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Grounds squirrels relocated from Banff cemeteries

“The reason why we were concerned with the Old Banff Cemetery is strictly because it’s a national historic site and they were damaging the national historic site."
20210529 Columbian Ground Squirrel 0032
A Columbian ground squirrel. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – More than 130 ground squirrels have been captured and relocated from the Old Banff Cemetery and Mountain View to colonies in the Cascade wildlife corridor.

Paul Godfrey, the director of operations for the Town of Banff, said the municipality has been working with Parks Canada to reduce the number of Columbian ground squirrels in the Old Banff Cemetery where the critters are causing damage.

“The reason why we were concerned with the Old Banff Cemetery is strict because it’s a national historic site and they were damaging the national historic site,” he said during a governance and finance committee meeting on Dec. 15.

Parks Canada issues the Town of Banff a restricted activity permit to catch the ground squirrels, which is valid for two weeks in summer from July 15-31.

In 2021, a total of 21 ground squirrels were captured and relocated – 12 from Mountain View and nine from Old Banff Cemetery.

A team caught a total of 18 squirrels in 2020 – 16 from Mountain View and two from Old Banff Cemetery. And in 2019, there were 97 squirrels caught – 92 from Mountain View and five from Old Banff Cemetery.  All were released at colonies around 40-Mile Creek area.

The Old Banff Cemetery is a resting place for more than 2,000 souls, among them baby Adelia Woodworth, who, in 1890, was one of the first Banffites to be buried there.

The engraved tombstones hold the names of many of Banff’s historic figures and community builders, such as Dr. Robert Brett, Jim Brewster, Mary Schäffer Warren, Norman Luxton, Norman Sanson and Bill Peyto, but mingled among them are also those whose stories remain a mystery.

The ground squirrels have been causing a mess to grave plots by digging and mounding their homes within grave spaces, as well as damaging pathways in the cemetery and undermining monuments and retaining walls.

In addition to the catch-and-release program, the Town of Banff has put up a three-foot screen of fabric around the fences of the cemeteries. Blocking sightlines helps prevent ground squirrels from entering an area.

“The philosophy there, we learned from Parks Canada, is if the ground squirrels cannot see over where they’re going they won’t go there,” said Godfrey. “I know that sounds simple, but it really works.”

Councillor Chip Olver welcomed the work being done.

“How amazing that some dark fabric around the bottom of the fence would help reduce that infestation because it was really having a negative impact on the stonework that was there, on the pathways,” she said.

“To think it was something so simple as a visual barrier is really amazing to hear… and I really appreciate Parks Canada’s cooperation with the catch-and-release.”

Councillor Ted Christensen questioned if there were other areas in town where ground squirrel control is under consideration, noting he is aware of a condo association wanting to deal with a burgeoning population of the critters.

“There is a problem there and the condo association … is planning on addressing the ground squirrel infestation,” said Coun. Christensen.

Godfrey cautioned that Parks Canada is the authority on wildlife.

“I would just like to remind you we manage ground squirrels the same way we manage elk… they are similar to the birds and the elk and the bears – it’s Parks Canada and they manage wildlife in the park,” he said.

The Columbian ground squirrel is one of the most commonly seen animals in Banff National Park. Although they hibernate for up to seven months, they are considered a valuable prey species for grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves and eagles.