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044 Flying giraffes and loving the mountains to death

This week, I look at recent research into giant pterosaurs that were as tall as modern-day giraffes when walking on land. I also discuss this summer’s tourism boost and some of the important decisions we need to make to keep the Rockies special.

Flying Dinosaurs as Tall as Giraffes

If you’re a regular listener of this podcast, then you know that I love dinosaurs. Living in Alberta is the perfect mix because we have one of the best landscapes for finding dino remains and there are new discoveries happening all the time.

The Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller is one of the leading research centres in the world and for many visitors to Alberta, it is their first real opportunity to look at some of the most unique fossils that have been placed on display.

One of their most recent exhibits shows the most well-preserved dinosaur ever found, a Nodosaur, essentially an armoured dinosaur similar to the more well-known Ankylosaurs. You can learn more about it in episode 30 at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep030.

Now comes an even stranger story from the Royal Tyrell Museum that has to do with those strange flying dinosaurs known as pterosaurs.

These were formidable creatures, in some cases being as tall as a modern giraffe but potentially soaring on wingspans similar to airplanes. No creature, before or since has ever been a more fearsome presence soaring overhead.

Donald Henderson is the curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrell, and he came across an artist’s rendering of the largest of pterosaurs, Arambourgiania philadelphiae, placed next to, and as tall as, a giraffe.

The giraffe weighs in at 1,500 kg but a similarly sized pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, was thought to weigh far far less, perhaps as little as 70 kg. For Henderson, he felt that a pterosaur that tall had to weigh far more than 70 kg, and he did his own math and came up with an estimate of some 550 kg.

This immense weight also meant that it was highly unlikely that the Arambourgiania could fly at all. He concluded that, like penguins, it had likely evolved to be flightless. A bird of this mass would have needed incredible muscle strength in order to take to the air. Based on his research, he was clipping its wings and grounding it.

Well his paper got little response from fellow researchers…oh wait, it was like he’d said something crazy like pterosaurs can’t fly. Well, the opposition to his research was not long in coming.

Mark Witton is one of the most recognized authorities on pterosaurs, and it was his rendering that Henderson had encountered that started this whole process.

As he was quoted in a recent interview in the publication Inverse:

“There’s a handful of people who sort of dip in and out of pterosaurs, who have suggested that they can’t fly, but most people who work on pterosaurs have never really questioned this. And that’s not in the sense of, they’ve not ever wondered it, but they’ve never seen any reason to think it’s a good hypothesis.”

When Witton looked at the fossil physiology, his estimate showed these pterosaurs to be less than half of Henderson’s estimate, closer to 250 kg. Pterosaurs had many of the same adaptations that modern-day birds have to help them fly. They had small torsos, hollow bones, and interior air sacs. All of these things combined to dramatically reduce their weight specifically to enable the ability to fly. As Witton put it:

“All the ducks line up in a row, and it’s actually far more complicated for us to think of a reason why they’re not flying,”

Working with Witton to refute Henderson’s estimate was paleontologist Michael Habib. He is a recognized expert on the biomechanics of pterosaur flight but has now partnered with Henderson to take a renewed look at the Quetzalcoatlus based on new skeletal reconstructions.

Their work has led Habib to the conclusion that they may have weighed far more than he previously thought, although not as big as Henderson’s original estimate. Despite this, he’s still two thumbs up on flight.

I love science. The proper scientific method forces researchers to constantly challenge established research in order to test, verify and update previous peer-reviewed papers. Good research should be repeatable if it is to be proven correct.

Good scientists embrace dissent and Habib and Henderson’s recent work proves this.

The thought of these massive predatory birds flying around, seeing small tyrannosaurs as a light snack is a visual that even the producers of Jurassic Park couldn’t have conceived.

As these two scientists continue their research it seems that a middle ground may be appearing. Habib believes that these pterosaurs did still fly, but that some of the largest ones may have been mostly ground-dwelling but that the young would have flown immediately since the eggs were not tended by their parents. Young pterosaurs that lingered were essentially dinner for larger dinosaurs.

The model that’s emerging has these giant pterosaurs flying when they were young and spending more time on terra firma as their large size made it harder to fly but also made them large enough that they didn’t have to worry about becoming a meal for tyrannosaurs.

They may have still been capable of short flights, perhaps to move between prime hunting grounds. Conversely, they may have become completely terrestrial as they aged.

