This week we’re looking at some important changes to the tourism infrastructure in Jasper National Park as well as some insights into the life of bats in the mountain west
Story 1 – The Tourism Files
As the summer season approaches, there are a number of new announcements taking place within Banff and Jasper National Parks that are definitely worth taking note of this year. If you work in the guiding industry, definitely stay tuned as these stories will affect your tours in a good way this summer.
One of the big announcements is a complete overhaul of the food services at the Columbia Icefields Chalet. For years, the scenery has been spectacular, but the food…well..not so much. Over the years, options for motorcoach tours and family travelers have been slim along the scenic corridor between Banff and Jasper.
A few years ago, the Chateau Lake Louise closed down its famous lunch buffet in the Victoria Dining Room and this left a huge hole in the dining options outside of the major centres of Banff and Jasper – especially for larger groups.
Brewster this year has hired a new company to help manage the Chalet. Forrec is a global company specializing in developing attractions all around the world. They’re the people behind sites like LegoLand in the U.S. In Canada, they developed the Bat Cave at the Royal Ontario Museum and also worked on the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre.
In a recent article in Jasper’s Community Newspaper, Fitzhugh, Matt Dawson, Forrec’s senior director of visitor operations stated:
“The building is crowded and underwhelming, It’s a missed opportunity – Brewster ranks high (on online travel sites and apps) but the building gets poor or non-existent reviews. People are just blanking it out of their minds. So we want to have complementary experiences inside that enhance what they have outside.”
I can certainly agree with this characterization. The building has historically been the pain before the pleasure. It has been a cram of people, all in a rush, pushing their way through a crush of equally rushed crowds.
Their first order of business has been focused on cuisine.
There have always been two separate restaurants in the hotel. The first, located just above the main staircase, has been a buffet restaurant largely catered to motorcoach tours. The food was adequate at best and never changing.
The second restaurant was the public cafeteria style free-for-all. The food was passable but really uninspiring. It was simply…necessary. The day is long, ya gotta eat, so eat. Nobody ever remarked about remarkable food.
To be fair, these two restaurants feed some 600,000 hungry visitors every year. The buffet restaurant is now known as “Altitude”. According to Dawson:
“Altitude is a 450-square-metre buffet style servery,” Dawson explained. “It takes inspiration from the natural environment. So the colour palette is inspired by glaciers, lots of icy blues and whites, harder surfaces – it’s cool and contemporary, and would not be out of place in downtown Vancouver.”
When it comes to the food, in an article in this week’s Crag and Canyon, menu items will include “rack of lamb with mint sauce, fish, steaks, burgers, flatbreads, and pizzas.” Well- hay…I can work with that.
An upgrade to the Icefields Chalet has been a very long time coming and this is welcome news. One thing I would like to see is a way to better design the human traffic flow. I’m stoked about the improved food because, as a guide, I eat a lot of meals there every summer. The newly designed restaurants look great as well. If you want to see some images, Check out this story in the Crag and Conyon Newspaper: http://www.thecragandcanyon.ca/2017/04/12/glacier-discovery-centre-completes-interior-renovations-to-restaurants
Can Forrec improve this iconic destination? If they can, I’ll be impressed. Let me know if you visit. I’d love to hear some first-hand impressions.
Mount Edith-Cavell is one of Jasper National Park’s premier destinations. The interpretive walk to the Angel Glacier overlook is one that inspires awe and, a few years ago, terror.
Permits Required for Mount Edith Cavell Road
In 2012, the Ghost Glacier came loose from the steep slopes of Mount Edith-Cavell and into the tiny tarn known as Cavell Pond.
The resulting tsunami-style wave erupted from the tiny lake and swept down the valley taking out an interpretive trail as well as much of the public parking area. This event really brought to the fore, the dangers of a rapid glacial melt.
It also led to the closing of the Mount Edith Cavell road for the remainder of the 2012 season. While it reopened in 2013, it was clear the combination of increased visitation as well as increased risk due to rapid glacial retreat meant that Parks Canada needed to do some redevelopment in order to move the parking lot out of the danger zone while also increasing the capacity.
As of this summer, there is now a limit on the number of cars that can travel the Mount Edith Cavell Road. If you want to visit the area…and you really really DO want to visit this site. Limited access is a really really good idea. It makes sure that the people that do get an opportunity to visit the site will get a great experience.
Starting this summer, in order to visit Mount Edith Cavell, you’ll need a permit issued by Parks Canada. The free permits will be available outside of the Jasper Information Centre in the heart of Jasper between 08:00 and 10:00 every day. Only one permit per vehicle is required. It is being put in place primarily to ensure that each vehicle should have a place to park in the main lot.
It will also help to reduce the overcrowding challenges at the site as well as the long line of vehicles parking along the really narrow access road as it approaches the parking area.
For those of us that are part of an organized group tour, we won’t need vehicle permits, nor will backcountry users, cyclists, or hostel guests.
Parks Canada staff will be on location at the start of the road to check permits for vehicles as well as tour operator licenses, reservations for the Tonquin Trail, Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge, Amethyst Lake Lodge and the Edith Cavell Hostel.
