Banff’s elk population taking big hit from carnivores

Wolves, cougars and grizzly bears are putting a significant dent in Banff’s elk herds.

A grizzly bear family took down a newborn calf on the Banff Springs Golf Course in early June, much to the surprise of a group of golfers on the second hole of the Stanley Thompson.

“Some golfers had seen a calf run out onto the course and right behind it was one of the yearling cubs, and it nailed the calf and took it down right in front of them,” said Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife co-existence specialist with Banff National Park.

It’s not uncommon for grizzly bears to hunt elk calves around the periphery of the Banff townsite during the calving season, which typically runs from the end of May to early July.

While newborn calves can stand up within an hour of birth, they remain particularly defenceless against predators for the first few weeks of their life, even while hidden in bushes and shrubs as the protective cow elk stands guard close by.

In this particular elk hunt on the golf course, Parks Canada wildlife experts suspect it was grizzly bear No. 130 and her two yearlings.

The mama bear and one of her yearlings was struck and killed on the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks near Vermilion Lakes west of the Banff townsite on Thursday (June 24). The other yearling was not injured, and Parks Canada is keeping close tabs on the orphaned bear.

Fyten said bear 130, who used to hang out in areas along the Bow Valley Parkway and Fairholme bench, had been recently staying close to town, including on Tunnel Mountain and grazing on grass at the golf course.

The Bow Valley wolf pack and cougars in the area have also had success hunting elk over the past year, which Fyten said is partly why the Banff elk population has declined from about 190 in spring 2019 to 148 this spring.

He said the spring classification count involves staff driving around the Bow Valley for two days counting individual elk between Castle Mountain and Banff National Park’s east boundary.

The cow-calf ratio this year was down to 13 per cent, compared to 29 in 2019, indicating higher elk mortality due to human causes, such as being hit on the train tracks, or natural deaths due to lower calf survival in spring or lower pregnancy rates.

There were 62 known elk mortalities reported to Parks Canada over the past year, compared to 44 in 2019 and 24 in 2018. In addition, more elk than usual fell through the Bow River ice and died near the Banff townsite this past spring.

While these are all factors contributing to the big jump in elk mortalities, Fyten said there seemed to be more carnivore activity.

“The Bow Valley wolf pack was in close to town hunting the elk, and likewise, we had that cougar activity this past winter eating some of the elk,” he said.

“The first ones to get removed from the population are usually the cows and calves; they’re easier prey.”

Currently, there are four to five wolves in the Bow Valley pack; however, a collared female yearling wolf was struck and killed on the Trans-Canada Highway near Castle Junction on June 24. She was one of two yearling wolves collared on June 5 in order to monitor her movements and prevent habituation.

Parks Canada is, however, now confident the alpha female of the pack has given birth to pups.

As for cougars, despite at least five dying this winter, including three kittens, Parks Canada continues to get occasional reports of sightings.

Fyten said there are typically fewer sightings when ungulates begin to move farther afield on the landscape.

Despite the high elk mortality over the past year, Parks Canada is not worried about the stability of the elk population.

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