wildlife in the Rockies

Old May 14th, 2005, 10:28 AM
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wildlife in the Rockies

OK, this is where you probably get to roll on the floor laughing at my ignorance, but I have a few questions about the wildlife. I am keen to see some local wildlife - but also to make sure I do so safely.

Perhaps I've watched too many wildlife programs (or Yogi Bear) but how much of a danger are bears? On another post people talked about taking picnics, but I'm sure I've heard that in some places it's not a good idea to leave food in your car or bears might attempt to get it. Is this a problem in the Rockies? Are there any other animals we need to be cautious about? What wildlife are we likely to see in the Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise area?

Thanks again, Maria
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Old May 14th, 2005, 12:45 PM
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Hello Maria,

The concentration of wildlife in the Canadian Rockies is nothing like the concentration in hotter climates. The natural environment in a place that gets winters like the ones we get can support only a finite number of wild animals. Nonetheless, you might see large animals such as bighorn sheep, elk, deer, moose, bison and the even rarer mountain goat.

There are lots of small animals like chipmunks and squirrels, quite a few marmots and beavers, and some marten and pika. All the animals I've mentioned so far are herbivores.

Bears (black bears and grizzly bears) are omnivorous, but they get the majority of their calories from plants. I'll return to them shortly.

Carnivores include coyotes, wolves, cougars and the rare fox. I've never seen a wolf in the wild, I've seen a coyote but ironically it was in a park on the edge of Calgary rather than in the mountains, and I've never seen a cougar. Cougars, like many of their cousins in the cat family, are nocturnal, which helps to account for the fact that people rarely see them.

My husband and I once had the magical experience of seeing a fox in Banff National Park. We were hiking, and the fox crossed the trail in front of us, so close that we almost could have touched it. It did not even acknowledge that it had seen us. It just kept moving. The whole episode was over so quickly, that I didn't have time to be scared while it was taking place. But I think it would be extremely rare to see a fox if you were relatively close to other people. This happened to us when we were about 12 km into a hike that was 15 km in one direction.

It's pretty rare to see a carnivore in the wild. Wolves and coyotes mostly hunt in packs. They rely on stealth till they are close to their prey, at which time they do a fast sprint to catch up to the prey and pounce on it. A coyote might snatch a solitary toddler, but wolves, coyotes and foxes usually wouldn't tangle with an adult human, and they almost certainly wouldn't get involved with a group of two or more humans. Actually they like to give humans a wide berth.

Coming back to bears, there unfortunately are only a few grizzlies in Alberta. We've seen only one in the nearly 30 years that we've lived in this area, and luckily for us that was from the safety of our car. The grizzly was crossing the Bow River between Banff and Lake Louise, and we got a beautiful view of it. Black bears are more numerous, and we've seen quite a few of them. Luckily we've seen all of them from the safety of our car too.

It's true that a bear's claws can rip open the trunk (boot) of a car to get at food. However, it's also true that most bears are shy of humans, and they keep away from places in which humans congregate. So, generally speaking, bears would stay away from parking lots that have picnic spots adjacent to them. I'm thinking of the picnic tables near Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Takakkaw Falls and so on. A wild bear just isn't going to walk into the Moraine Lake parking lot, where dozens of people are coming and going all the time, walk along a row of cars, sniff out which ones have food in them, and rip into their trunks.

I think it would be more likely for that scenario to unfold at night. I certainly would not leave food in the trunk of my car overnight. Indeed, all the advice about safety in the mountains recommends against leaving food in your car overnight. You should bring it into your hotel room.

When we've camped in the wilderness, we've always hung our food high up between two trees and well away from our tent for just this reason.

If you stop at the side of the road to have a picnic (not at a recognised picnic area with tables, etc.), have a look around before you take your food out of the car. I would say it probably would be a good idea to have your picnic in an area that is somewhat open, not right in the middle of trees, so you'll have a chance to see any animal that approaches you. In the unlikely event that a bear approaches you while you're having a picnic, don't wait around to introduce yourselves to him/her. Jump into your car and drive away.

Never, never, never leave leftover food behind at your picnic site. Take everything you've used away with you. If you have a picnic in a recognised picnic ground (one that has tables, etc.), use the bear-proof garbage bins that are provided.

Most bears are wary of humans. The problem bears are the ones that have become habituated to humans and no longer are shy of them. This problem arose several years ago when there were a number of so called "garbage bears" who used to scavange from the garbage dump (rubbish tip) outside of Banff townsite. The problem was alleviated when the town of Banff got ride of its garbage dump and trucked all of its garbage well out of the area (perhaps as far afield as Calgary, although I'm not sure of the details).

The large herbivores (elk, moose) etc. , while they have no desire to eat you, also can be dangerous if they feel threatened. Mothers are protective towards their calves in May / June, and males are aggressive during the mating season in September / October. Park wardens recommend that you stay at least 3 bus lengths away from moose and elk.

