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Banff National Park of Canada
Banff National Park is home to 53 species of mammals. This incredible diversity of wildlife is a reflection of the wide range of habitats found in the park due to variations in elevation, climate, and plant communities.
Wildlife in the park can be separated into three main groups:
There are 29 species of small mammals in Banff National Park. They range in size from the pygmy shrew, which weighs a fraction of an ounce, to the beaver, which can weigh up to 55 pounds. With the exception of the shrews, the bats and the rabbits, these animals are all rodents. Following is a brief sampling of some of the more prominent small mammals in the park.
Columbian Ground Squirrel
The Columbian Ground Squirrel is the most commonly seen animal in the park during the summer. Although they hibernate for up to seven months, they are a valuable prey species for grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves and golden eagles. A winter hibernator, this ground squirrel may be seen throughout the park from the montane valleys to the alpine.
Hoary Marmots are colonial animals that live in the alpine zone from 6,800 to 8,000 feet. They are one of the largest rodents in the park, reching weights of up to 30 pounds. Marmots can be seen on a number of day hikes in the park, including the Plain of Six Glaciers at Lake Louise and the Cascade Amphitheatre trail near Banff.
Common in the Lake Louise region and in subalpine forests throughout the park. Like other rodents, porcupines chew bones and antlers to obtain minerals. They are frequent visitors to backcountry campgrounds, mainly because tools and backpacks that humans have touched have a delicious salty residue left on them.
The beaver population in the park's Bow Valley near the town of Banff has plummeted in recent years, but it may just be part of a natural cycle. Active beaver families still operate in the park at Johnson Lake and in a number of other locations. However, if you're anxious to watch a beaver family in action you're more likely to have success in neighbouring Jasper National Park.
The pika or " rock rabbit" is the smallest member of the rabbit family. They live on rock slides and talus slopes from 6,000 to 8,500 feet. Although well-camouflaged, pikas can often be located by their piercing call that sounds like a high-pitched "eep". They are often seen on the rockslides at Moraine Lake and at the far end of Lake Louise.
There are 8 species of ungulates or hooved mammals in the park. They can be separated into two distinct families: the deer family, which have antlers that fall off and re-grow each year, and the sheep and goat family, which carry true horns that grow throughout the life of the animal.
The Deer Family
The moose is the largest member of the deer family, commonly about the size of a horse. Moose were formerly widely distributed in the park, but have disappeared from the Bow Valley in recent years. The best areas in the park to see moose are along the Icefields Parkway near Upper Waterfowl Lake and north of Saskatchewan Crossing.
Elk are the park's most common ungulate. Tan-coloured animals with white rump patches, they can be seen throughout the park along the roadways. Vermilion Lakes Drive and the golf course road are excellent areas for prospective elk photographers to scout.
Elk are also the most dangerous animal in the park. In the spring, mother elk protect their newborn calves fiercely, warding off any and all creatures that come between them and their young by slashing with their hooves. Similarly, in the fall during the autumn rut, the bull elk become extremely aggressive towards people, using their large racks of antlers to display their dominance. Each year, a number of visitors and locals are injured by park elk -- do not approach any elk closer than fifty metres, and watch closely for any aggressive signs displayed by the animal (raised ears, glaring looks, stamping feet, etc.).
Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer
Deer are common along the roadways in the park, although their populations are actually quite low. Mule deer are more plentiful than white-tailed, but both can often be seen feeding side by side along the Bow Valley Parkway in spring.
Caribou are sighted occasionally in the northern part of the park, and there is a resident population in the Siffleur Watershed of approximately 5 animals. The Siffleur herd is considered to be a high priority Special Resources in the park, and is given appropriate protection because of this designation (only one trail cuts through the caribou's Siffleur range and camping or off-trail travel is prohibited). Caribou have also been sighted around Nigel Pass and in the Upper Pipestone.
The Sheep and Goat Family
Bighorn Sheep are the second most common ungulate in the park after the wapiti. They have a sandy-brown coat and a white rump patch. Rams have massive spirally curved brown horns, while ewes have short, spiky brown horns.