Comparing the bones of these giants to smaller pterosaurs, the bones show all the same adaptations to flight that their smaller relatives display. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…well you get the idea.

Really, what is needed is a complete fossil. Pterosaur fossils are rare simply because the bones are so delicate that they rarely are preserved in the fossil record.

Thinking of such huge creatures soaring overhead would have been a truly magical thing to see – all from the safety of a pterosaur proof bunker of course. Next up…loving the mountains to death.

Loving the Mountains to Death

As the 2017 tourism season begins to wane, This is a good time to take stock of what we have learned from the growing influx of tourists and how we can better manage the parks that we all love so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to experience the same wonders that we do.

Ideally, we could create a world in which the landscape they visit is even better than it is today, with more ecological integrity and less personal self-interest. Seeing the huge crowds at many mountain viewpoints these days makes me sad. When you can’t take a photo without people crawling over railings and swarming over the very scene that has brought you soooo far to photograph.

If you’ve gotten to the point where you really believe, in the pit of your stomach, that something’s gotta give, then you’re in good company. Many, many local people, people like me that earn their entire income from tourism, have come to the same conclusion.

And we’re not alone. Parks across Canada and the US are collapsing under their popularity and run the risk of being loved to death. Parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Great Smokey Mountains in the US are feeling the same pressures that parks like Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay are. Visit Peyto Lake in Banff or the Natural Bridge in Yoho, and you can’t even take a photo without clowns going out of the designated viewing areas to do selfies in areas that are either sensitive to disturbance or downright dangerous.

If we look at Banff and Jasper National Parks, we can see time and time again where the Harper Government allowed developments that have no place in a national park to move forward. These include developments like the Glacier Skywalk at the Columbia Icefields, new ‘roofed accommodation’ at Maligne Lake in Jasper, glamping (glamorous camping) sites in Two Jack Lake in Banff, and even a paved bike path from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields through critical habitat for endangered caribou. Thankfully, this last development is currently on hold due to the strong negative public reaction.

The Harper years were characterized by budget cuts for classic backcountry trail networks and over-emphasis on getting more cars through the park gates. $8/person, kaching, thank you very much…next!

This creates a situation where 95% of the visitors see the same 2% of the park, the paved corridors. As locations like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise collapse under sheer numbers and parking lots and feeder roads clog up due to traffic, what kind of experience are visitors to the area getting? What kind of image is it giving the mountain national parks? What do we do when people flood to sites like TripAdvisor to say: “don’t go to Banff, it’s overrun, why not go to…?” The following video shows an example of overcrowding at Peyto Lake in Banff National Park.

In a Globe and Mail article, former Banff Park Superintendent Kevin Van Tighem stated that Canada’s National Parks are being used merely as:

“raw material to be commodified into a bundle of Disneyesque visitor attractions and marketing packages.” It is as if “nature was no longer enough”

Parks Canada’s mandate, and I’ve harped on this time and again on this podcast, is that parks:

“shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

More importantly, the role of the federal minister of parks shall be the:

“maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes.”

I don’t know anyone, either within parks or within the communities that serve to provide the services to park visitors that feels that this goal is even being attempted.

Even the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has made some huge blunders. Seriously…free park passes! I can guarantee that nobody working in the mountain national parks thought this was a good idea. While the numbers aren’t in yet, I’m betting that we added another half a million visitors to an already overburdened landscape.

They could have said: “here are 10 parks that are underutilized and so we’re going to offer free access to them to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday”, but alas no, the gates were tossed wide open.

I’ll give Justin this one giant oops. He did send out an intergovernmental panel to the mountain parks last year to see how people living and working in the parks felt about the current park management. They got an earful. If you’d like to learn more about the panel, check out episode 26 at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep026.

Parks Canada received failing marks for its lack of transparency in its decision-making process. Projects like the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper were approved despite overwhelming negative feedback. The panel couldn’t find any logic in the way decisions within the organization were being made at the highest levels.

Again, I stand with the parks employees working locally, because they are merely the receiver of directives from on high and to a man (or woman), most would agree that developments like this should never have been approved.

Has Justin done better than Harper? Somewhat. He allowed all government scientists across the nation to publish their research, whether or not it was supportive of current government goals. He also immediately removed the muzzle that the Harper government had put on park wardens from speaking to the media.

