I look at just how Canada’s 150th birthday and free park passes impacted visitation to Banff National Park. Also in this episode, Canmore says goodbye to Bear 148 the beleaguered female bear recently translocated out of the area and subsequently shot by a bear hunter in British Columbia.
Canada 150 Visitation
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year, you know that 2017 represents the 150th birthday of Canada. As a nation, we were born just 150 years ago on July 1, 1867.
Now this wasn’t the Canada we know today, but a teeny tiny Canada with a lot of well, wilderness. Canada, such as it was, was made up of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and that’s it. Upper Canada then became Ontario and Lower Canada, Quebec.
Looking at the rest of what would become the rest of Canada, in the far west, there was the Crown Colony of British Columbia, but it would be 4 more years before it became a province on July 20, 1871.
The vast majority of what is now Canada though, remained as either Rupert’s Land or the Northwest Territories. If the water’s flowed into Hudson Bay, it was part of Rupert’s Land, and if it flowed north into the Mackenzie River system, it was part of the Northwest Territories.
Alberta and Saskatchewan did not join Canada as full provinces until 1905.
Canada’s National Park system began with the 10 sq km Banff Hot Springs Preserve in 1885, with just a tiny section protected around the Cave and Basin Hot Springs.
It sowed the seeds of Canada’s National Park system though and was the third National Park in the world behind only Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. and Royal National Park in Australia.
Today Canada’s National Park system includes 47 National Parks and 970 National Historic Sites. These include the Cave and Basin, Abbots Pass Refuge Cabin, Banff Park Museum, Banff Springs Hotel, Howse Pass, Skoki Ski Lodge, and the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station.
Other sites across the Mountain National Parks include Athabasca Pass, Yellowhead Pass, the Jasper Park Information Centre, and the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton.
Across Alberta, you can add Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Calgary City Hall, Nordegg, Atlas No. 3 Coal Mine, Coleman, Fort Edmonton, Fort Macleod, Fort Whoop-Up, and the Turner Valley Gas Plant.
2017 was a year steeped in history but also steeped in tourism. The Trudeau Government decided to make all visitation to National Parks and National Historic Sites free for 2017 and this led to huge fears that the parks would be inundated.
I have been a strong critic of Parks Canada’s focus on bringing more and more cars through the park gates for the past decade while allowing the backcountry to wither.
All the marketing has focused on 4-5 million visitors pointing their cars and buses towards the same 2% of the park. Over the past few years, I have watched the park get swarmed by more and more and more visitors.
In iconic locations like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Peyto Lake, I’ve witnessed the crowds growing to levels unimaginable just a decade ago.
Many of the park roads, like Sulphur Mountain, Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake, are one lane in and one lane out. This creates finite limits on the amount of traffic the roads can accommodate.
In past years, I experienced wait times as long as 2-1/2 hours driving the 3 km or so between the Village of Lake Louise and the actual Lake. With traffic jams like these, nobody is having a good experience.
Over the past year, after the announcement that park passes would be free this year, there was well-justified fear that these delays would just get longer and longer. Parks was regularly criticized by Banff and Jasper town counselors for their lack of transparency and discussion on how to deal with the influx of traffic.
As the season approached, though, the pieces began to fall into place. Parks Canada made some very bold moves that dramatically reduced the congestion within Banff National Park.
Some of these moves included:
Permanent parking boundaries along narrow roads such as the approach to Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon, and Lake Minnewanka. These reflective pylons made sure that narrow sections of road weren’t choked by cars parking in the driving lanes and making it very difficult for cars and buses to negotiate the road.
- Free shuttle buses between Banff and Lake Louise, Banff and the Lake Minnewanka Loop as well as from the Lake Louise Overflow Campground and both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. These buses proved to be incredibly effective with some 280,000 people using these new shuttles. An additional half a million people took advantage of the local Roam bus routes during July and August.
- The Calgary to Banff bus averaged 260 people per day when it was running. This brought it into Banff where visitors could connect with other regional options.
