In Banff, your best bets for seeing, watching and photographing wildlife are driving along Vermilion Lakes Drive, the Bow Valley Parkway or the Icefields Parkway early in the morning or late in the evening. The slow seasons for visitors (the fall and spring) tend to be the best times of the year to see animals, particularly bears and moose. Following is an introduction to the large mammals that call Banff home.
|Banff has a robust elk population numbering in the thousands. The Vermilion Lakes Drive, the Buffalo Paddock, the Banff Springs golf course and the Bow Valley Parkway are all excellent venues for seeing and photographing elk, and the town of Banff itself is frequented by elk intent on eating the greenery in local’s yards and escaping the predators they would face anywhere else in the park.For the best viewing opportunities, visit the park in late winter or early spring when huge herds gather at Vermilion Lakes and along the highway near the Buffalo Paddock, or come in September and watch the great bulls battle it out in the elk rut.
- Elk have injured far more people than bears…
- DO NOT APPROACH THESE ANIMALS. STAY BACK 50 Meters
- Use extra caution during Sept thru Oct which is their mating season – Male elk will fight anything approaching them including your car…
- May and June is the birth season and mother elk will fight anything coming near their babies – which are usually hidden close by
- These animals weigh over 1200 lbs and have antlers that are longer than your arm – and they move very quickly…
|Moose are on the decline in the park, due in part to a deadly liver fluke, the return of wolves after a long absence, and an unnaturally high number of deaths on the railways and highways. However, you still have a good chance of spotting a moose in the ponds and lakes along the Icefields Parkway in the northern part of the park.The Saskatchewan River Crossing and Waterfowl Lakes areas are moose “hot spots” in the spring and summer months, and both Jasper National Park to the north and Kananaskis Country to the south have large healthy moose populations.
|The park is home to both whitetail and mule deer, and both are common along the Vermilion Lakes Drive and the Bow Valley Parkway, particularly in the spring. There are twice as many mulies in the park as whitetails, and mule deer are common year-round in the vicinity of the Banff Centre and on the Mount Norquay Road. The mule deer are larger and have a black tip on the end of their tail in contrast to the smaller, more slender whitetails who have a white underside to their tail.
|Bighorn sheep are abundant throughout the park, and are most commonly seen along the Bow Valley Parkway at Backswamp, on the Mount Norquay and Lake Minnewanka roads, and at the top of the gondola ride on Sulphur Mountain. The large rams are best viewed in the winter months when they are at lower elevations; in the summer, most of the rams and many of the ewes can be found by hiking into the high alpine meadows in the park.
|Banff National Park has a healthy population of mountain goats, but has very few good places to view them from roads or short trails. Watch for them high on the cliffs along the Icefields Parkway as you approach Jasper National Park, or, if you’re in a hiking mood, do a day-hike in to Bourgeau Lake and look for the herds of goats and sheep that call the area home.
Sheep vs. Goats – Who’s Who?
|Mountain goats have shaggy white coats and sharp black horns like this one on the left, while bighorn sheep have brown coats and brown horns like the female on the right. You’re more likely to see sheep in Banff National Park since most of our goats live at very high elevations on the cliffs and mountain tops.
Caribou – © Jeff Waugh
|The mountain caribou’s dwindling range in Alberta extends south into the northern section of Banff National Park, where a small herd of 10-15 animals makes its home in wild untouched country northeast of Lake Louise. The size of a large deer, caribou have dark brown bodies and white manes, and large curved antlers. Though rarely seen in Banff, sightings are common in Jasper National Park during the winter and spring.
Wolf – © Milton Achtimickuk
|The park is home to 45 wolves comprising five different packs. After eradication from the park in the 1950s, wolves returned for good in 1982 and have been thriving in remote parts of the park ever since. Three of the five packs are rarely seen, but numerous sightings are made each year of the Cascade pack in the Lake Minnewanka area in winter, and of the Bow Valley pack between Banff and Lake Louise year-round.
|The coyote population in the park has been struggling in recent years, due largely to the increased volume of traffic on our roads. However, coyotes are still fairly common in most areas of the park where there are open meadows and good hunting grounds. The Vermilion Lakes Road, the Bow Valley Parkway and the Buffalo Paddock are each good places to spot them, as is most of Highway 93 South from Banff to Radium.
Wolf or Coyote? Wolves are generally much larger than coyotes, and are usually the size of a large German Shepherd. They also have a broad face, in contrast to the narrow fox-like muzzle of the coyote. Coyotes come in one shade, a greyish-brown, while wolves come in all colours, including grey, black, white and brown.
Mountain Lion aka Cougar
|The park supports a small population of mountain lions, however, sightings of these wily cats are extremely rare. They prey upon the park’s deer, bighorn sheep and elk populations, and cat tracks are often sighted in the winter in the Mount Norquay and Sunshine Road areas. A much larger and more viable population of cougars lives to the south of the park in Kananaskis Country.
Cougars are wary animals that naturally keep their distance from people. The recent encounters between cougar and people is unusual, but sightings in the Old Fort Point and Jasper Park Lodge area are not a rare occurrence. This is prime habitat for cougars. Since August 23rd, two encounters with a cougar occurred in the area. These were not attacks and resulted in no human injuries. A third incident involved injury to a dog and is unconfirmed whether the dog encountered a cougar or not. Parks Canada posted WARNING AND CLOSURE signs in the area immediately after the first incident. Due to the additional recent incidents, this warning area has been increased. The closed area remains the same. Wildlife specialists will continue to monitor the area and the area closure and warning will be removed when public safety is no longer at risk. Notices have been circulated widely throughout the Jasper community and key contact points to our visitors.
What should you do?
Avoid use of this area where the cougar has been seen.
TIPS when encountering a cougar
- Do not approach the animal
- Face the cougar, and retreat slowly
- Do not run or play dead
- Try to appear bigger by holding your arms or an object above your head (knapsack, bicycle etc&)
- Immediately pick up small children
- Be aggressive, shout, wave a stick or throw rocks to deter an attack.
|The black bear population is considered to be a threatened species in Banff National Park, with only 35-40 left. However, sightings in the spring and summer are still quite common, particularly along the Bow Valley Parkway and the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise, and on the Icefields Parkway near Saskatchewan Crossing. Black bears in Banff come in a variety of colours, including black, brown and cream, and eat everything from ants to dandelions to buffalo berries. They go into hibernation in late October and usually don’t emerge from their slumber until late April or early May.
Grizzly Bear – © Jeff Waugh
|Surprisingly, there are more grizzly bears in Banff than black bears. Grizzly researchers working on the Rocky Mountains East Slope Grizzly Project estimate that the park is home to about 70 of the great bears. Grizzlies can be distinguished from black bears by the large hump of muscle on their shoulders and from the shape of their face: grizzlies have very broad round faces, while black bears have narrow roman profiles much like a dog’s face. While sightings of grizzlies are rare, you may spot them in the backcountry or along the Bow Valley Parkway or the Icefields Parkway.
Small Mammals and Birds