As a guide, I can’t-do my job without the amazing work being done by park wardens and scientists. The wardens of the mountain national parks are responsible for incredible research into the wildlife and ecosystems that are critical to these mountain landscapes. If I’m critical of something that Parks Canada approves, it is often because of the good science their rank and file perform on a daily basis has helped to contradict the justification for those approvals.

When discussing another national park development, Van Tighem stated:

“Rules? We don’t actually have those anymore, so what did you have in mind as a money-making idea for our park? We’ll dress it up in heritage language and funky marketing-speak to persuade ourselves it’s good for national parks, and then you can have at ‘er.”

Click the following like to read the Globe and Mail Article

Tourism doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the very thing that you’re trying to showcase. There has to be another way. Thankfully, we don’t have to muddle our way through the challenges of excess alone. We can look to other jurisdictions that are also doing some muddling of their own. One of those is Yellowstone.

Like the mountain national parks, they are drowning in visitors and seeing their most iconic locations swamped with an ocean of tourists.

One of the things that is hampering any discussion into limiting visitors has to do with the simple fact that nobody wants to be the guy (or girl) that says:

“No, you can’t visit Lake Louise”

Most of the focus over the past decade has been to bring more and more and more and more visitors. I think anyone visiting these sites would agree that this hasn’t worked. There is an inverse relationship between the number of visitors and the visitor’s experience. The busier a site becomes, there will be a threshold where the visitor experience begins to suffer.

Someone has to say the word! NO!

I will say that things have been much better this year. Because of the Canada 150th, Parks put out an army of people working for an amazing company, ATS Traffic, that have done an impressive job reducing the amount of vehicles in places like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake this summer.

In past years, I have had days where it’s taken me two and a half hours to drive the 3 or 4 km between the village of Lake Louise and the actual lake. That has not happened this year at all, mainly because of the amazing work being done by ATS Traffic.

The traffic control has been supplemented by the shuttle service that the park has sponsored this summer. There are free shuttles everywhere, and they have been working. I’ve spoken numerous times to the staff organizing the shuttles to Lake Louise from the Overflow Campground to the east of the village along the Trans Canada Highway. They have been doing impressive numbers, in the range of 2,000 plus people on busy days. That’s some 1,000 cars or so that are NOT trying to drive to Lake Louise.

Moraine Lake has been even more dramatic. In past years, there would be cars parked for kilometres along the all too narrow road. It made the road almost impossible for buses or wide vehicles to navigate. This year, the road has essentially been closed to cars by 9 am. The road and associated parking area can only accommodate so many cars. When the lots are full, the road is closed.

Has that had any impacts on the shoreline of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake? It’s been impressive. Closing the roads and parking areas when they reach a capacity, and preventing miles and miles of roadside parking means that there are fewer people at the actual sites. This means that the people that did arrive early enough presumably are having a much better experience.

What about those that didn’t? Those are the visitors that will leave the park with a negative experience. I’ve met them. I’ve walked past traffic jams and had people ask why they can’t get to Lake Louise. The fact that it was simply too busy did not compute when they had traveled all the way from Toronto to see it.

The traffic management is a key first step to creating a balance between expectation and experience. As a guide, I’ve been pushing my groups ever earlier in the morning to try to manage the experience they will have when they arrive. Unfortunately, hotels will only make breakfasts available at certain times, so you can’t always be ‘early enough’.

One thing that is an unknown at this point is whether ATS traffic will be hired to do the same job next year. So many things were tied to the funding for Canada 150, that the funds that are paying for their critical work may only be a one-time deal. If that is the case, then we go back to endless traffic jams again next year.

If you applaud the work done by these mountain heroes this year, then be sure to let your elected officials know that we need this to be the new norm. There is no going back.

In addition to traffic management, we also saw extensive parking restrictions implemented in 2017. Long sections of road approaching places like Johnston Canyon and Moraine Lake are now tow away zones with parking barriers.

Managing traffic and parking are two of the critical pillars towards capacity management, but how do we manage the visitor experience?

What we need to do for the long-term is to sit down, and create a comprehensive visitor experience plan. What do we, as tourism professionals, park managers, and stakeholders want people to say about our destinations when they leave? How do we create that experience?

The only way that can happen is if we place a finite limit on the number of people that can visit certain locations. It’s not too late to decide the kind of destination that we want to be when we grow up. I like to think that we’re in the adolescence of our role as keepers of the ecological jewels of the mountain landscape.

