Carnivore's In The Community

Those of us that are lucky enough to live in the mountains are rewarded with opportunities to see plentiful wildlife. Gray Wolf - click to learn moreElk and deer wander the streets and alleys, while higher up the slope bighorn sheep and mountain goats abound. If we are really lucky, we may see a black or grizzly bear. If we really hit the jackpot, we may see one of the more secretive carnivores like wolves, cougars, lynx or even a wolverine or red fox. Very few mountain residents can say they've seen all of the final five carnivores on that list. Most have seen none, some have seen a few, but very few have been lucky enough to see the entire list.

Carnivores are secretive. They make a point of avoiding people. Often sightings of these animals are limited to a quick glimpse as they bound across a busy highway and disappear into the forest.

Sightings are on the increase

Things are beginning to change. While sightings of lynx and wolverine remain rare, wolf and cougar are on the increase, particularly in close proximity to mountain communities. Your best opportunity to spot carnivores is at dawn and dusk. Keep your eyes open as you drive the highways and byways at these critical times.

The year 2001 began with Banff National Park's first cougar related fatality as a local cross-country skier was stalked and killed on the Cascade Fireroad. Cougar - Click to learn more - Copyright Ward CameronThis horrific event served as a wake-up call for visitor and resident alike. Historically, once bears entered their winter den, it was assumed that it was no longer necessary to remain vigilant. This cougar attack reminded us that we are not alone. Suddenly we realized that there were other dangerous animals that we needed to be wary of. We can't let down our guard, even in winter.

While the towns of Banff and Canmore find themselves right in the middle of this changing trend, every mountain community needs to follow this story very closely.

New Rules About Living in the Mountains

People who live and play in the mountains must recognize that certain dangers come with the territory. Kathy Etling, in her recent book Cougar Attacks - Encounters of the Worst Kind, states:

"Someone who just wants to 'get away from it all' moves into an idyllic foothill setting―just far enough from the maddening crowd to be attractive, but not far enough to be out of cell phone reach or more than three hours from a good airport―buys a house and encourages wildlife, particularly warm, fuzzy animals like deer and raccoons, to feed close to their property. Of course, they've brought along Fido and the cat, but they continue to feed their pets outside like they have in the past. They cannot understand it when they see large pug marks outside their homes when they wake up each morning. They don't know why their dogs and cats are being eaten. They think a cougar can understand that a child is not a chipmunk. They are mistaken."

While this may seem alarmist, it accurately describes the situation Banff and Canmore are currently facing. Over the past decade, several things have happened.

  • First, the communities are growing outward, encroaching upon the mountains on either side of the valley. This, along with increased numbers of hikers, mountain bikers and other trail users, is allowing more people to explore carnivore country.

  • In recent years, populations of cougars have remained healthy, while the wolf population seems to be on the increase. The Fairholme pack currently includes 15 wolves.

  • Finally, park wardens have removed a large number of elk from the Banff Townsite area. The elk relocation program was conceived when wolf numbers were much smaller. With the increase in wolf population, the elk numbers have dropped more rapidly than expected.

Wolves and cougars do not get along. In fact, they will kill each other at any opportunity. One of Banff's cougars was killed by the Fairholme pack over the past year. They don't only compete for prey, but they will also steal carcasses from each other. With the large size of the Fairholme pack, it has been the cougar who has suffered the most. As biologists were conducting tracking surveys near Banff Townsite last winter, they came across 22 animal carcasses. Six of these were cougar kills, and four of these had been taken over by the wolf pack.

Cougars may be hunting closer to mountain communities in order to be too close for the comfort level of wolves. In Banff, a cougar took down an elk right in the middle of the playing field. By hunting closer than the wolves are willing, the cougar may have a greater chance of keeping custody of a kill.

As wolves and cougars become drawn into the periphery of townsites it becomes even more important for residents to play a role in keeping our communities carnivore free.

Coyotes vs. Fluffy

While wolves and cougars are only now beginning to hunt in close proximity to many mountain communities, coyotes have been living and hunting within urban centres for years. Every year, large numbers of cats disappear with little evidence as to their passing. Coyotes are versatile opportunistic hunters. They move quietly through the townsites and are quick to take domestic cats and small dogs whenever the opportunity arises. While spotting a coyote, like most carnivores, is exciting, they are equally unwelcome within the townsite boundaries.

Wolves take every opportunity to kill coyotes. As wolf populations rise, coyote populations often will drop. In the Bow Valley, this has provided an opportunity for the red fox to re-establish itself. Since wolves do not prey heavily on fox, high wolf populations can increase the number of foxes that you may have the opportunity to see. While still rare, the red fox is beginning to make a few inroads into Banff National Park.

Click here to learn more about living and playing in carnivore country 

All Material Ward Cameron 2005