Archive for July, 2010

Our Weekend in the Rockies – For Biology Nerds

Posted on July 2, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

This will focus on the wildlife that we saw in Banff National Park.  The lakes and mountains were discussed in the previous post. Let’s join the band of tourists as they make their way to Lake Louise.

As we journey down the Trans-Canada Hwy we go under some overpasses.  Back in October when we took mom and Aunt Charlotte to Lake Louise we all thought these overpasses were “quaint”.  The weather in October wasn’t as cooperative as it was the past weekend, so I couldn’t tell what the purpose of these structures were.  Jeff was telling us about the wildlife fatalities that occurred on the highway as the Trans-Canada became a more popular route.  The solution that was put into action was to erect a tall fence on either side of the highway anywhere from 10-30 yards back.  This reduced the wildlife deaths by about 90%, however a new problem popped up.  Now Banff National Park was essentially divided into two separate areas.  So the parks people put on their thinking caps and came up with a new solution.  They built wildlife corridors that would connect the two halves. Some of these were overpasses and some were underpasses.  They already have several in place and are constructing quite a few more.  The parks department studied which animals were using the corridors and discovered that animals such as mountain lions and wolves shied away from these areas. Animals like these needed a much wider crossing to feel more comfortable.  Construction got underway that would improve the overpasses and make them wider so more trees could be planted along the perimeter and the animals would feel more secure in crossing the highway.

Jeff told us to always be on the lookout for wildlife.  It wasn’t too long before we were rewarded.  We saw three elk on the hill next to the highway grazing.  They are such magnificent creatures.  Jeff slowed down a little so we could soak in their splendor and snap a few pictures.

We arrived at Kicking Horse Canyon and Jeff started to slow down as we made our way to the lookout. We were hoping to see a train pass through the spiral tunnels.  The bus came to a stop and I was amazed to see a black bear right outside my window.  He was very content sitting there munching on dandelions.  Jackson and Zachary were enthralled with him (as was I).  He was a fairly young bear (what you would consider a teenager).  Whenever he started coming towards the bus (and the road), Jeff would honk the horn.  This kept the bear back.  I really hope that other people do the same.  There was no fence at this point, and I would hate to see the bears (along with other wildlife) get too comfortable around people and cars.

The black bear got his fill of dandelions and meandered back down the hill and into the woods.  Our tour moved on and we made it to Golden, B.C. and the Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear Refuge.  The gondola passed over the refuge, but we didn’t spot Boo on the way up.  While we were exploring the top of the mountain, Jackson spotted a marmot hiding in a wood pile.  I had never seen one before – but supposedly they are common up here.  Later in the day we saw another one by the parking lot at the falls.  The ground squirrels and chipmunks were plentiful, hiding amongst the rocks.  In the gondola headed down we were able to see Boo.  He’s a beautiful grizzly bear.  Listening to the ranger tell Boo’s story gave me a sense of hope for grizzly bears.

Typically when a mother bear was killed, her orphaned cubs were put down.  The idea was that the cubs wouldn’t survive on their own.  Grizzly cubs stay with mom until they are three.  Boo and his brother, Cari (they were named for the area they were found in – Caribou) were orphaned at only a few months old when a hunter shot their mom.  The hunter was caught and had a hefty fine.  The two cubs were sent to Grouse in B.C. where they had a very small (about 2 sq km) area set aside for them.  Kicking Horse set up a larger area (22 sq km) for the pair.  The brothers were moved and sadly Cari didn’t make it through his first winter.  He had an issue with his intestines and never woke up from his dormant period.  The refuge provides a place where Boo can be a bear.  He hunts and forages for his food (the refuge supplements his diet as little as possible).  Boo scented some wild bears while we were there which prompted the ranger to tell the story of Boo’s escape.

Several years ago Boo scented a female bear and dug out of his enclosure.  He was gone about 20 days and was captured.  The rangers put him in a more secure location while they added a 4 ft steel plate in the ground under the fence.  After two days, Boo escaped again out of the “secure location” and was gone another 11 days.  This time he returned on his own.  The ranger said they saw a golden female in the area.  For the next three years, they would see the golden female with two cubs – one golden and one darker (like Boo).  You can draw your own conclusions about what Boo was up to while AWOL.

Boo is now 8 1/2 years old and doing well.  The rangers monitor all of his behaviors.  Because he lost his mom at such a young age, he didn’t have an opportunity to learn from her.  Any behavior that Boo exhibits, he taught himself.  He put on a show for us. He had caught the scent of a rodent and trying to catch it.  We got to see him dig – and dig he did…  The fact that he is capable of acting like a wild bear shows the rangers that orphan cubs do not need to be put down.  The idea is that more (and even larger) grizzly bear refuges can be created to protect these animals.

Our tour has now left Takakkaw Falls and is headed back to Banff.  The bus goes round one of the numerous bends in the curvy mountain road when I hear people saying “Deer, Deer!”.  There on a rocky outcrop right at the edge of the road was an animal that wasn’t a deer but a a young bighorn sheep. The shy animal quickly ducked behind the rocks and I was unable to get a picture. However, I will always have that snapshot in my mind.

As we make our way into the town of Banff, we are able to see a couple of deer peacefully grazing on the side of the road.  Evidently wildlife (especially deer) is a common occurrence in the city limits.

Sunday afternoon we left Lake Moraine and head back to Calgary.  As we approached a bridge (still in Banff National Park), traffic was backed up and several cars were on the shoulder of the bridge.  I thought it was a wreck until I saw people standing with cameras.  There was a large moose grazing in the valley.  Brandon stopped, but by the time I made it to where we could see the moose, he had already moved into the thicket.  The Parks people were telling everyone to keep moving.  As we reached the other side of the bridge, two more moose could be seen.  We couldn’t stop so I snapped a couple of pictures as we trolled by.

It’s true I’ve seen all of these animals several times before (with the exception of the marmot) in various zoos.  However, there’s a sense of wonder and discovery getting to see them in the wild. Before you say anything – it’s true that Boo was in an enclosure, but he was living the life of a wild grizzly. The idea that there are signs posted at the head of trails recommending that you travel in tight groups of four because of the bears astounded me.  I had never been in a place where such precautions had to be taken.  We can’t wait to get back to Banff National Park (as well as the surrounding parks) to explore and see even more wildlife.  As a biologist, I’m thrilled at the steps that Parks Canada has taken to help provide balance between the human population and that of the natural world.

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