We started slowly some 130 years ago. We marketed our butts off to try to carve our little piece of the world tourism market. We coerced, cajoled and click baited until the dreams of many hoteliers, restaurants, gift shops and tour companies were given the taste of success.

Like a drug addict, that first taste is always free. Twenty years ago, I believed it was time to stop building hotels. The number of hotel rooms provide a natural limit to the number of visitors to a destination.

We are still building hotels like a drunken sailor. Destination Marketing organizations like Banff Lake Louise Tourism and Travel Alberta are still singing the siren song of more, more, more. However we’re now at a tipping point. Can we learn anything from this summer that can help us to start to navigate towards a better, more sustainable future?

I think we can. I know we can!

This year we managed traffic. Now we need to envision a future where the experience is managed in such a way that the traffic is pre-managed for us. There is only one way – quotas.

Fabulous destinations around the world have had to deal with these questions decades ago. We need to look at their examples. Did people stop going when they created quotas? Or did they plan their trips in such a way to make sure they had the experiences they saw in their Lonely Planet guide?

In Banff National Park, we have four places that jump to the top of the list, in order of priority

  1. Moraine Lake
  2. Johnston Canyon
  3. Lake Louise
  4. Sulphur Mountain Gondola

Three of the four are a challenge because they are at the end of one-way-in and one-way-out roads that back up very quickly. Johnston Canyon is simply a victim of its incredible popularity. The list contains four of the most popular destinations in Banff. We can add Emerald Lake In Yoho to this list, along with Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper

Are limits bad? Hockey games have them. There are only so many seats at the stadium. We are surrounded by limits, but when it comes to a natural feature, the prevailing wisdom is to squeeze as many people and cars as possible. More, more, more!

Well Lake Louise, is not a dairy cow. We can’t keep squeezing the unique landscape. The environment around Lake Louise also contains the highest concentration of breeding female grizzlies in the central Rockies. There is something in that landscape that is just a good place to raise a family if you’re a grizzly bear.

  1. Here’s my pitch. How do we create finite limits? For many sites, we create parking lots designed to collect visitors that are NOT at the destination. We make sure that shuttle buses can take them to the site with minimal inconvenience.

Do you want to visit Lake Louise? Click this link to book your shuttle bus. The shuttle system this year has been awesome in showing that this works. Here’s how I would supercharge it.

Take away all public parking at Lake Louise, or Sulphur Mountain, or Moraine Lake. Those lots are for tour and shuttle buses only, and the tour buses would also be limited. If shutting parking down is too hard a sell, than create a financial disincentive to park at the destination. The option of a free shuttle versus a $20 parking fee will likely help to shift the trend towards free, scheduled shuttles and away from driving directly to the destination.

If a parking rate can be found that provides a sufficient disincentive to driving but still helps to fund the resource, I’m all for that. One scenario might be that there are 200 parking spots for Lake Louise and they cost $10 or $40. What will the market bear? Ideally though, most of the visitors should arrive on shuttle or tour buses.

One of the final things I would like to see the mountain parks do is to try to implement more active restrictions to people moving beyond the designated visitor corridors and start climbing over barriers to get ever closer to the view. .

We can’t stop determined visitors from forcing their way beyond barriers to do their worst, but we can create better discouragement barriers. As Canadians, we have perhaps been too polite. In places like Peyto Lake, it would not be too hard to create a pretty convincible barrier to prevent tourists from swarming the cliff below the public viewpoint. The viewpoint is there because it’s designed to reduce the impact on this lower cliff.

Alternatively, the park could extend the viewpoint to include this  lower outcrop. The most important thing is to manage the visitor experience while also managing the visitor.

A recent article on Yellowstone National Park in the publication Mountain Journal, really has had me thinking more about this issue. So far in this story, I focused on simple human use management to address the issue of ecological integrity.

If the mountain national parks have to look anywhere for an example, the first national park in the world might be a great place to start. This article, penned by long-time Yellowstone advocate Todd Wilkinson really ties into my philosophy of how we might combine a better visitor experience with better ecological integrity within the mountain park landscape.

One of Wilkinson’s key concepts requires “saying yes to saying no”. We have a finite limit on the number of people that can visit Old Faithful on a given day. Get your permit here!

His article contains some pretty inflammatory statements, but I agree with them all. One of the most challenging for a community like Banff is:

“The irony, of course, is that some of the biggest financial beneficiaries of the dividends of conservation are people who, for their own ideological reasons and motivations of rational self-interest, are today opposed to limits.  It’s probably fair to say that most possess no malicious intent, but the needs of wildlife, the underpinnings of what enables biological diversity to thrive, do not register with them.”

