BOW VALLEY – For elk in the busy and developed Bow Valley, playgrounds, school fields, golf courses, residential lawns and other green spaces are like crack cocaine.
Big herds gather in and around Canmore, at times seeking a safe haven within residential neighbourhoods from predators like wolves, or drawn in by the food buffets found in urban-style gardens and lawns.
The issue is a big concern amid fears of serious elk attacks on people or having carnivores like grizzly bears and wolves venturing into town to hunt elk.
“There’s lots of food and security here and that’s the issue,” said Jay Honeyman, a human-wildlife conflict specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks and a member of the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence committee’s technical working group.
“Why would you go to the wildlife corridors and habitat patches when you can make a living in town? All those urban green spaces are preferable to elk.”
The Town of Canmore is looking at the possibility of fencing to keep elk out of some playgrounds and school fields. It was a recommendation of the human-wildlife co-existence committee.
Canmore Mayor John Borrowman said there have been discussions at the administrative level around fencing, particularly around fields and parks.
He said the issue would be brought to council for further discussion as part of capital budget considerations, noting there would also be community consultation required.
“Personally, I’m certainly open to the conversation. It makes sense to me,” said Borrowman, who was co-chair of the human-wildlife coexistence committee.
“The use of fencing as a barrier to keep wildlife particularly from high human use areas is a tool we should have a really serious conversation about.”
Many residents enjoy seeing elk and other wildlife in their backyards and neighbourhoods, but one of the greatest challenges is helping residents and visitors understand this inevitably puts wildlife and people at risk.
The coexistence committee concluded residential neighbourhoods and built-up areas must be managed for people and are not places for wildlife.
Among 28 recommendations focused on reducing the probability and severity of wildlife encounters, the committee called for removal of natural plant attractants and relocating elk calves born in town each spring.
Routine strategic patrols to detect and haze elk and large carnivores out of urban areas are another recommendation – but a lack of staffing and resources is an ongoing issue.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re promoting the use of fences, because we don’t have the capacity to be moving elk out of town,” said Honeyman, noting it’s a first step in addressing public safety and keeping elk away from children playing.
Banff has had success with fencing schoolyards at Banff Elementary School and Banff Community High School. Jasper, where schools and the main downtown municipal park are fenced, has seen success as well.
“The yards are well fenced and that’s been successful,” said Bill Hunt, Parks Canada’s resource conservation manager for Banff National Park. “It used to be elk could get through the gates, but that’s been resolved.”
It’s becoming more common to see elk in Canmore’s residential areas, walking down sidewalks and grazing in yards, as well as fields at Lawrence Grassi Middle School, Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy and Lion’s Park, for example.
“It changes from season to season and place to place,” said Honeyman.
That’s a cause for concern for wildlife managers, particularly as more and more people are getting up close and personal with elk to snap a photo or ‘selfie’ with the wild animals.
“I would say elk are becoming more tolerant of people over time,” said Honeyman.
“They’re aware of people at a close distance, but anything can be aggressive if pushed to a point.”
Just last week, Honeyman watched six elk parading down the pavement on Carey Street in the Homesteads neighbourhood, walk between several homes and a swing set, before feasting on grass and shrubs.
“If we want to discourage elk from being there we need to better understand what they’re doing there,” he said.
In Jasper National Park, an elk was killed by Parks Canada after it badly injured a woman in a parking lot adjacent to the Pyramid Bench on Aug. 23. The elk knocked the woman down and kicked her.
Banff grappled with habituation of elk throughout the 1990s, but the townsite essentially has been declared an elk-free zone as part of Parks Canada’s elk management strategy to reduce elk attacks and restore natural ecological process.
With abnormally high numbers of elk back then, there was an average of five serious elk attacks a year and as many as 100 aggressive encounters annually, including an attack on a toddler as he played in his backyard in 1998.
The big spike in the elk population also led to widespread environmental damage, destroying aspen and willow for example, which are considered key to the survival of songbirds and beavers.
More than 200 habituated elk, known as ‘townies,’ were trapped and re-located out of the Bow Valley between 1999 and 2002. Once these animals were removed, an aversive conditioning program was implemented on the remainder of the herd to increase the wariness of elk toward people, restore their migratory behaviour, and teach them to avoid the townsite.
The elk strategy allows for an annual elk cull, typically of the most aggressive or more habituated townsite elk. Some years no elk are killed, other years it could be as high as 15. Parks Canada will do its annual fall survey before determining if any animals are to be removed this year.
Hunt said elk continue to be hazed out of built-up areas of town, with particular focus on areas around schools or playing fields.
“There’s been a significant decline in negative elk-human interactions since we went through all the work,” said Hunt.
“Part of that is managing the herd size, which was abnormally large, and then working to eliminate calving in town.”
When Banff’s central elk population was at its peak, a large wolf pack took up residence in the area and began hunting elk around town, sometimes right on the periphery.
In Canmore, wolves pick off elk outside town boundaries, pushing some elk into developed areas of town each spring to give birth to calves. In Banff, grizzly bears have keyed in on elk calves as early-season food on the edges of town.
Honeyman said wolves periodically venture into Canmore, pointing to wolves boldly going onto porches in the Larch neighbourhood last year.
“Wolves in town are still fairly rare, but there’s no reason at some point the wolf that walks through someone’s backyard is fairly comfortable in town,” he said.
Honeyman said management of elk is all part of a conversation that needs to be had with the Town of Canmore and the community.
“We have to work together and agree on a path forward,” he said.
Coexisting with wildlife came to a head in summer 2017 with the relocation and subsequent death of famed grizzly bear 148, a six-and-half-year-old female bear that spent most of her life in Banff, but occasionally wandered to Canmore.
After a summer of run-ins with people in Canmore, where she was feasting on a bumper buffalo berry crop, bear 148 was relocated to remote northwestern Alberta and eventually shot and killed in what was then a legal hunt in neighbouring B.C.