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Elk and the town of Banff – finding the balance

Removing elk to bring back aspen and willow—an evolving strategy restores the balance between plants, predators and prey in Banff National Park of Canada

Elk are magnificent animals, as well as a vital part of Banff National Park of Canada's ecosystem. They are the main herbivore, or plant eater, in the park and, in turn, are a major food source for predators such as wolves and cougars. However, very high elk concentrations in the town of Banff over the last 15 years have resulted in serious declines in aspen and willow trees, upsetting predator/prey relationships and increasing public safety concerns.

Archaeological and historical records indicate that large numbers of elk were generally not prevalent on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies. However, by the mid-1990s, conditions in Banff National Park had changed, leading to a large increase in the number of elk. Intense human activity in Banff's Bow Valley had scared away the elk's natural predators and high densities of unhunted elk congregated in the town of Banff, along highways and in other predator-free zones. In addition to threatening public safety, the presence of such a large number of elk was rapidly reducing native aspen and willow, an important habitat for songbirds and beaver.

In 1999, Parks Canada and the community-based Elk Advisory Committee implemented the Banff National Park Elk Management Strategy. With an adaptive management approach, the plan had two key goals: restoring ecological balance to the lands outside the town, and reducing elk-human conflicts.

Two elks facing each other
Two elks facing each other
© Parks Canada / W. Lynch / 1989

Parks Canada and its partners moved quickly on the plan and undertook a series of intensive restoration activities from 1999 to 2003. Human activity was sharply reduced in wildlife corridors near the town of Banff. The presence of corridors meant that wolves and cougars returned to hunt in the lower Bow Valley, reestablishing the original predator-prey relationship. The number of elk was further reduced when park wardens captured 251 "town elk" (those who had become habituated to town life with humans), and relocated them outside the Bow Valley. Once these animals were moved, aversive conditioning began on the remainder of the herd to increase the wariness of elk toward humans and restore their migratory behaviour. In the final stage of the restoration project, a large prescribed burn was completed east of the town. Residents and businesses replanted many areas with natural vegetation.

Today, there are far fewer elk in the Bow Valley. Willows are thriving and trembling aspen is abundant in the area of the prescribed burn. Banff is returning to a more natural balance of plants, predators and prey.

Results


  • The number of elk in and around the town of Banff declined from over 500 in the 1990s to fewer than 200 by 2003. The elk population target was met one year early.
     
  • Public safety target met: reports of aggressive elk incidents are down from 106 (in 1999) to 19 (in 2003).
     
  • Elk wariness levels have increased through aversive conditioning, thus improving chances that elk will avoid the town site in the future.
     
  • An increased number of elk engage in migratory behaviour.
     
  • Corridor restoration has improved predator access to prey.
     
  • Willows are thriving. Aspens are regenerating in the prescribed fire area near town.
Men herding elk in the snow
Men herding elk in the snow
© Elsabe Kloppers