A Postcard from Banff

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Dear NiCHE,

Wish you were here! The weather has been perfect, and we practically have the place to ourselves. What better time could there be to visit Banff than the late fall? The kids are in school, most sightseers are safely ensconced at home, and the skiers have yet to arrive. The highway is uncrowded, which makes for pleasant traveling, and the townsite is so quiet that we can easily find places to park and dine.

Best of all, the brief lull of the ‘shoulder season’ has allowed several people with special knowledge of the area to discuss their perspectives on the park with us. In addition to acting as our guides (and chauffeurs, and chefs), Liza and Zac have lined up speakers covering such a range of topics that it made my head spin. It would be impossible to describe all we’ve seen here, but one theme that stands out is the changing place of animals in the park.

Frankly, we’ve hardly seen any animals. In fact, between our visits to Luxton House, the Whyte Museum, and the Buffalo Nations Museum, we’ve seen far more stuffed animals than live ones… and we didn’t even get to the Park Museum, with its famous collection of heads and hides. Maybe it’s the time of year. Maybe we’ve just been unlucky. But I suspect there may be more to it than that.

For at least a century, Canadians, Americans, and tourists from further afield have expected to see big, furry, four-legged, non-domesticated, and potentially dangerous mammals when they visit the western parks—maybe not right up close, but at least along the verges of the railway and highway corridors that traverse the parks. A few years ago the Whyte Museum did an exhibition about human-bear relations in Banff and other mountain parks, and in my own research I’ve seen how the BC Parks Branch tried to make beavers, deer, and mountain goats into roadside attractions. Search for “Banff” on EBay and you are bound to find postcards and photos of people feeding bears by the roadside.

This began to change in the 1960s, with steps taken to minimize interaction and conflict between humans and large mammals. Growing concerns about ecological integrity and highway traffic safety have led to a situation where the chance of seeing animals is gradually being reduced, and this seems to be happening in Banff. For example, we visited the site of the former fish hatchery. It had been a popular attraction in the park, and when it closed, visitors lost a chance to see actual animals up close, even though they had been non-native species destined to stock lakes and creeks for recreational anglers. Similarly, at the Buffalo Nation Museum there was a large road sign on display, which had formerly marked the approach to Banff’s bison paddock, which closed in the 1990s. Ironically, today there is talk of re-re-introducing bison to the park.

We visited the Parks Canada offices, where we were told about the ongoing efforts to dissuade troublesome elk from loitering about the townsite, where they trample gardens and intimidate visitors and residents alike. The elk population on the valley floor has exploded, largely due to the decline of predation in the park. Humans, it was emphasized, have long been the top predator in the area that is now Banff, but the rules set down in the Indian Act and Parks Act cut the Stoney Indians off from this traditional hunting ground. In later years, automobiles became one of the top predators in Banff, with many large mammals being killed on the highway: young and old, sick and healthy, carnivores and ungulates. However, since the mid 1980s the automobile has been gradually cut off from this prey by the many miles of tall fencing strung along the Trans Canada Highway corridor, and by the over- and underpasses that allow animals to cross the flow of traffic without stepping onto the road surface.

These structures have greatly reduced the number of animal strikes on the highway. But they have also cut down on motorists’ opportunities to see animals when driving through the park—in a few locations, the fence line became something of a ‘killing zone’ for carnivorous predators, and ungulates now avoid coming near it. Yet by separating animals from the automobile-as-predator, these structures have probably also contributed to the growth of the elk population, to the point where the Park Service may soon be inviting the Stoney to take up their traditional role as ‘top predator’ in the region by participating in the ongoing elk cull program.

We were allowed to go on the ‘animal’ side of the fence at a couple points outside the townsite, including at one of the wildlife overpasses that span the highway. This was really, really special, because like everyone who has driven beneath the overpasses, I’ve always wondered what it looks like above. The top of the overpass is impeccably landscaped (camouflaged?), with few obvious trace of its artificial nature. In a cleared strip that runs the breadth of the overpass is a laser-activated camera, which helps biologists keep track of the animals that travel over the highway at this point—hoarding, in a sense, the roadside snapshots formerly taken by motorists. Later we also got a distant peek at one of the underpasses. More of these expensive structures are being built as the highway is improved, and Parks Canada closely monitors their effects on animal migration and predation patterns.

When we visited the Cave and Basin—the ‘birthplace’ of Canada’s national parks—a few of us were lucky enough to encounter two Parks Canada biologists who were conducting a census of the tiny snails that inhabit the sulphur-laden hot springs in the hills above. This was about as close to wild animals as we got: scores of sulphurous snails barely visible to the naked eye. Definitely interesting, but a far cry from the charismatic macrofauna most visitors still expect to see (I saw no plush snail dolls in Banff’s souvenir stores). This was especially ironic knowing that on the hillside above us was the one remaining east-west corridor that allows animals to bypass the townsite, a narrow but crucially important strip that is carefully guarded by Parks Canada.

Perhaps I am exaggerating the degree to which humans and other large mammals now seem to be segregated in Banff… it’s not a topic I’m overly familiar with. But I wonder how Canadians’ feelings about the national parks may be affected if their expectation of seeing big furry four-legged animals when travelling through is not met? If parks become places where visitors should not expect to see an elk, or a bear—even from a distance, or through a fence—might they lose some of their magic, their popularity, and by extension a degree of their political protection from unsympathetic development?

Featured image: Banff. Photo by Andrew Svk on Unsplash.

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I'm a historian of cultural, natural, and built landscapes in twentieth-century Canada. One of my current book projects is about the popular culture of nature in postwar Canada, looking at the history of rowdyism and 'bad behaviour' in Canadian parks from 1965 to 1985, or from hippies to headbangers.

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