Bighorns are primarily grazers, and migrate seasonally between low grassy slopes and alpine meadows. Escape terrain with rocky ledges is usually nearby. Sheep are commonly seen at Lake Minnewanka, on Mount Norquay Road, and at the top of the Sulphur Mountain Gondola ride.
Although mountain goats are seldom seen because of their preference for rugged habitat, they are actually quite numerous in the park. They can be distinguished from bighorn sheep by their all-white coats, beards and short, black dagger-like horns which are carried by both sexes.
Goats are often seen on the Plain of Six Glaciers hike and can sometimes be spotted on the slopes of Mt. Fairview beside Lake Louise. However, the mineral lick on Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park and the "goat lookout" on the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park are your best bets for spotting mountain goats in the Four Mountain Parks.
Historical accounts indicate that the wood bison once inhabited the mountains, ranging up to timberline. The last wood bison in the area was killed in 1858 in the Pipestone Valley. Woods bison are similar in appearance and habits to the plains bison, but slightly larger in size.
There are four families of carnivores in the park: the weasel, dog, cat, and bear families.
The Weasel Family
The weasels generally have elongate bodies, short legs, and glands which produce a strong-smelling scent. Among the many weasels found in the park is the largest member of the family, the wolverine, which is occasionally seen in the alpine tundra. The smaller pine martens are more common than the other weasels, and are abundant throughout the forested areas of the park. Other members of the weasel family found in Banff National Park include the ermine, the long-tailed weasel and the fisher.
The Dog Family
The coyote is a medium-sized grayish dog with a slender muzzle, large pointed ears, and a bushy tail. Coyotes are often seen patrolling the road right-of-ways in search of road kills and small rodents. The Bankhead area, Vermilion Lakes, and the Bow Valley Parkway are all excellent places to see coyotes in the park.
The wolf is similar in appearance to a large German Shepherd, but is lankier with longer legs and larger feet. Its muzzle is larger and less pointed (less fox-like) than that of a coyote. Most wolves in Banff National Park are dark in colour, although colours do range from whitish-gray to black.
Wolves only recently returned to the park after a long absence. There are now 35-40 wolves residing in the park in four different packs, including one pack that uses the Bow Valley between Banff and Lake Louise and is occasionally seen along the Bow Valley Parkway. Since the late 1980s, an intensive wolf study has been ongoing in Banff, and in recent years has spread out to include Kootenay and Yoho National Park wolf populations as well.
The Cat Family
Two members of the cat family are found in Banff National Park. The largest of the two, and the largest Canadian cat, is the mountain lion or cougar. Although rarely seen, signs indicate that there is a small but healthy population of approximately 7-10 animals in the park.
The other member of the cat family that resides in Banff National Park is the lynx. It too is nocturnal and rarely seen, and there are no estimates of population size at this point.
The Bear Family
There are approximately 40 black bears that call all or part of Banff National Park home. They reside primarily in the Bow Valley and in the Saskatchewan Crossing area on the Icefields Parkway, preferring the valley bottom forested areas to the higher elevation backcountry areas.
In recent years, strict garbage regulations have cut down considerably on the number of black bear/people conflicts in the Rocky Mountain national parks. However, habituated bears (bears that become used to humans) are still a safety hazard in the park -- when you spot a bear you are encouraged to remain in your vehicle and view the animal from a distance. Poaching of black bears for their gall bladders is a problem throughout North America. Our Wildlife Watch anti-poaching program helps protect bears in Banff National Park.
Grizzly bears are more plentiful than black bears in Banff National Park. Most of the backcountry wilderness in the park is subalpine forest, alpine tundra or rock and ice, and is thus more suited to grizzlies than blacks. However, visitors are more likely to see black bears because black bears frequent the low-lying valleys that our park roads run through.
Park grizzlies are currently part of a comprehensive grizzly bear study in the Central Rockies Ecosystem. Over twenty silvertips have been radio collared and are being monitored weekly using telemetry technology.
Visitors hoping to spot a grizzly can drive the Icefields Parkway and the Bow Valley Parkway, but extreme caution should be taken if a bear is encountered. Grizzly bears are unpredictable and have seriously injured tourists in the past -- please stay in your vehicle and give the bear lots of space.