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Wardens enforcing off-trail closure for black swifts at Johnston Canyon

BANFF – Banff law enforcement wardens are cracking down on people defying a closure set up to protect endangered black swifts nesting along cliffs at one of Banff National Park’s busiest tourist hotspots.
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Off-trail use at Johnston Canyon is banned to protect endangered black swifts (pictured) nesting along the cliffs at one of Banff National Park’s busiest tourist attractions. The species was assessed as endangered in 2015 by the Committee on Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

BANFF – Banff law enforcement wardens are cracking down on people defying a closure set up to protect endangered black swifts nesting along cliffs at one of Banff National Park’s busiest tourist hotspots.

Wardens say 21 people in nine separate incidents were reported ignoring the ban on an off-trail area of Johnston Canyon, leading to eight verbal warnings and one charge against a person who faces a court appearance and potential fine of up to $25,000.

“People tend to violate the closure for photo opportunities or to get a better look at a certain view, but it could disturb the birds,” said Chloe Marshall, a law enforcement warden for Banff National Park.

“Johnston Canyon provides critical nesting habitat for the black swift and is the only known location in Banff National Park,” she added, noting it’s important to protect the endangered bird species.

In Canada, the breeding range of the black swift is restricted to southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, including Banff and Jasper national parks. Elsewhere, isolated populations occur in the western United States, Mexico and Caribbean.

In 2015, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed black swifts as endangered based on the species’ highly specialised feeding and nesting habits, as well as suspected population decline.

Counts of nesting birds at Johnston Canyon show numbers have varied from the first record in 1919 to present day. Peak numbers were in 1981 and 1982 when there were 12 nests. These days, there are only one to two pairs.

“It’s a really cool bird,” Marshall said. “We’re very fortunate to have a few active nest sites.”

Last year, Parks Canada issued the restricted activity order for the first time, and this year, it went into effect again in April. The main Johnston Canyon trail remains open, but the area where off-trail use is prohibited is well signed.

In 2018, there were 13 reported incidents involving 30 individuals, which led law enforcement wardens to issue four charges and a total of $1,000 in fines through the court.

“Unfortunately, we as law enforcement wardens and the general public have observed many people violating the restricted activity order,” Marshall said.

“The closure is very well marked, there is a lot of signage along the trail, so if people do enter they are entering knowingly.”

The black swift has many unusual and intriguing facets to its life history and reproductive biology. Its nesting habitat occurs at remote, inaccessible waterfalls and caves in montane areas and, in a few cases, sea cliffs.

Birds typically return to their northern breeding areas in Alberta mid-to late May or mid-June.

Typically, black swifts return to the same nesting colonies each year.

“If they find an ideal nesting place, they will return every year to the same spot, which is pretty amazing,” Marshall said.

Because of the secretive nature of the black swift and the remoteness of its waterfall and cliff nesting sites, estimates of overall abundance are not fully known.

“Although the number of known nest sites has increased due to enhanced search efforts, there are still fewer than 100 nest sites known in Canada and the United States,” according to COSEWIC.

The closure is also in place to prevent erosion, trampling and disturbance of sensitive ground and riparian vegetation, as well as to keep visitors safe within a canyon with numerous steep, wet and slippery slopes.

“It really affects the flora on trail and causes erosion,” Marshall said, noting the closure is in effect until Nov. 15.

“It’s also very dangerous and people could fall into the canyon – and have in the past.”

Parks Canada asks anyone who observes people entering the closed area to report it to Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470.

“If it is reported with a description of the people, then we can respond and do some education or enforcement as required,” Marshall said.

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