- The free Lake Minnewanka shuttles average 470 people/day
- The free shuttle between Banff and Lake Louise has been averaging 200 people/day while
- The shuttles between the Lake Louise Overflow Campground and Lake Louise has moved over 150,000 people this summer.
In an interview with Gord Gillies of Global News, Park Superintendent Dave McDonough indicated that Parks Canada was planning:
“to continue and improve that shuttle service as we go forward because as we continue to see we anticipate we’ll continue to see increases in visitation over time, and this is a great way to get people out of their cars and eliminate some of that congestion issues that are associated with those increases.”
This was just one prong of the traffic management in the park this summer. Parks also had an army of traffic control personnel at all the intersections in the Lake Louise area this summer. They were part of ATS Traffic from Calgary and they did a superhuman job of keeping the vehicles flowing.
Not once this years did I experience the huge delays that I have had in past years trying to get from the Village of Lake Louise to the actual Lake. Moraine Lake Road was much easier to negotiate without miles of cars parked half-way into the traffic lanes.
On most days, by 9 am, the Moraine Lake Road was simply closed to most vehicles. Buses were given a priority but most private cars where SOL by 9 or 9:30 am.
With all of the shuttles, traffic cones, flag people, and free park passes, what are the actual numbers this year?
In the end, the increases were lower than many of us anticipated. In July and August, Banff had 1.7 million cars enter and exit the park. This was up 7% over 2016 and overall the vehicle numbers are up 3.5%.
The town of Banff counted 4.6 million cars so far this year which is an astounding increase of 21% over 2014. A full 1.7 million of those were during the summer.
While the maximum vehicle count was 34,275 on July 2, the average count was 27,512. This means that almost every day was above the congestion point of 24,000 cars.
The town helped to alleviate this by manipulating the traffic lights to bias busier sections of road. The main bottleneck within the town of Banff is Sulphur Mountain Road. Cars come into Banff, drive Banff Avenue, cross the Bow River Bridge and then head up Sulphur Mountain.
On the way down, they descend the road and hit a traffic light on Spray Ave where the traffic begins to stack. They then turn left for a short distance to wait to turn right onto Banff Avenue. The traffic continues to back up here.
The challenge of biasing the lights to move this traffic up and down the mountain means that the Mount Norquay exit into Banff can backup. I June this year, I had to call the Park Wardens as the offramp coming from the east had backed up into the traffic lanes of the Trans Canada, setting up a dangerous situation.
For 2017, as much as I didn’t think I’d be able to do this, I need to give Parks a gold star for pulling some rabbits out of their hats at the eleventh hour. They were pilloried in the media for the simple fact that they didn’t communicate with local communities, nor offer any additional support to help them deal with the realities of massive potential increases in tourism.
Overall, it looks like Banff will see no larger increase in numbers then it has over the past few years. Visitation has been growing at a rate of around 5%/year and this year will fit right into that trend.
Visitors seem to have gotten the message that things would be busy and so they are taking advantage of early and late season to try to avoid the biggest crowds.
Did everything go smoothly, nope! However, I was impressed with most of the traffic control. With tightly controlled traffic at sites like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, the parking at Lake Louise and the road to Moraine were simply closed when they reached capacity.
This meant that all the cars that wanted to visit were simply turned away. They had the option to head back to the highway and use the shuttles, and thousands took advantage of that option.
To a certain extent, it actually reduced the number of bodies swarming the shoreline of these two iconic sites.
Here is my call to action! There is a fear that much of the critical work that ATS Traffic did this year may have been a one-off, with funding coming from the Canada 150 funds. We simply can’t go back to the chaos of past years. If you support the work this amazing group did this year, be sure to contact Parks Canada and make your voices heard.
I for one, want to make sure that, at the very least, this is the new norm.
Why were the increases in visitors not even higher? It has to do with the simple fact that there are only so many hotel rooms in the region. As the season got busier, so did the hotels get more expensive.
There is a point at which there is simply no way for more people to access the mountains. When the rooms and campsites are gone, then people are limited to day trips from larger centres like Calgary.
That being said, the current 4% increase in visitation still represents an additional 200,000 people visiting Banff this year.