When you enter Banff National Park and pay your entry fee, you will receive a magazine-style guide called "The Mountain Guide." It has recommendations for dealing with various species. It's a good idea to read those pages of the guide.

Hope that helps.
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Old May 14th, 2005, 01:47 PM
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The key thing to remember about wild animals is that they are wild, and therefore unpredictable.

If you see a bear, stay in your car and do not get out even to take a photo.
We've seen both black bears and grizzlies in the Rockies, luckily froom the safety of our car. It is not unusual to spot a bear by the side of the road leading to Maligne Lake.

If you have small children and you are on a hike, keep them by your side, cougars have been known to stalk and attack children (because of their small size).

Elk and deer have antlers and can gore you, but as Judy says, this is more likely to happen in the autumn when it's mating season and the males are super aggresive.

We have seen wolves in Jasper National Park, but only in winter, when we spotted them across a frozen lake.

And of course, if you see any animal no matter how small behaving erratically, keep away from it. It's a good thing to remember that animals carry a large number of dieases that can be passed on to humans ("zoonotic" infections), for example rabies.
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Old May 15th, 2005, 07:28 AM
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We saw black bears, moose, elks and a coyote during several stays within Jasper NP.

We have seen most of the wildlife while we stayed in our car. We never encountered wildlife during a hike.

Wildlife whatching is very dependend on the season and the different food sources for wildlife. Bears are looking for berries and they follow the ripe berries on the mountains. Some people do not see any wildlife during their stay, as the wildlife is active deep in the wood or on the highest mountains (except you are a good hiker). Wildlife is also not so active during the daytime, better time is dusk. The park rangers very often close areas for all visitors, if wildlife is very active in one specific area.
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Old May 15th, 2005, 03:55 PM
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My wife once had the anoying/amusing experience of being "attacked" by a Clarke's Nutcracker in the parking lot at a trailhead in Jasper NP. She had opened a granola bar for a snack and the bird flew in, hammered the bar with its beak and then picked up the pieces from the ground. To make this clear the food was not being offered to the bird and my wife was quite startled by this. By the way feeding any wildlife, including birds, in a National Park is illegal.
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Old May 15th, 2005, 06:18 PM
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I don't mean to take the "romance" out of seeing wildlife, but the risk/reward factor involving bears is not in my favor.

There is a good chance of seeing elk along the Maligne Lake Road. Goats can be spotted on the road leading into the park from Edmonton near the Maligne Lake road because there is a natural salt lick along there.

I have have been to those parks several times and I have seen few wild animals, but I have yet to see a bear, although warnings are common on some of the trails.

Frankly, I don't want to see a grizzly on a trail. I have had a close encounter of the second kind with a grizzly in the past, and I have no desire to repeat it.

That said, I think it logically follows that I don't enoucourage you to invade bear habitat trying to stir one up.

And no, I would not leave food in my car at a remote parking lot. People who leave food in cars overnight at trailheads are just asking for trouble.

I doubt if one would invade your car at Lake Louise because there are hundreds of cars there. Ditto for the Icefields Center, Peyto Lake, Takkakaw Falls, and a dozen or so other places.

Let me suggest that if you want to go out looking for a bear wear jogging shoes and carry a pack with smelly food in it. When you see the bear, throw your pack at him/her, and hope that the creature is more interested in the pack than you.

It is even better if your hiking partner has on heavy boots. As the old joke goes, the feeing hiker in jogging shoes says to the fleeing hiker in heavy boots, "I don't have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.
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Old May 15th, 2005, 06:36 PM
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to Maria, we won't laugh, I'm a Canadian but live far from Alberta, I was amazed how many elk, mountain goats etc I saw close to the road, in town etc.
Didn't see any fox, coyote etc in the 4 months.
Was lucky to see a great # of bears, including cubs (by great I would say between 6 - 10) in 4 months all along the side of the road.
So just a hint if you see other cars stopped randomly along side of road slow down & take a look, good chance a bear has been spotted.
But stay far away, preferably in car although admittedly I did get out once but bear was on other side of road in ditch , we stayed by car on our side.
My parents have a great picture from their honeymoon, of a bear on their car, they had gotten out at some tourist spot & when returned to parking lot the bear was on hood of car. This was 37yrs ago when there was a larger population of bears in the park. so don't worry about that.
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Old May 15th, 2005, 11:20 PM
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Bears are one the most intellegent animals that roam this earth.

Should you encounter one, observe their ears.

Ears back are a sign of aggression.
Ears up are a sign of curiosity.
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Old May 20th, 2005, 10:36 AM
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When walking in the wild, wear bells to alert animals ahead, and especialy cougars so they will leave the area. You really don't want to surprise any of the large animals you may come across. Remember, bears can run 35 miles an hours - can you?
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