The dramatic landscapes of the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site draw millions annually who eagerly take home books and calendars and digital camera cards filled with pretty pictures of an exceptionally beautiful place.
But when it comes to the real story about the wild animals whose very survival is mandated as the purpose of Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper national parks, the picture is not nearly as pretty, says award winning wildlife photographer and author Peter Dettling in his new book, The Will of the Land.
Without a doubt, this coffee table book’s 176 high-quality pages showcase dozens of gorgeous images of that wilderness landscape and its native creatures: an elk cow licking her calf, a dreamy-eyed post-coital grizzly pair and the unforgettable image of a wolf and hulking grizzly in a nose-to-nose standoff.
Dettling’s writing is equally captivating, weaving together his professional evolution with engaging tales of idyllic encounters with characters named Delinda, Brave One, Casanova and White Fang.
Through recounting the Bow Valley wolf family story – 12-strong reduced to a pair, recovered, then eradicated again with Sisyphus-like futility as one after another breeding female, pup and dominant male are killed on the Trans-Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. Dettling exposes the failings of imperfect fencing and unacknowledged, unenforced speed limits like a grizzly digging up roots from moist earth.
Between Canada’s major transportation corridor, railroad cars pouring nectar-like grain onto their tracks, efforts to “manage” the animals rather than hoping to view them, ski resorts and golf courses and bewildering Vegas-worthy “attractions” such as the recently proposed Icefields “skywalk”, this UNESCO site has devolved into what Dettling describes as a “mortality sink”.
Sadly, Parks’ own numbers back his cry.
Between 1999 and 2008, no fewer than 37 black bears, 12 grizzlies and 314 elk – and a plethora of lynx, cougar, fox, deer and other creatures – died on roads and train tracks inside Banff park. During that same period, 257 white-tailed deer, 55 moose and four wolves (among others) died on Kootenay park’s Highway 93, while in Jasper a staggering 80 black bears, 292 bighorn sheep, 105 moose, 47 wolves and 560 elk were killed by cars and trains.
Hundreds of creatures’ bodies reported hit were never recovered. Driving home the picture, alongside stunning images of majestic grizzlies and wolves Dettling sprinkles just enough gut clubbing images of those same creatures stiff, bloodied, dismembered and obviously dead as the result of human interaction inside the boundaries of the very land designated for their protection.
“Certainly, from a marketing perspective, including those images is not the best approach,” Dettling admits. “But if you only read the numbers, it’s easy to brush them off. Photos make it real.”
What is unfortunately real is that since its inception 126 years ago, Canada’s park system has operated under an utterly impossible, unattainable mandate: to preserve and protect the natural landscape and ecosystems for generations to come, AND to nurture a profitable business environment.
“I agree with Parks that we need to increase human visitation so people can become connected to the wilderness,” Dettling shrugs. “The question is; is dragon boat racing how you do that?”
While regular RMO readers might be accustomed – even desensitized – to the parade of headlines announcing yet another wolf or bear death on the CPR tracks or TCH, outside the Bow Valley, Banff is touted as a world leader.
The danger, argues Dettling, who moved to Canmore from Switzerland in 2000, is that when Tanzania proposes a high-speed road through the Serengeti, it cites Banff as an example of that plan’s “sustainability”.
Part polemic, part celebration of a cherished, miraculous landscape, Dettling concludes with four “rays of hope”, including Parks’ and CPR’s joint efforts to address grain spill problems and development of bison and caribou reintroduction programs in Banff park.
Still, he wishes he felt more hopeful that strong leadership and the political will existed to truly make these parks the one place where protection of the natural environment trumps human desires.
Readily admitting that the ultimate steps of decommissioning ski hills and completely burying the TCH and railroad are improbable, Dettling insists the dialogue must at least begin.
“We need to start to talk about this openly,” he says. “If we look away from the reality, that’s the ultimate ignorance. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We have a mandate not just to Canada, but to the rest of the world. This is the one place where we put all the laws and structures in place as the international example, but it’s not happening on the ground.”
The Will of the Land, by Peter Dettling, is published by Rocky Mountain Books.