These are unsustainable growth numbers. At some point, park managers will need to begin to say yes to saying no! We are nearing the moment when we need to begin to say “NO, you can’t visit Lake Louise”.
We are too close to beginning to love this place to death!
Farewell to Bear 148
If you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you’ve heard me talk time and again about grizzly 148. This 6-1/2-year-old daughter of Bears 66 and 122, better known as the Boss, ran out of luck this summer when she wandered outside of Banff National Park just one too many times.
This summer, the buffaloberry crop in Banff was not very strong, but in Canmore, we had fabulous berry patches. This attracted 148 out of the park and into the area around Canmore.
In episode 38, I talk about the translocation of Bear 148 to northern Alberta and Kakwa Provincial Park. You can listen to the episode at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep038.
Essentially, after returning back to Canmore she had another run-in with people illegally violating a closure and bluff-charged them. This was the final straw for Alberta Environment and Parks, and she was trapped, trucked and translocated far from her home range.
With a distant translocation like this, the odds of her surviving were very slim in the first place. Bears become intimately connected to their home ranges. They need to know where all their seasonal foods can be found and at what time of year.
Moving them to a new territory is like being forced to shop in a new grocery. Not only is it difficult to find things that you usually eat, but it may not even have the same foods. There may also be other shoppers pushing you away from the best selections.
Near the end of September, 148 wandered across the border with British Columbia, likely in search of late season foods, when she was legally shot by trophy hunters.
Ironically, B.C. is set to ban grizzly hunting permanently as of Nov. 30. She had the misfortune of crossing the border just over a month too early and it cost 148 her life.
Over the past few years, 148 became a symbol of what’s wrong in Canmore. What good are wildlife corridors if animals are punished for using them? What good are corridors if people ignore the closures and put themselves and the wildlife in jeopardy?
On Oct 7, well over 100 Canmore residents came out to say goodbye to 148 and to pledge to do better in the future. This has also become a major election issue and many of the presentations really focused on the need for political will if we are to keep grizzlies on the landscape.
I was lucky enough to record the presentations during the event and I want to present them here. Please keep in mind that I was recording speakers using an old-fashioned bull-horn so the audio quality is not perfect – but their message is!
First up was Harvey Locke, co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon and long-time conservationist.
Following Harvey was Bree Todd, Bree is one of the co-creators of the Bear 148 Appreciation Page on Facebook and has been a strong voice advocating for viable wildlife corridors.
Local NDP Member of the Legislature, Cam Westhead followed Bree. He vowed to help the province work harder to improve the situation for bears in the Bow Valley.
Following Cam’s presentation, the group marched through Canmore towards the Civic Centre for the final two speeches. First was Bill Snow of the Stoney Nakoda. He is the Stoney Consultation Manager and was instrumental in spearheading a Stoney grizzly study in 2016.
The last speaker was Kay Anderson, another outspoken advocate of bears and corridors in Canmore, and one of the main organizers of the march.
In addition to the presentations, I had the opportunity to speak to a few people outside of the presentations. First up is Mayoral candidate Ed Russell.
Finally, I had the opportunity to ask Jeff Laidlaw a few questions. Jeff is looking to be elected to Canmore’s town council in the upcoming election.
Overall, this was a great event for Canmore. I showed that local people really care about our bears and keeping our corridors wild. This is our last chance to make the right decisions for wildlife. Let’s hope that Bear 148 is the last bear to die because of local apathy.
And with that, it’s time to wrap this episode up. Don’t forget that Ward Cameron Enterprises can offer you the expertise and local knowledge to make your visit to the Rockies a memorable one. Don’t forget to check out the show notes for links to additional information and photos from this week’s event.
Drop me a line using the contact page on this site if you’d like to book a step-on or hiking guide, workshop facilitator or speaker. If you’d like to connect with me personally, you can hit me up on Twitter @wardcameron or at www.facebook.com/wardcameronenterprises.
And with that said, the hills are snowy white so it’s time to tune up the snowshoes – snowshoe animal tracking season is just around the corner. I’ll talk to you next week.