This is a great development for Mount Edith Cavell. We need to make sure that the access to the location is both safe and sustainable. If you are a repeat visitor, I truly believe that this will improve the access to the location. While fewer visitors will be able to snap photos of the glacier, it will help to reduce the impact and the crowds.
Story 2 – Going Batty
As days slowly warm up, it won’t be long until, if you’re lucky and very watchful, you may be able to see dark objects flitting across the night sky in search of flying insects. Bats are still largely a mystery in the mountain west with scientists in the dark on most aspects of these furry mammals. Researchers don’t know very much about their population, distribution, or even where non-migratory bats overwinter in the Rockies.
In most instances, the bats we see locally are likely to be big brown or little brown bats (also called the little brown myotis). The remaining 7 species are more solitary and less likely to be spotted by the average viewer. If you’re lucky enough to a rarity, you’ll likely not know, for as the saying goes, they all look mostly alike when flitting across the night sky.
Alberta is home to the Big and Little brown bat, Eastern Red Bat, Hoary Bat, Long-eared Myotis, Long-legged Myotis, Northern Myotis, Silver Haired Bat and the Western Small-footed Bat.
All bats are members of the order Chiroptera which loosely translates to ‘hand wing’ in Greek. Essentially, the bones that form the structure of the wing, are the bat’s finger bones, which are connected by a thin skin membrane called the patagium. Because the wing is essentially, well, a hand, bats can move it like a hand while flying, which allows them to literally swim through the air. Only the thumb remains exposed, extending from the wing as a small claw used for climbing.
Bats represent one of, at least, four times in history that self-propelled flight has evolved. In addition to bats, birds, and insects, my personal favourite, the pterosaurs, took to the air some 228 million years ago. The first known ancestral bat dates to around 50 million years ago.
Canada’s bats are all a member of the family Vespertilonidae which means “evening bat”. This refers to their preference for hunting at night when insects are more active.
Birds, with their rigid wings are better at providing lift but the wings of bats are more flexible allowing them to bend them into different shapes which in turn almost instantly varies the direction and degree of lift. Their flight is also more efficient than that of both insects and birds. As an example, a hovering bat uses 40% less energy than hawkmoths and 60% less than hummingbirds.
Unlike the rigid wings of birds, they have almost two dozen wing bones that can each be controlled independently to some extent. Add to this the pliable nature of the wing membrane, and you have an aerial predator of unmatched flying abilities. If you ever have the chance to watch the beautiful flights of bats as they fly, tumble, barrel roll, and almost instantly change direction to hone in on a their dinner, you will have marveled at their nimble aerial displays.
Bats combine aeronautic agility with active sonar to hone in on flying insects using echolocation combining millisecond timing and millimetre accuracy. While not all bat species use sonar, all the bats in Canada DO. Bats emit high frequency pulses of sound at a rate of up to 200 per minute. While we can’t hear these pulses, they can hear the pulses reflect off of objects in their flight path. Depending on circumstance, bats produce three different types of pulse.
One pulse is used when searching for prey. Once located, they change to an approach pulse and at the last minute, change to a feeding pulse as they prepare to capture dinner.
Sonar allows the bats to literally see with sound! It helps them find all manner of flying insects, but also to navigate around obstacles. Echolocation is an almost magical way for bats to navigate the night skies in search of dinner.
As autumn approaches so does the mating season. Bats swarm together for this purpose and once impregnated, female bats carry the active sperm for several months, waiting for late-winter or early spring before fertilization takes place. This delayed implantation is often talked about when referring to black and grizzly bears, but bats and some members of the weasel family also utilize the same strategy.
Once the pups are born, usually one, or rarely two, per year, they’re fed milk by their mother for the first 6 weeks, beyond which they are on their own to fend for themselves. Occasionally, female bats gather in maternity colonies in frequently used locations.
When we think of bat swarms and winter hibernation in bats, we think of caves. In fact, Banff National Park has just discovered the very first cave to show evidence of hibernating bats within its boundaries. The cave is in the northern reaches of Banff, close to the Columbia Icefields. Biologists believe the bats are little brown myotis, but they are sending out bone samples in order to get a more accurate identification.
Outside of Banff, Canmore’s Rat’s Nest Cave also shows evidence of bats using the warm cavern for hibernation. I have photographs of bat skeletons that I took back in the 1990s from this cave.
A 2013 study stated that:
“There are four known bat hibernacula in the Province of Alberta: Wapiabi (Chungo) Cave, southwest of Nordegg, Cadomin Cave, south of Hinton, Procrastination Pot (or NDP Cave), east of Jasper and Walkin Cave south of Fort Smith. The nearest hibernacula west of Banff in British Columbia are a couple abandoned mines near Cranbrook sheltering Townsend’s bigeared bat (Plecotus townsendii). Recent research by Lausen 2006 has determined, using radiotelemetry, that big brown bats (Eptesicus fiscus) use narrow deep rock crevices or erosion holes located in steep valley walls in Dinosaur Provincial Park. The potential possibilities of sub-human size cracks and crevices suitable for over-wintering bat use in the Canadian Rocky Mountains verges on uncountable.”
