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Columbian ground squirrels causing 'significant damage' at Banff cemeteries

The Town of Banff has trapped and relocated 160 Columbian ground squirrels from the two local cemeteries over the past five years.

BANFF – Town of Banff staff overseeing Banff’s two cemeteries are struggling to dig themselves out of a backlog of work, including repairs resulting from Columbian ground squirrel burrows.

Officials say the burrowing ground squirrels are undermining headstones and cemetery plots at both the Old Banff Cemetery – declared a municipal historic resource in 2016 – and Mountain View Cemetery, causing graves and monuments to sink.

In addition, they say their burrows can create tripping hazards, making areas unsafe for walking at times.

“They have been creating significant damage in our cemeteries,” said Agustina Rocha-Jaje, the municipal parks manager for the Town of Banff.

With permission from Parks Canada, the municipality began trapping and relocating ground squirrels in 2018.

So far in 2022, 14 ground squirrels have been relocated from both cemeteries, 21 in 2021, 18 in 2020, 97 in 2019 and 10 in 2018.

Initially, screening was placed as a visual barrier on the perimeter fencing at the cemeteries as a deterrent to the ground squirrels.

Rocha-Jaje said Columbian ground squirrels are visually-orientated animals and must always keep their burrow entrances in sight, and as a result, are reluctant to go into an area if they can’t see a burrow.

“There was a noticeable difference in the population resulting from this action,” she said, referring to the screening barrier.

Columbian ground squirrel colonies can be found throughout the Banff townsite and surrounding national park. The burrowing animals hibernate for a large part of the year, emerging in late March or in April, depending on the local climate.

When the trapping program began, the squirrels were relocated to the 40 Mile Creek area, but Parks Canada changed the approved site this year to an area off the east side of Tunnel Mountain Road between Peyto Pits Road and the old King George Highway.

Rocha-Jaje said staff have caught 160 Columbian ground squirrels since the trapping began.

“The whole point of this is minimizing the population to reduce further damage,” she said.

In addition to the damage caused by ground squirrels, the freeze-and-thaw cycle mixed with the rocky soil adds to the damage that occurs from year to year.  Graves may also sink due to settling of the ground after burial closure.

Monuments are privately owned and responsibility to level them lies with grave owners. However, the Town of Banff still steps in if there’s a safety hazard associated with a sunken monument and hires a contractor when budgets allow.

Rocha-Jaje said the grave owner’s family is also responsible for repair to existing borders, arches, walls and mausoleums.

“Similar to sunken monuments, the Town will take responsibility for repairs when budget allows in order to preserve the heritage features of the site at the Old Banff Cemetery.”

On the administrative side of cemetery management, the municipal parks team has experienced a big increase in cemetery-related inquiries and service requests over the last few years.

The municipal parks manager is spending a big chunk of time on cemetery-related administrative and customer service duties, while the operations support services manager is spending an average of 15 per cent of their time responding to inquiries, explaining the interment process and reviewing paperwork.

Rocha-Jaje said this current level of support is not sustainable.

“It is assumed that a high level of service is not only required, but also expected by the public," she said.

During the upcoming review of municipal services and programs ahead of budget deliberations, which kicks off on Nov. 30, council will consider administration’s request to hire a two-year term cemetery coordinator to oversee the cemetery portfolio. The position will take care of inquiries, interments, the application process, grave marking, records verification, digitalization, and the commemorative tree program.

The position comes with a price tag of $77,625 in 2023, which includes $65,875 in wages and benefits, and $71,130 in 2024 including $68,510 for wages and benefits.

At the end of the term, administration would consider whether the position should be made permanent, depending on progress of the long-awaited columbarium, scattering garden and memorial wall capital project.

Mayor Corrie DiManno said administration has built the case for the position by outlining the challenges and issues the municipal parks team is trying to solve, adding there is merit to discussing it at service review.

“This is certainly a service centre that can be very high stress and emotional for folks, and we need to ensure that we are giving high quality service during these very trying, difficult times, and so we need to make sure that people are available,” she said.

“I am happy to move this forward to service review to give it its full due consideration in the bigger picture, but once we get there, I may not be supportive, only because of juggling the other priorities we’re going to see.”