Banff National Park is one of the most beautiful wild places in the world. Banff is Canada’s oldest national park, and over four million visitors come to stay in Banff in each year. Each visit provides ample opportunity to observe fabulous wildlife, from harlequin ducks and weasels to bighorn sheep and wolverines. Wild animals live, mate, hunt and play throughout the park’s 1.6 million acres, and most of the time, visitors love spying them through the trees or on a trail. When it comes to bigger and more predatory wildlife, however, certain precautions must be taken to ensure the safety of both people and animals.
While dangerous encounters between humans and animals are rare in Banff, that’s no reason to take the potential for such encounters lightly. Whether you’re enjoying a morning cup of coffee on the walking path behind your hotel or wading across a river deep in the forest, these tips should always be followed so that animals and people can continue to coexist in as safe and mutual a way as possible.
When it comes to bear safety, the best approach is to avoid them. Because bears don’t want to interact with humans, making your presence known is the best first step. Bear bells aren’t sufficient, so whenever you’re around streams, berry patches or thick vegetation, call out, clap and in general, bring attention to yourself. Larger groups are less likely to run into a bear, so avoid hiking by yourself. If you insist on traveling with a dog, never let it off the leash, and always hike during daylight hours on marked paths. If you do see a bear, stop moving and stay calm. If you have bear spray and you know how to use it, get it ready. Whatever you do, don’t run. If the bear is unaware of your presence, move quietly away. If it is aware of you, keep in mind that screams or sudden movements can trigger an attack. Stay calm and speak to the bear firmly, which lets it know that you are not a prey animal. Slowly back away, making yourself appear as large as possible as you go.
Cougars are a natural predator within Banff National Park, and as such, they can pose a threat to people and pets. While they are most active at dawn and dusk, anytime you’re in cougar country, the following precautions should be taken:
- Supervise children when they are playing outdoors, and never let children play near dense vegetation.
- Travel in groups of three or more during daylight hours.
- Pets should never be loose outside, especially at night.
- Use wildlife-proof garbage bins, and feed your pets indoors.
- Talk to your children about cougar safety.
Even when the above precautions are taken, encounters may occur. If you see a cougar, don’t approach it. Face it, back away slowly, and try to appear bigger by holding your arms or an object above your head. Never run or play dead. If you have small children with you, pick them up immediately. Be aggressive and intimidating. Shout, throw rocks and wave sticks at the animal to deter an attack.
Elk can be surprisingly aggressive and have been known to attack humans without warning. During the mating season in August and September, males are especially volatile, and in calving season — which runs from May to June — females can be hostile. Regardless of the time of year, though, elk are dangerous animals with a low tolerance for human proximity. If an elk grinds its teeth or flattens its ears, you’re too close and need to back away. Never feed an elk — or any other park wildlife — so they will stay wild, decreasing the potential for dangerous interactions, and never, ever come between a cow and her calf.
Wolves are incredibly wary of humans. Avoiding an encounter or managing one well, however, is still an important goal, and it is most likely accomplished by doing the following:
- Stay calm.
- Do not run.
- Make yourself appear larger than you are.
- Maintain eye contact while slowly backing away.
Like most wild places, Banff National Park has remarkable wildlife, and some of that wildlife can pose a threat to humans. While it may be sobering to read about encounters, doing so — and following these tips — can ensure you, your family and friends can enjoy the great outdoors safely.
About the Author: Lauren Peugh is a contributing writer and outdoorswoman who often visits Canada’s wild places.