Very little is known as to the winter use of bats in caves within the Canadian Rocky region. Within Banff National Park, there are at least 11 caves that have been explored by spelunkers, but the potential is there for many more caves to be hidden within the vast wilderness that is Banff. There may also be many smaller caves that would not attract the attention of people due to their inaccessibility, but that may serve bats just fine.
There is another potential habitat in Banff as the same 2013 study mentioned:
“One fairly unique Banff habitat that might be used by bats is the geothermally warmed zone around its hot springs. Both caves and crevices, plus sub-human size cracks and holes may provide seasonal roosting and nursery bat habitat.”
Along with caves, abandoned mines can create a perfect location for hibernating bats, Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks each have abandoned mines with open entrances that could be worth closer inspection by researchers.
And of course, caves are not the only places bats will hibernate. Many species, like the big brown bat, are fond of rafters, air vents and other man-made structures that may have some artificial heat. Bats also use hollows in bridge structures as well. One bridge in Waterton Lakes National Park has been very popular with little brown myotis.
Bats look for warm, moist, dark places in these structures, ideally with a temperature in the 39-42 C range. They rely on existing openings in order to access buildings because, unlike rodents, they lack the gnawing teeth to excavate their own entrance.
Potential hibernation and maternity sites worth investigating are the Banff Springs Hotel attic, some of the areas older churches, the Park Administration building, Banff Park Museum, Deer Lodge, Num-ti-jah Lodge and any other classic old structure that still has not been fully modernized.
One trend that has had an impact on bats over the past few decades has been the move towards updating old buildings, many of which may have been home to large colonies of overwintering bats.
One 1983 study indicated:
“Although the big brown bat is clearly associated with the townsite area, no nurseries have been located and only one roost has been identified. Old buildings with accessible attics are being replaced by well-insulated and generally inaccessible attics. Thus, artificial nurseries, roosts and hibernation sites are disappearing. Natural sites used by these bats may need protection if the species is to remain in the mountain national parks.”
Alberta’s bats do not gather in the huge numbers that you see in movies. Many hibernate in small groups or even as individuals. The eastern red, hoary and silver-haired bats avoid hibernation altogether by migrating south.
Understanding where bats spend their winter is critical in helping to mitigate the effects of white-nose disease when it eventually makes its way to western Canada.
This deadly disease has been steadily migrating westward since its discovery in 2007. Last year, it made a sudden western jump and was for the first time identified in Washington State. To the east, it’s approaching the Ontario-Manitoba border. It’s inevitable that it’ll make its way to the Rockies and researchers are hoping to be prepared. As they find locations, like the recent cave discovery in Banff, they are looking at seasonal use while also studying temperature and humidity.
White-nose fungus grows best in temperatures between 5 and 14 C. It appears to disappear in areas where the temperature reaches 20 C. . As the fungus attacks a bat, it will be spread to neighbouring bats through physical contact, with each developing a white colouration on the hair around the mouth. The fungus doesn’t kill the bat, instead it creates discomfort, causing the bat to wake more often. The bat then wastes energy grooming in a futile attempt to be rid of the fungus. This, in turn, uses precious energy and depletes fat stores. They slowly starve once they’ve drained all their fat reserves.
In areas where white-nose has gained a foothold, bat mortality ranges from 75 to 99%. So far some 5 and a half to 7 million bats have been wiped out in the 10 years following its arrived in North America. It’s for this reason that renewed interest in bats winter strategies is critical in the mountain west. One advantage we may have is that bats often don’t gather in densely populated hibernation sites. The greatest mortalities occur where the bats are tightly grouped and can spread the fungus from one to another across an entire colony.
Once infected, the fungus can remain in the cave until the next year’s hibernation begins, starting the cycle anew. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121218094216.htm). This means that once a hibernation site is infected, it is likely to stay that way, infecting successive generations of hibernating bats.
So how do researchers learn more about the bats found within the mountain west? Field research into potential hibernation and maternity sites is just one step. Some bats can be fitted with tiny tracking devices allowing them to share their location for a brief period before the devices naturally fall off.
Since most bats are incredibly light, most can only carry a minuscule 0.35-gram transmitter. This would transmit over a 1 to 3 km range and would fall off after 8 to 10 days when the adhesive naturally breaks down.
Acoustic monitoring is another up and coming technique for monitoring bats. Audio detectors can be purchased for use in stationary locations, mounted to vehicles, and even used in a hand-held manner. This allows for a variety of uses. Unfortunately, most equipment is designed for a single monitoring method. As an example, a stationary monitor can be set up near, or in suspected hibernation sites to monitor bat vocalizations.
Vehicle mounted detectors would allow mobile, wide range detection along routes that can be traversed on a regular basis. Handheld detectors allow active monitoring of bats in an area with the acoustic pulses being displayed as real-time sonograms on the screen to assist in identification.
All three techniques will be needed to get a handle on bat populations in the Rockies, and they’ll be needed soon. The thought of white-nose disease devastating our bat populations is terrifying. Bats are an essential part of the mountain ecosystem – especially when we realize that many eat up to half their body weight in insects every night. That’s a lot of mosquitoes that don’t need swatting.
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