Wilkinson also states:

“There is no example on Earth where conservation of nature, over time, has not generated huge ecological, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual benefits.”

Did you say economic benefits? Yellowstone and its surrounding landscapes are a billion dollar a year industry. Like our mountain parks, Yellowstone has one word that it has yet to utter: NO.

According to Wilkinson:

“We live in times, which some commentators describe as America’s new regression back to adolescence, where it is not fashionable to ever say no.  It is an age when some claim that natural landscapes have no limits for the amount and intensity of human activity that can occur on them without serious ecological harm being done. We live in a time of climate change and population growth in which users of landscapes (for profit, recreation or lifestyle) conclude that unless they can actually see impacts being caused by their own actions or by the larger acumulating wave of human presence, such impacts, therefore, do not exist.

He sees three big challenges that parks like Yellowstone, and by extension, Banff face:

  • The deepening impacts of climate change and what they predict, especially where water in the arid west is concerned.
  • The deepening inexorable impacts of human growth (both an unprecedented rise in people migrating to live in the Greater Yellowstone from other nature deprived areas, and accompanied by a somewhat related surge in unprecedented numbers of visitors and recreationists to public lands.
  • The inability or reluctance of land management agencies to see the writing on the wall.

Yellowstone, unlike Banff, still hosts every major mammal and bird species that was there before the arrival of the Europeans. Banff gets points for the 2017 reintroduction of wild bison back to the park, but loses points because it was not able to keep its northern mountain caribou herd. Now Jasper’s remaining caribou are also at serious risk of vanishing.

Wilkonsin states:

“The 22.5-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is actually pretty small. Functionally, it will be made ever smaller, squeezed by climate change altering its ecological carrying capacity because of less winter snowpack, hotter and drier conditions, and further fragmented by a doubling or tripling of the human population likely to occur in just two human generations.”

I know that for me, this could just as easily be said about the Bow River Valley. Combine growth without proper cumulative impact assessments, with vast increases in visitation, and we can see real challenges in our future.

According to Wilkinson:

“If we don’t get the “growth” component of Greater Yellowstone addressed, experts have told me, it won’t matter how fond we are of thinking about ecological processes playing out at the landscape level, like terrestrial migrations of ungulates, protecting wide-ranging species like grizzly bears, wolverines and elk that need escape cover free of intensive human intrusion.”

These are problems that are apparent throughout the entire Mountain National Park and surrounding areas. Canmore is in the middle of the battle to protect continentally significant wildlife corridors. If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters. We, as a community, need to continue to fight to make sure that big development does not get to compromise critical connecting routes that are a key component of the much larger Rocky Mountain ecosystem.

Even now, the town of Canmore is not only negotiating wildlife corridors, but developing within metres of them. The new bike trail being designed adjacent to Quarry Lake is a folly that the town cannot afford. Already, bears like 148 are being removed from the landscape for spending time on corridors dedicated to their movement. Having more and more and more development encroaching on these corridors will lead to a continued eroding of the ecological viability of the town of Canmore corridors – and maybe that’s exactly what development focused mayors like John Borrowman want. Once the corridor is gone, he can promote the valley to his heart’s content.

Canmore has an election coming up. Make a better decision this time Canmore! You may not have many more chances.

One advantage that Canada has over Yellowstone at the moment is that we are no longer afraid of science. We can look to great research being done within our parks that shows that the current trends are simply unsustainable.

Wilkinson quotes Thomas Roffe, the former National Chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

“Science doesn’t define what the proper thing to do is. Science helps to define what the conditions will be if you choose one vision or another. Science will help you understand what the advantages or disadvantages are to your perspective. But it doesn’t tell you what’s right or what’s wrong.”

We have the science. We can all see the changes. What are we going to do? Will we make the right choice?

And with that, it’s time to wrap this episode up. If you’d like to hit me up personally, with the contact link on this website or send me a message on Twitter @wardcameron.

Ward Cameron Enterprises is your source for step-on and hiking guides as well as wildlife biology safaris, snowshoe animal tracking and corporate speaking programs. We’ve been sharing the stories behind the scenery for more than 30 years and we can help to make sure your visit to the Rockies is one that you’ll be talking about for years. You can visit our website at www.WardCameron.com for more details.

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