on the train tracks.
Capable of breeding all year round, cougar populations can and do bounce back. Adult male cougars have large home ranges that may overlap with those of several females that they may breed with in a given year.
“Cougar reproductive behaviour is one of the reasons why cougars are able to bounce back quite quickly, where there may have been a population impact,” said Rafla.
“Because they can breed 12 months of the year, that’s very helpful in recovering populations.”
Rafla said Parks Canada believes there is still a healthy cougar population in the Bow Valley, adding there were several kill sites reported this year.
He said staff responded to one along the Bow Valley Parkway in summer, the one on Tunnel Mountain on Oct. 31 and others earlier in the fall near the Banff recreation grounds.
“Winter is usually when we see more evidence of them, whether that’s through our tracking program or any camera data we may have,” said Rafla said.
“They also tend to be seen a bit more often, in part because of the concentration of prey in one area as opposed to summer where the park is fairly wide open.”
As for wolves in the area, the Bow Valley wolf pack has been roaming far and wide.
For much of the summer, the pack kept out of trouble and was seldom spotted, unlike most years when wolves are regularly seen along the Bow Valley Parkway or closer to the Banff townsite.
On Oct. 1, a trail camera picked up an image of a group of nine wolves at Two Jack Lake. It was difficult to determine the makeup of the pack because the wolves were in the distance.
Since then, one of the female young-of-year pups was found dead on the Canadian Pacific Railway line west of the Hillsdale Split on Nov. 9.
Data from a GPS collar on a sub-adult female in the pack shows she is ranging as far west as Lake Louise, then east to Canmore. She has also been travelling to the east end of Lake Minnewanka and heading north to the Cascade fire road and as far as the Panther River.
In the absence of tracks to confirm other wolves, it is impossible for Parks Canada to determine if this two-and-a-half-year-old collared female wolf is travelling on her own or with other members of the pack.
Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife conflict specialist with Banff National Park, said the Bow Valley wolf pack used the area around the Banff townsite, including Tunnel Mountain, quite a bit last year.
“Where you have your prey species, you’re going to have wolves and cougars showing up there also,” he said in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, anyone caught violating the closure on Tunnel Mountain and the surrounding area could be charged under the Canada National Parks Act. That means a mandatory court appearance, where a judge could hand out a fine of up to $25,000.
Rafla said the success of the Tunnel Mountain restriction lies in people doing the right thing.
“It’s about people understanding why we’re doing this, supporting it and being good stewards so we can have co-existence in the valley with the rich variety of species that live here,” he said.
“To be frank, it’s critical for people to believe in this, and if we really care about our mandate, we’ll leave some space for wildlife to do what they need to do.”
To avoid an encounter with a wolf or cougar, Parks Canada advises people to travel in groups; be especially cautious during dawn and dusk when wildlife are most active; remain alert and do not wear earbuds; make noise; keep dogs on leash and walk your dog during daylight hours if possible; leave the area if you see or smell a dead animal; and carry bear spray.
If people see a cougar or wolf, do not approach the animal. Face the animal and retreat slowly, but do not play dead. People should also try to appear bigger by holding their arms or an object above their head, and shout or throw rocks.
“It is very unlikely you will have a conflict, but this is sort of the time when you might see them, which is pretty amazing,” said Rafla.
“We just ask that you call in those observations to the Banff dispatch line.”
The number to call is 403-762-1470.